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BEVERLY BECKHAM

Birds and squirrels got us through, but now we long for humanity

In the neighbor's yard across the street, tulips bloomed in different colors from early spring until early May.
In the neighbor's yard across the street, tulips bloomed in different colors from early spring until early May.Beverly Beckham For The Boston Globe

A long time ago, there were oak trees in my front yard. Three of them in the beginning. And then one got sick and died and we had it cut down and carted away.

I loved those trees. They kept me company as I wrote. For years I watched birds nest in them and squirrels catapult from one to the other. The trees muffled the sound of traffic, too, though traffic was light then, so scarce that on warm days, with my window open, I could hear not just birds cawing and squirrels skittering, but leaves, even tender, spring leaves, rustling.

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It was decades ago that the first tree died. The others lived years longer. But then they died too, first one, then the other. They died from the top down, two behemoths whose life span — from seed, to seedling, to sapling, to mature adult — had expired. When the last was felled and the place where it stood barren, I stood in its spot and felt as empty as the space it left behind.

But then, one morning maybe a few months later, I noticed, from my now unobstructed view, the house across the street. I’d noticed the house before, of course. But now, because the trees were gone, my eyes were drawn to it. I studied it every day, at different times of the day; how light made the maroon brick front look redder, sometimes browner; how shadows altered the white of the two-car garage; how the white seemed to change from flat to semi-gloss depending on the angle of the sun; and how, on late January days when the sun was extra bright, the house looked more like a prop sitting center stage under a spotlight in a Broadway theater than a real house on a real street where real people lived.

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Real people. Al and Katherine were the real people who lived in that house. Without the trees capturing my attention, without the distraction of squirrels and birds, I began to pay more attention to them. The trees were leafless in winter so I had noticed Al many times washing his car in the cold. A little slouched, a knitted gray hat covering his head, always full of quick, determined steps, he’d lug a bucket and drag a hose from his garage to the outside. And I’d watch as he lathered and rinsed and dried his car, then drove it sparkling clean back into the garage. I was used to seeing Al busy. Al shoveling. Al cleaning the gutters. Al walking his dog, Dante.

But I had never noticed Katherine before.

She didn’t shovel or clean the gutters or walk Dante. Katherine gardened and by the time she was outside weeding and planting and watering, my oak trees were so thick with leaves that I didn’t see her.

I saw the fruits of her labor, though. Pink phlox that formed a perfect circle around her garden, purple hyacinth and yellow daffodils. And tulips, in different colors that bloomed from early spring until early May.

But it was only when my trees were gone that I noticed her. I crossed the street. We talked. And we became friends.

The trees? The birds? The squirrels? They fed my soul. I believed that only nature could do this.

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But Katherine and Al? They fed my soul, too.

Al died nine years ago and Katherine moved in with her daughter a few years later. Before COVID-19, we saw each other. We shopped. We went out to lunch. We laughed.

I look out my office window now and incredibly, miraculously, it’s another spring. Across the street, the light plays the same tricks. It turns the maroon bricks to crimson. It whitewashes the garage doors.

I pick up the phone and call Katherine. “Two weeks after my second shot, I’m coming over,” I tell her.

A bird outside my window whistles and I hear it through two panes of glass. It’s a small bird. It flies away even as I watch. And I think birds — whistling, singing, calling back and forth to one another, at the feeder, darting from tree to tree, flying, soaring, being — have helped me get through this year. I’ve watched them the way I watched the squirrels in the oak trees, the way I watched Al and then Katherine.

Nature feeds our souls. But so do people. We need them. And it’s been a long, long year without them.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. Read more of Beverly Beckham at beverlybeckham.com.