Driving across the country, watching the miles fly past, the view from my car window was constantly changing. Lush southern forests gave way to open farmland. The scarred landscape of the badlands flowed into the vast prairies. Miles of grassland rose to meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
What I was leaving faded into where I was going.
Except for the chattering of the children in the back seat, we were quiet. Lost in our own thoughts.
It is no small feat to pack up a family and move to the opposite end of the country. People do it all the time, but this frequency is deceiving. It is not a simple thing. Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you are taking children from the only place they have ever known. By the time the car was loaded and we were on our way, we were automatons, machines moving to complete the task, so emotionally overwhelmed we could no longer talk about the path we were taking. The decision had been made. The truck full of boxes was already on the road. The new house was waiting.
Open to the adventure while feeling the pain of separation, we put the children into the van, waved goodbye to those we were leaving behind, and drove away.
I had four days to watch the world as we counted down the miles. Each change of the landscape - and there were many - quietly thrilled me. I kept this to myself, not wanting it to look as though I wasn’t sad about leaving friends and family. I was. But part of me was ready to move on.
Gazing out the window, it eventually occurred to me that there was one constant. One familiar thing on the road with us.
In every state, along every highway, in the marshes and wetlands and in tiny pools by the roadside, I could see from my window small black birds as they perched on reeds and cattails. Bobbing in the wind, dipping and rising with each breeze, when they flew, the flash of color under their wings gave the birds a name. They were Red-winged Blackbirds.
Red-winged blackbirds are common across most of the United States. They thrive in reedy ponds, irrigation ditches and meadows along highways as well as urban, suburban and rural areas.
If I were to visualize my life as a photo album, Red-winged Blackbirds would be the constant. Always in the background. Driving down the Alabama backroads of my childhood, along the highways across the continent and even now the parks and ponds of the town where I live, I can see the brilliant scarlet flash as they fly. I can hear the rusty-hinge call of the males and the sharp chatter of nesting pairs.
Anthropomorphic, I know, but I’ve always thought that Red-winged Blackbirds are good teachers. They show, by example, how simple it should be to be content and productive, to be filled with song for no other reason that the sun is up and shining or the wind is making the tall grasses dance. Red-winged blackbirds easy to dismiss. They are only beautiful when they spread their wings. That’s when their true colors show.
I left the south more than a decade ago. The children we pulled along with us are grown, only one teenager left at home. They remember the lives they had, but that was then. Their home is in the northwest now.
And the same is true for me.
It was a good move. I’ve built a career here. I don’t know if that would have happened if I had stayed in the nest we’d built.
Taking a cue from the little blackbird, I’ve come to understand that I am the woman I have always been. It’s just that no one noticed what I could do until I spread my wings and flew away.
Click here to hear the song of the Red-winged blackbird.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org