Then They All Went Out for a Walk

I wouldn’t call us birders, though we try to keep the feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds for the chirpies or birbs, as my kids have called them variously over the years, who visit our front yard garden. Finches and House Sparrows circling. Crows and Mourning Doves muscling past each other and the brazen black squirrels to get to the goods. We like the wildlife that thrives around our small house in Hazelwood, one of Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods which feels anything but urban. Wild turkeys and bunnies and a family of deer that come down the big hill behind our neighbor’s house every day, especially in winter. Another neighbor provides them with a steady diet of stale bread and other bites. He’ll cross the street with a plastic bread bag and call sweetly to them. The neighbor whose yard they congregate in would not call this sweet—she worries about ticks and other vermin. I know I should worry about ticks, too, with kids and dogs, but I can’t hate the deer. I still feel a warm thrill when I see them. They’re a little bit magical, like imagining reindeer pulling a sleigh as a kid.

We get cardinals at the feeder, too—another awfully common creature that nevertheless fills me with contentment to see. In our family, we call them “Rudy birds” because their call, ru-DEE, ru-DEE filled the air when I was pregnant with my son fourteen years ago. How many cardinal ornaments, given as gifts each year, can fit on one Christmas tree?

Tonight, everywhere I look on social media, people are contemplating the decade as we prepare to bid it farewell. I’ve resisted making my own inventory for a number of reasons, but here’s something I remember easily and happily about ten years ago. Beginning when he was four or so, Rudy and I read together a wonderful series of books by the children’s writer Cynthia Rylant about a boy named Henry and his very (very) big dog, Mudge. The books take up quiet domestic moments and tell them with simplicity and heart. In one, Henry’s parents take him to visit “the great-grandpas” at a retirement home. It’s summer so they all go swimming at the lake, and one of the grandpas rests on the big dog while another grandpa sings an old song. In another, a raggedy stray cat shows up on the doorstep and everyone, including the big dog, falls in love, only to have to return her to her rightful owner in the end. In still another—one of my favorites—a moping Henry and Mudge are banished by Henry’s mother to the basement with their grumpy moods on a boring rainy day where they end up making an elaborate cardboard box castle with Henry’s dad. I always loved the frame depicting Henry’s mom, upstairs in the kitchen, feet up on a chair, sipping hot coffee and reading a book, undisturbed.

My favorite of the Henry & Mudge adventures, though, gifted our family with one of the only holiday traditions we have been able to maintain. In Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas, mom and dad and Henry and Mudge take a walk after Christmas. It’s snowy and cold, unlike the new normal sort of mild winters we now have in Pittsburgh. It’s crisp and sunny and they are layered in wool caps and mittens. Here and there, as they walk in the woods, they hang charming bells made from birdseed on the bare tree branches. Mudge wears a big red ribbon and does not try to catch the birds.

We’ve long since moved beyond the Henry and Mudge books, but have been making birdseed ornaments for years now, sometimes in the shape of Christmas cookie ornaments, sometimes just simple shapes molded into muffin tins. This year, I formed little balls out of the leftover seed mixture. They are drying in the kitchen right now and will be ready for tomorrow, the first day of a new year, a new decade. We do not have a 180 lb. English Mastiff named Mudge as Henry did, but between our two dogs—an 18 lb. Pomsky named Mochi and an 80 lb. American Bulldog named Zeus, we have almost 100 lbs. of dog who will accompany us on our yearly New Year’s Day stroll through Frick Park tomorrow.

Last year, my son was thirteen and kind of over the whole ritual. He hung his ornaments on the first three branches that presented themselves at the start of the trail. There, done. At 11, his sister still carefully chose branches spread out at a reasonable distance from each other so that more birds might be able to enjoy the offering. She is the one who reminds me every year that it’s time to gather the ingredients. I don’t know what it will be like tomorrow. The weather is easier to predict than the children’s’ moods and inclinations. Looks like 38 degrees with some sun. “Perfect walk weather,” says my husband, Paul, before heading into the kitchen to clean up the remnants of our traditional NYE meal of cheese fondue and steamed artichokes. This year, we bought too much cheese and something else was slightly off about the recipe that we can’t put our finger on. Too much nutmeg? Not enough salt? The artichokes, done in the Instant Pot, were definitely cooked unlike the last time I made them on the stovetop. But actually, they were a little mushy. Oh well. It was tasty and we are well fed, waiting for midnight.

Over dinner, Paul and I talked with the kids about how we both recall fondue and artichokes on special occasion nights such as this. Rudy said he didn’t remember that we’ve recreated this meal most years since he’s been alive as well. He liked the artichokes but seemed neutral on the experience of melted cheese. Josie won’t eat any of it, but she enjoyed watching the molten bubbles while she nibbled on bread cubes and cornichons. I have mostly learned not to allow myself to get too bound up in the execution of tradition. Whether we have fondue or not, whether they eat it or not—it’s a nice idea but ultimately not what carries a family through a year of boring rainy days, the heartache of losing a beloved pet, or the aging and passage of generations.

I added peanuts and rolled oats to the sunflower seed mixture for the ornaments earlier today. There are lots of other recipes you can find online, including one I still might try that’s nothing but peanut butter spread on old toilet paper rolls and then rolled in seed. You just slip them over the branches like bracelets. When the seed treats are ready, Josie and I will thread them with twine or ribbon and then off we’ll all go to the trails past Blue Slide Park, desperately trying to steer our excited dogs past the other dogs (Pittsburgh is a dog town!), while making sure the winter critters—birds, squirrels, deer–get some pampering, too. The day after tomorrow, the kids go back to school and Paul and I get back to some kind of domestic and professional order.  But maybe tomorrow afternoon, after our walk, I’ll get one last moment of quiet, some coffee, a book, a pair of cardinals feasting at the kitchen window.