Her home was warm and welcoming. I always knew her kind smile and comforting words were close within reach. I was lucky to live just down the street from my grandmother for nine years, during which we became close friends. She shared her experiences of living through the past decade, of the changes that she witnessed, and the memories of a slower, less complicated time. We’d look through letters my grandfather sent to her from his travels in the Navy, faded newspaper clippings of his ship’s progress in Alaska, and listen to old recordings of her brother’s swing band. I will always cherish that time and the spirit of our bond remains with me though life has forced us to separate.
One morning last month, my mom called to tell me that my grandmother hadn’t awoken and was being rushed to the hospital in Portland, where she lived with my Aunt and Uncle. I could tell by her anxious voice that the outlook was not good. I immediately thought of the last time I saw my grandmother, six months prior. I was thankful that I had taken the time to savor the time and have one last heart-to-heart with her. However, I couldn’t ignore the feeling of regret and sadness that permeated the air that morning. As I walked with a heavy heart over the wooden bridge that crossed the Napa creek on the way to work, I noticed a beautiful white egret, perfectly illuminated in the still waters. It stopped me in my tracks and immediately I felt a strong connection to my grandmother. Throughout the day, the egret remained perched elegantly on its stone. At about four in the afternoon, my mom called to tell me that my grandmother would not recover from the massive stroke she had suffered sometime during the previous night. It was a matter of hours or days. Hope seeped from my soul as the reality of the situation settled in. As I walked back to my car, the egret was gone. I would not see it again until one week later, when my grandmother’s heart finally stopped beating.
The call came just after noon on that rainy day. A good friend had delivered a bouquet of white flowers to my office earlier in the week. I took a single gentle daisy from its arrangement and walked through the drizzle to the bridge, where I dropped the flower over the side and watched it flow down the current, past the egret and into the distance.
Later that day, I was reminded of a writer whom my grandmother used to admire. I had asked her years ago about authors she liked and she mentioned a woman from Nebraska named Bess Streeter Aldrich. I decided to look her up online and found, much to my surprise, that the first title to emerge by her was A White Bird Flying. The coincidence left me awestruck. I purchased the book and awaited its arrival.
Joe & Virginia Nalty, 1941
In the mean time, arrangements were made for my grandmother’s funeral. Family and friends gathered to remember this amazing woman, who had had such a positive effect on everyone she encountered. Her charm and generosity is well reflected in the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that continue to embody her legacy. Following the funeral, as I walked out of the church, my Uncle Vic took my arm and pointed to the sky, where two lovely white birds were flying overhead.
The book arrived upon my return home. I immediately began to read it and could hardly believe the words in front of me. A White Bird Flying is written from the perspective of a young woman coming to terms with the death of her beloved grandmother. The first chapter takes place just days after the funeral, as the girl walks through her grandmother’s home and faces the memories they shared together. I could have written the words myself and was deeply moved by the sentiment. The white bird symbolizes the hopes and dreams the two had forged for her life, and the remainder of the book takes us on that journey. The symbol of the bird stays with her throughout her life and guides her to follow her hopes and dreams.
Quite suddenly, in fancy she caught in the far distance a glimpse of silver wings. It gave her a warm thrill of gratification too deep for words. Immediately she knew through some inner consciousness, that no matter where life’s paths would lead her, – through sharp and stony ways or beside still waters, – buried deep within her was an indestructible capacity to visualize a white bird flying. She might never get close to the way of its winging, but always there would be joy in lifting her eyes to the glory of its distant flight.
Virginia Nalty, Nebraska, 1930s
I can imagine my grandmother reading this book as a young girl. It was published in 1931, and my grandmother left Nebraska with her family in the late 1930s when she was a teenager and moved to Oakland, California. After reading the book, I can see how she connected with the characters and the landscape. My grandmother never forgot where she came from and spoke often of her memories of growing up in Nebraska. The vast plains stayed with her, as did this author who captured it in words. The writer could never have known the effect her book would have 81 years after its publication, or how remarkably meaningful it would be for me to come upon it.
Final visit, August 2011
The main character in the book has grand dreams of a fulfilling life. She is inspired by her grandmother, who, like my own, had lived a long, rich life and worked hard to fulfill her dreams. She experienced the great romance, the loving family, life-long friendships and a life lived without regret. These accomplishments are my inspiration.
Call it coincidence or serendipity, fate or divine intervention… however it happened, my grandmother spoke to me through a white bird and provided an invaluable final thread to tie together all the lessons she taught me during her life. I can think of no more fitting goodbye.
Here’s to you, Gram… you will never be forgotten. 1920-2012.