By Jesse Cheng
My afternoon visit with Mom was approaching that inevitable moment when she’d ask how soon before I’d provide her a grandchild. Since marrying two years before, I had learned, like many men before me, that the best counterstrategy couples the Preemptive Dodge with its natural companion, the Convenient Exit. I edged toward the doorway emitting a stream of chatter about the sick guava tree my wife and I were nursing, then the cute jujube sapling we’d just bought, before somehow letting loose a remark about the pair of doves nesting in the back of our house.
My mother clutched the sleeve by my elbow. “Doves? Where? Where did they build that nest?”
I kicked myself, wondering how the frontal lobe let that one slip through. The top of a patio light fixture was where the birds had constructed their home, a patchwork affair of twigs, dried grass, and evergreen branches tucked into the wooden frame encasing the bulb.
“Ohh, the patio outside your bedroom.” She leaned back, nodding. “That’s good. That’s very good.” And she uttered nary another word about it for the next several weeks.
I suppose it was reasonable to read a felicitous birth omen into the appearance of mating birds. Still, Mom’s silence seemed a touch too content—smug, even. I suspected some time-honored belief supported by the weight of venerable cultural authority; and so, like any good American-born, culturally challenged child of Asian immigrants, I started to look online.
There, I discovered that to our native Taiwanese, the nearby presence of birds is indeed an auspicious sign. Good luck, though, seemed to me something of a stretch from the promise of procreation. I also learned that in some Asian cultures, mandarin ducks are traditional representations of lifelong marital accord. It happens that my wife’s Vietnamese name derives from the Chinese word for that very type of bird. Nevertheless, any etymologist will confirm that fidelity is not synonymous with fertility—and our new tenants were landlubbing doves, not waterfowl.
What did my mother know that I didn’t? For several days I observed the birds perched on their roost. They certainly appeared worthy of immortalization in cultural folklore. While one of the doves tended to the egg, the other kept tender watch from the rafters a few feet away. I imagined a legend about forbidden lovers reincarnated in aviary form, weaving the nest for their child atop the silk-covered rim of an imperial lantern.
Back in real life, I read that the Chinese believe bird’s nest soup—a delicacy that involves an actual bird’s nest, boiled—to aid the reproductive function. Progress! But further study revealed the magic ingredient to be the saliva of another species, the swiftlet … and my mother never did say our guests’ home was intended for consumption. This was fortunate, since my wife and I were becoming quite protective of the critters.
It was with some feeling of loss, then, that after returning home from a long vacation, I’d poked my head out the back porch door to find the nest empty. The birds were a full-fledged family now, all three taken to the skies. As I drove to visit my mother, I wondered how she’d handle the news. But then, the bombshell: three new nests at her house—doves on the eaves under the side porch, thrush cuckoos in the backyard bush, and a to-be-identified species in the tree on the front lawn!
“This is good,” Mom said. “This is very, very good.”
By now, I accepted her prognosis must be justified in some culture’s historical lore somewhere in the world. And, as it turned out, modern Western medical technology would follow up with its own bombshell not long after: positive! My mother was pleased, albeit none too surprised.
But the issue remained of what to do with that abandoned nest back home—I just didn’t have the heart to take it down. Happily, one last bit of online research was in order. According to multiple sources, the same pair of birds (doves, like mandarin ducks, tend toward monogamy) may come looking for their nest the next year, and possibly many more seasons after that. And so it remains.
“You haven’t taken down that nest, have you?” Mom asked the other day.
I transferred baby Amie to my wife’s arms, shaking my head. “No, Mom. The nest is still there.”
“Oh, good.” My mother crossed her arms, smiling. “Oh, that’s very good.”
If some cultural authority out there has its say, our little girl may one day point up and tell a sibling all about it.
Jesse Cheng is from Southern California. His website is jesse-cheng.com.
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