First Robin of Spring

by Ilse Turnsen

Years before the Spring of 2020, my brother Michael, affectionately known as Unca Munca to my children and Grunca Munca to my granddaughters, sent a book to enhance our bedtime story-reading  which I think was entitled Cree Tales. Alas, the book has disappeared; I can’t find a trace of it anywhere, even in cyberspace. The tales about family life  introduced us to a psychological state called the ha-ha(s) which we use to this day to  describe seemingly inexplicable, totally unassuagable misery or anger. Children are particularly susceptible to the ha-has, manifestations of which range from  extravagant tantrums; to wreckless running madly off in all directions; to  impenetrable sulks, etc.  There are many kinds of ha-has: the transition ha-has (coming back to Mom’s after  being with Dad); the I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now ha-has; the Sunday-night-before-another-week-of-school ha-has, and so on.  No use asking a rational question like “why?” or offering the comfort of “there, there,” or a pat on the back.  When the ha-has have you, they are in complete command!

A few days into the Corona Virus shut-down, I felt the faint  inner rumblings of insipient COVID-19 ha-has. I was on the brink of the desolation ha-has; the if-only ha-has; the what’s-happening-to-our-living-breathing-planet ha-has; the I’m-all-alone ha-has. But luckily for me, unlike the unconsolable child of yore, I had managed to develop, over the decades, a wise inner voice to which I sometimes listened.  On that particular late afternoon, my inner sage whispered the perfect ha-ha antidote straight into my heart of darkness: “Go to the river; go now!”  I obeyed.

It was cold outside: bracing, but not brutal; the air softened just enough by the kiss of early spring to give one hope that winter would, eventually, lose its sway.  I’m not sure of the exact temperature, but the exposed skin of my face adored it, couldn’t get enough of it. (The ha-ha talons loosened their grip, ever so slightly.)

With cheeks beginning to glow, I approached one of my neighbourhood’s scenic wonders: the vanishing pond at the foot of Chemin Pont du Couvert. Long-gone by August, the pond manifests eloquently in the Spring: a picture-perfect body of water, embellished, for a few days, by an annually returning pair of mallard ducks. Eventually, however, the pond disappears, as if had never existed.  On that March afternoon, the pond was still  frozen, but  the edges were beginning to thaw. The colour all around that softened edge of ice hovered between coke-bottle-green and aquamarine: the colour of thought; the colour of tranquility. I imagined the emerald green plumes of  ostrich ferns (known as  fiddle-heads in their unfurled state) that would, within weeks, ascend the hillsides surrounding the pond. (Emerald green and aquamarine suffused my brainscape, turning  down the volume of ha-ha yammerings by several decibels.)

The Gatineau River beckoned and soon I approached the fabled Wakefield Covered Bridge.  Originally built in 1915, the bridge was destroyed by an act or arson in 1984. It was rebuilt through community vision, collaboration, determination, talent and hard work and reopened in 1998. The part of me that was grieving the state of the world took notice; was stirred and inspired. To step onto the bridge is to enter a unique architectural space. It feels as though one is simultaneously travelling back through time as well as crossing the Gatineau River, the muscular spring surge of which is visible through cracks in the flooring, resulting in a twinge of vertigo I rather relish.  The bridge’s Town Lattice Truss design of interlocking triangles bestows both an aesthetic uplift and protection. The triangle is the strongest shape with an outstanding capacity to distribute weight evenly. ( I could see myself as an isosceles triangle redistributing  the weight of the ha-ha’s and, thus, able to carry on.)

I was definitely finding my groove, beginning to delight in my stride as I stepped off the bridge, about to encounter the pièce de résistance of my quest for equanimity. Chemin de Wakefield Heights runs along the river. Winter had done its work;  the road was pockmarked with potholes galore  filled with opaque, muddy water, due to a robust rainfall the night before. I perceived, heading toward me, a shimmering projectile, which as it neared, corporealized into a young boy, I judged to be about three years old, scooting along on his balance running bicycle, a perfect miniaturized version of a mountain bike.  It was silver and so was his helmet: a veritable silver streak! Oh, the vigourous stride with which he propelled his bike! Oh, the power of his push-off!  The devil-may-care careening around huge puddles or powering  straight through them a creating a  roostertail spray of muddy water! I was witness to his unadulterated bliss; the pure rapture in his being; the kinesthetic splendour of an immortal little-boy-body bicycling on a country road in Spring. I was completely caught up in his joy which became my own. (Whoosh: the last ha-ha vapours dissolved into thin air!)

His parents were walking along behind him, hand in hand.  Shared pleasure in and admiration of their son segued into the civility of introductions: Julia and Louis-Pierre. (“Like an LP,” he offered as a strategy for remembering.) They were relatively new to Wakefield, neighbors it turned out, on the road beside the vanishing pond. She a cellist and he a player of the French horn:  instruments which I imagined sounding really good together occupying, as they do, a similar sound frequency. Bodes well for the marriage, I thought to myself and provides a fine sound track for this beautiful little story that’s unfolding.

The boy took at sudden interest in me and wheeled up, clumped his boots in the muck and came to a dramatic stop. His cheeks were blazing and his eyes alight with the glory of it all. “You are so strong and  fast!” I proclaimed, “I could hardly believe my eyes!” The boy nodded his head, acknowledging the praise he justly deserved. “My name is Ilse, and yours?” “ R-O-B-I-N,” he spelled slowly and triumphantly, “and I’m going to be four years old in April.” “Lucky me!” I declared, “ you are the very first robin I’ve seen this spring!” “Good!” said my little robin and jumped back on his bicycle to begin the magical journey across the covered bridge, his mom and dad loping behind him.

I sauntered along, enjoying my own good body, across the bridge and past the pond when I heard a familiar lilt of birdsong from the top of the roadside poplar: my second robin of spring, red breast burnished by the descending sun, singing his heart out just for himself and for me, with  a faint echo of horn and cello backing him up.  And that inner voice, which compelled me to step outdoors in the first place,  whispered its final message of the day.  “Notice and celebrate that which is given to you!”