The lesson of my empty window


Shira Pasternak Be’eri

Sometimes you learn more from what you don’t see than from what you do.

My family has had a love-hate relationship with pigeons on and off for the last decade. They first took up residence on our windowsill in north Jerusalem, choosing a high ledge behind a concrete laundry enclosure, just outside a small window above our front door. Every time we would enter or exit our home, we would say hello to Mr. or Mrs. Pigeon, as they sat on their two delicate eggs. I was intrigued by the fact that pigeons are monogamous and impressed by the fact that they co-parent. Mr. Pigeon, the bigger of the two, was far less brave than Mrs. Pigeon; while he would fly off in a panic when we opened our front door, she sat resolutely, protecting her future children at all cost.

Once the eggs hatched, we would occasionally climb a ladder and crane our necks in the awkward space behind the laundry enclosure to see the chicks. Over the weeks, we watched the hatchlings transform from scrawny blobs of pink skin covered with tufts of yellow fluff, to gawky squabs with brown downy hair dotted with remnants of yellow fuzz, to sleek grey birds with proper feathers. They were increasingly less ugly every day.

But the real drama took place just out of view. Editing at my dining room table in the afternoons, I would hear the high-pitched squeals of the hatchlings as their parents came to feed them. I couldn’t see the birds directly, but shadows of frenetic, flapping wings were silhouetted against the milky white plastic louvers that covered the window frame near the ceiling. The graceful swoop of an elegant head indicated that the chicks were being fed. As the fledglings got older, I imagined that the frenzied flapping was part of their flying lessons.

Within two months, they were gone, but the process began again. Two new eggs appeared in the nest and Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon resumed their shifts. The arrival of the new hatchlings was a bit less magical this time, but exciting nonetheless. But one Friday night, as my 12-year-old son opened the door to go to synagogue, there was a mess of “chopped tomatoes” on the door mat. Our neighbor’s cat had somehow made its way up to the ostensibly protected enclosure, and generously left us a present, reminding us of the cruelty sometimes found in the natural order. Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon never came back. Shaken by the memory, I was glad they didn’t.

It took four years of living in our new home in south Jerusalem before pigeons found us again. They took up residence on a ledge outside a tiny window in our attic bathroom, three stories above our front door. Each day in the spring, as we exited our home, we would see the telltale signs of industrious pigeon activity: several pine needles and a feather or two that had wafted down from above. The flimsy nest they built was made up of a couple of twigs, and seemed wholly inadequate for its task; often, the eggs rolled out and smashed on our doorstep.

Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon were successful and took up their vigil of warming their eggs. I was glad they were there. It made me feel that we were one with nature and part of something larger. Whatever we might be doing, at the same time, we were also providing shelter for new life and were part of the renewal of spring. It felt like an accomplishment, although we had done nothing.

After several weeks, hatchlings appeared. Our new tenants were largely out of sight, and we rarely made the trip up two flights of stairs to visit them. We were aware of the growth of the squabs largely from the bits of pigeon poop that would accrue on our doormat. We decided that once the new generation of pigeons had left the nest, their future siblings would have to incubate elsewhere. To prevent their parents from nesting, we laid several old hair brushes on the windowsill, remembering a technique successfully used by a friend to keep cats from parading alongside her windows.

Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon were thrilled by this most recent development. The bristles of the hairbrush were just what they needed to hold their twigs in place and keep their eggs from rolling out of their nest and crashing in the entrance hall. When the new arrivals came into the world, the hairbrush served as an anchor for a rising mountain of pigeon poop on our windowsill. The surplus would spill over onto our doormat three stories below.

Things were getting out of hand. We resolved that as soon as the new pair of pigeons left the nest there would be no further avian broods outside our home. But we got the timing wrong. My saintly husband removed the guano-encrusted hairbrush nest, but before we could buy bird spikes, the telltale twigs outside our door announced that the process was starting again. There was Mrs. Pigeon, sitting on two eggs in a slipshod nest. We were sorely tempted to fulfill the biblical commandment of sending her away and taking her eggs, but it seemed cruel, so we submitted to the cycle of pigeon life one last time.

This time, however, the nest was at the very edge of the ledge. Our “welcome” mat welcomed a steady stream of guano that my saintly husband had to clean daily. There was no longer any joy in being grandparents of pigeons; what began as a blessing had become a blight. As soon as the fledglings were gone, we installed anti-bird spikes on the windowsill. Our pigeon saga was over.

Or was it?

One Shabbat morning in August, as I was about to leave home for the synagogue, a burst of motion in the window of my open-plan work space on our second floor caught my eye. There, on the windowsill just behind my desk, was a fledgling. For the last several months, as I had sat reading and writing on my computer in my evenings and early mornings, a whole cycle of pigeon life had been going on behind my back. An admirable nest was built in a perfect spot — in a window that afforded us a stellar view and where droppings would fertilize an unused part of our garden. Eggs had been laid, the parents had sat on them, the eggs hatched, and the hatchlings had gone through all their stages of development, until this moment, when a lone fledgling was ready for flight. And I had missed it all.

The mousy brown fledgling sat on the windowsill, quivering and flexing his flight wings, trying to generate lift. His father, a regal, puffy, silver bird with a dark gray head, looked on from a perch on a palm tree about a meter away. The fledgling was clearly agitated by his father’s presence. I stood mesmerized, watching the young bird’s repeated attempts to fly. Suddenly, he was out through the burglar bars and on the branch of a creeper on the Jerusalem stone facing of our home. The quivering and flexing resumed, as the fledgling sat on the branch. I watched for half an hour, marveling at God’s creation in my own silent variation of Nishmat, the verses of praise of the Shabbat morning service.

When I came back from synagogue, the fledgling was back on the windowsill. He spent a large part of the day resting. By the next morning, he was gone forever.

My empty window left me with a sense of loss. It made me wonder how much of life happens while I’m looking the other way. It also made me think about the various screens in my life that connect me — to my work, friends, family, and the news — but disconnect me at the same time. How often do I see great beauty through the prism of a viewfinder, not fully taking it in because I am too busy trying to document it and preserve the memory for the future? How often am I not really in a moment because I’m planning how to share it with others? How often am I not fully present for my husband or children because I am simultaneously communicating with someone else? How often do I walk down the street without seeing who is there, or miss offering my seat to an older person on a bus, because I am busy with my phone?

Just before Shabbat Shuvah, the sabbath of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as I was running a bath to wash away the tension of the week, a flutter of movement in the large window alongside our bathtub caught my eye, not far from the empty window in my workspace. I couldn’t see more than shapes and colors through the cloudy glass. Cautiously, I eased the sliding window along its tracks. As I did, a blast of movement exploded as a startled pigeon leaped up from a nest near the opening, revealing two perfect white eggs. The fully formed nest is in a place where we can easily monitor what’s happening on a daily basis and where the pigeon droppings will do no harm. It seemed to be an auspicious sign for a year of new beginnings and growth.

I left the window open a crack, so it’s easy to peak through. And this time, I’m going to watch the wonders unfold with my eyes wide open.

Shira Pasternak Be’eri is a Jerusalem, Israel-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak’s daughter.

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