Miracle of the Birds
Miracle of the Birds
by Harry Buschman
The winter of '29 was my eleventh, and the coldest winter anyone could remember. It was the first winter of the Great Depression and many tenement families we knew had been evicted for non-payment of rent. There were record snowfalls that winter, and with the coming of spring, cold rains flooded our cellar and the water found its way through the leaky roof of our fifth floor flat.
In just a few short months the country had gone from boom to bust and every day brought more bad news. It would take a miracle, people said, to put us back on our feet again.
My father was working three days a week for a school book printer but getting paid for one. His brother had been a pipe fitter, his sister had been a seamstress – both of them were out of work and living with us. My friend Ernie's father had been a garment cutter, (sutz and cutz). Very few people "were" anything – almost everyone was a "used to be" or a "had been." Everyone we knew had a sad story to tell.
When you have no money to pay for the things you need, you pray for a miracle. We all did that – Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims – we all prayed for deliverance, for a sign of Divine Intervention regardless of the divinity it came from. People with no faith looked for help in tea leaves and Ouija boards, they read messages in their horoscopes and the lines in the palms of their hands.
We didn't go to St. Theresa's on Sundays any more. We had no money to put in the collection plate and my mother didn't feel it was right to go to church and ask for a miracle without putting a down payment on it. Instead, she sneaked in before the seven o'clock mass on week days, lit a candle and sneaked back out again, hoping that the Priest hadn't seen her snitch a candle, but that God was paying attention. It's likely He was, but what could He do to help her? He was great at things like parting the Red Sea, or casting Jonah up out of a whale’s belly, but He couldn't stop the steamroller of the Great Depression.
The worried faces of parents revealed lines of strain and anxiety, and that terrified the children. It was frightening to see the hunted expression in my mother's eyes when my father came home at night ... there was always the apprehensive question ...
"How did it go? ... everything all right?"
"So far ... Leslie got laid off today."
"My God, he's been there longer than you."
"I know. That's the way it goes, he made more money than I do."
So kids kept out of the way, preferring their own company to that of their parents. Ernie and I would look at each other and we'd know how things were going back home. We had no conception of the word "Depression" – what it meant or where it came from. It was a word we never used, although we heard it every day. We were scared because our parents were scared. They were not the pillars of strength we thought they were. We knew enough not to ask for new roller skates, or money to buy a new "Tom Swift and His Flying Machine" adventure story because of the look in our parent’s eyes, a look of guilt and shame. Many parents felt they let their kids down. They couldn't buy them the things they needed let alone the things they wanted. Food, a place to live, and as much love as they could spare – they'd have to get along with that.
School was our entertainment as well as our education. There, the adults all had jobs and they were in a better frame of mind than the folks back home. If you couldn't afford it, you'd get lunch for nothing. There were things to do after school, games to play and books to read – we'd stay as long as we could, until it was time to go home to the sad faces.
Our route to school took us past St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church on Classon Avenue. It was a church built in Spanish style, with white stucco walls and painted green trim. It, too, suffered from hard times, and the small weedy park that separated it from the rectory was unkempt and littered with the debris of the past winter. Ernie and I sat there if we were early for school and waited for the tolling of the nine o'clock bell in the steeple. We knew from the first clang that we had exactly a minute and a half to get to home room.
Ernie was Jewish – at least his parents were. He didn't look or feel any more Jewish than I did. I was supposed to be a Catholic, but with the way things were going, I didn't feel any real attachment to St. Theresa's. Both of us felt that God – his and mine, had walked out on us and the combined parishes of St. Theresa and Mordecai temple.
One morning in early spring Ernie and I sat on a bench close to the belfry, and just before nine o'clock we heard the bell creak in its cradle. That meant the old sacristan was rocking it to and fro until it struck the clapper.
"Time to go, Ernie. You do your history? I didn't do my history."
Unlike me, Ernie would never think of not doing something he was supposed to do. "Yeah, here. "Retreat from Gettysburg." Y'wanna copy it? Y'ain't got much time."
I figured I had a minute anyway if I scribbled real fast – our history teacher, Mr. Finkel never read our assignments, it was just paper to him. Penmanship didn’t count.
I finished copying Ernie's homework just as the first clang of the bell sounded. The great iron bell never failed to launch the pigeons out of the belfry and they took off with a slapping of wings just above our heads. At the same time, a crowd of pigeons at our feet were startled into flight, and for a moment the air was full of birds flying in all directions. There were crows and starlings too, and perhaps because of the mix of species and the ringing of the bell, combined with the spectacle of Ernie and I waving our arms at them, they panicked, and three of them flew headfirst into the white stucco wall of St. Theresa.
We felt a pang of guilt, but just a momentary pang. we knew we'd be late for school if we stayed in the park any longer. The bell was already into its third clang.
Like most boys our memories were short, and by the time we finished baseball practice that afternoon, we had forgotten all about the pigeons. I remember Ernie had just nailed down the job of shortstop and I was still in the running for first baseman along with "Skinny" Bettelheim. Coming home through St. Theresa’s park, Ernie said ...
"Well, if you don't get to play, I won't play either."
"C'mon Ernie, don't be a shit head – coach wants you for fifth grade shortstop. I'll get on the team somehow."
Then we noticed a crowd at the side of the church and we speculated that somebody had dropped dead there – crowds always meant excitement. But when we got closer, we saw they were staring at the church wall. Father Florio in his Sunday vestments, was standing with them holding a Bible and a gold crucifix on a long staff. A disinterested altar boy was standing next to him swinging a thurible.
"Geez," Ernie said, "that's where the birds flew into the wall this morning, ain't it?"
"Maybe they're buryin' the birds," I suggested.
"Ain't that Mrs. Esposito – down on her knees?" Father Florio was reading from his Bible and brandishing his crucifix. He peered at us over his thick spectacles and motioned with the Bible for us to move along, but we were too interested in what was going on to pay any attention to him. "They're lookin' at the wall," Ernie whispered, "I hope they don't know who did it."
They were looking at the stain left by the birds on the wall! Two of the dead birds were lying on the narrow strip of grass at the bottom of the wall and one was in the footpath in front of Mrs. Esposito. "Madonna, Madonna ... Hail Mary fulla grace, blessed be da froot-a-da-woom Jesus," she mumbled over and over. Father Florio gestured to everybody to keep back, apparently Mrs. Esposito was getting her steam up.
What they were looking at, of course, was pigeon guts. Somehow they were splattered on the wall in a way suggesting an image of the Madonna and Child to Mrs Esposito. By sheer force of will she convinced thirty or so people around her, (including Father Florio) that a miracle had occurred. The pigeons internal organs, had created a holy icon.
"Mary, shes'a comma! Bringa good times back again." She held her rosary beads high and looked from the stain on the wall to Father Florio and back again. She turned to me and said, "A miracle – a miracle." She pronounced it "mir-RACK-a-la." She motioned for Ernie and me to kneel down next to her. She prodded me and said, "Ask the Madonna for something."
I kneeled down awkwardly and so did Ernie. "What'cha gonna ask for," he whispered.
"That the coach picks me for first base ... how about you," I replied.
"I'm Jewish, I can't ask for nothin', you take my wish ... besides," he looked at Mrs. Esposito and back at me. He lowered his voice so that only I could hear. "I don't believe in this kinda stuff – I don't think it looks anything like a Madonna anyways."
I had my own reservations and now that Ernie had sown seeds of doubt in my mind the image on the wall was looking less and less like the Madonna and Child and more and more like what it really was. Furthermore, it looked like rain was on the way – what would happen then?
Toward dusk, rain did fall, and as you might guess, most of the miracle ran down the wall and was washed away. A few hardy shreds remained, but they looked exactly like what they were.
I still had the wish Ernie gave me and I wished that wish standing up in the kitchen, with little hope that the Madonna would pay any attention. It would have taken more than a miracle for her to get my father to work full time again, so I didn’t ask for that.
I did get the first baseman's job though – by default, not by a miracle. The school nurse wouldn't let "Skinny" Bettelheim play baseball without his eyeglasses and the coach wouldn't let him play with them. Under the circumstances that was the closest the Madonna and Mrs. Esposito came to a miracle.