Grandma Birdie’s apartment stank. Despite the smell, I loved her. She was silly, fun and full of love. Now she was dead. She died bald, from the treatments, bloated from the disease, but with a twinkle still in her eye. Her eyes never dulled, they just closed, and she was gone. Whenever I visited, and I tried to visit often, she gave me a parting gift, usually a piece of tacky costume jewelry or an out of focus photograph of a bird she took from her back patio.
Most people think that there are just cat people and dog people, but they’re wrong. There are also bird people. My Grandma Birdie had a giant, ill-tempered Macaw, named Sweetie Pie. On her back patio were an assortment of bird-feeders and birdbaths. She explained them to me once, “Kaylee this one is for the Jays, and this is nectar for the humming birds. I make my own special blend,” she boasted.
Birds were everywhere in her apartment. They were in albums, hanging on the wall, and scattered on tables, chairs, counter space and even in small piles on the floor. A select precious few were crayon masterpieces, attached by magnets to her refrigerator, created by her nieces and nephews.
Grandma Birdie wasn’t a Grandma, but an aunt. She didn’t have any children of her own. I used to think I was a kindred spirit with Grandma Birdie, but I think she made all of us feel that way. After her death, as we went through her apartment, we found a manila envelope labeled “My Niece, the Writer, and Art Critic,” containing copies of the few stories I managed to publish online. I looked through them all. Each clipping had a handwritten comment like, “My niece will be the J. K. Rowling’s of her generation” or just, “Nicely put.”
On the bar, separating her kitchen and dining area, was a stack of 23 photos, taken from her back patio, of a distant eagle grandly perched in the upper branches of a wintered tree. The bird was in the trees all the way across the Warrior River. Photo 24, separated from the stack, was of that same grand bird finally in flight, wings spread rising into the sky. Besides her own sketches, photographs, and children’s artwork, were framed classic prints of birds, by American, European and Asian masters. All were amateurly matted in old yard sale frames. In several sketchbooks we found pencil drawings of birds, by her own hand. They were well done for one of Bob Ross’s art students.
Around the house were reproductions of Asian vases, painted or etched with bird scenes. Her bookcases were crammed full of books about birds. There were shelves on the walls with bird figurines. Where there was unneeded walking space, there were piles of Birder Magazine and stacks of newspapers, destined to line the bottom of Sweetie Pie’s cage.
Besides her love of family, and her love for birds, Grandma Birdie loved jewelry. Whether gaudy or simple, a ring or a broach, she loved her costume jewelry almost as much as she loved birds. Most of this kitschy glitter was courtesy of Avon, Home Interior, QVC or estate sales. Or so she told us and so we thought--
The first thing that struck me odd was when the funeral director returned her wedding rings. Grandma Birdie was married twice. Her first marriage was to Stanley. Now, to speak politely, Stanley was, and remains to this day, a jackass. That’s what my Mom calls him, when no one is around but us. Mom’s other sister, Diane, joins her in calling him that too, but the rest of the family, Mom and Diane’s brothers, calls him, “A mother fucking Asshole.” I’d get my mouth washed out with soap if I called him that, even though I’m 23. Her other husband, Lewis, was a much nicer guy. However, Lewis had a minor issue—he and Sweetie Pie didn’t get along. And what Sweetie Pie wanted, Sweetie Pie got—a divorce.
For some freakish reason, freaky to us, Grandma Birdie wanted to be buried with her two wedding rings. Stanley’s was small and cheap, but pretty. We all knew Donkey Kong was too cheap to spend much on Grandma Birdie’s ring. We all knew it was once removed from a Cracker Jack prize. Now, Lewis’s ring, her second husband, it had a nice sized stone, even though we all knew there were flaws. Anyway, we all knew her express wish was to be buried with the rings. Mom and Auntie Di had explained it to the funeral director.
At the visitation, the funeral director came up to me and placed the rings in my hand. I suppose it was because my Mom and Auntie Di were busy discussing funeral service directions with their brothers and Lewis’s son, who she treated as her own, even though he wasn’t. Grandma Birdie had pretty much planned everything out, but Mom and Auntie Di were still in a heated discussion about some detail. My guess is it probably had to do with how long the preacher was going to talk.
The funeral director pressed the rings in my hand and said, “These are very valuable.” He whispered this in my ear with the seriousness funeral directors are known for. “I don’t think you want them buried with her.”
“Oh, no, the little one is really not very valuable,” I repeated what my Mom had told me. I didn’t explain to him about her cheapskate Jackass ex.
“Miss,” he said. “The bands are pure gold and the stone, while small, is flawless. I’m sure it is a red diamond.”
“No.” I assured. “It’s glass.”
“I don’t think so. And the other is worth even more. I’m not an expert, but those rings together are both worth at least $5,000. You can’t bury them.”
“Shut up. Seriously?” I asked, and he nodded. I immediately took them to Mom and Auntie Di interrupting their discussion to tell them what the funeral director had told me.
“No,” Auntie Di responded. My mother looked at me as if a Big Beef tomato plant was growing out of my ear.
“You are kidding, right?” Auntie Di continued.
“No, ma’am, it’s what he said.” They both carefully inspected the rings, swapping them off between each other. Each took a ring and chased down the funeral director, who was leaving for his office. He affirmed to them what he told me. After the visitation, we ran the rings over to a jeweler, who verified what the funeral director had said, appraising the set at $8,000.
“Did she know how much these were worth?” Mom asked. Auntie Di shook her head in disbelief.
You must understand that my Grandma Birdie lived a very simple life in a two-bedroom one-bath subsidized apartment along the Warrior River in Tuscaloosa. She retired as a phlebotomist at DCH and then worked as a school crossing guard for 10 years. She was the type of crossing guard who knew every child by name and shouted after those who drove too fast, taking down their tag numbers and car descriptions and reporting them to the cops. Despite being a free spirit, she took both jobs very seriously, especially looking after the children.
Besides her jewelry, her nieces and nephews, and birds, she saved every penny, so she could travel. We were all amazed at how thrifty she was and that she could travel as extensively as she could on such a limited budget. We all helped her raise money too, since some of her trips were with a touring church choir.
Since her cancer diagnosis she had been unable to work, surviving on a pittance of a retirement and social security. She lived a meager existence, with barely enough money in her savings and checking accounts to cover the most basic funeral expenses. Her brothers bought her a plot in the cemetery near Granny and Gramps, because she was so destitute. But what really blew our minds was what we found when we were cleaning her apartment. And God Almighty as my witness, it desperately needed cleaning.
To say Grandma Birdie had a lot of stuff, is an understatement. The apartment was filled with boxes and trunks, and all those boxes and trunks were filled with stuff. Every time I visited her, it looked like she was ready to move. Her closets were packed full. There were trails weaving around boxes and trunks, so you could get through her apartment. My Mom shares some of Grandma Birdie’s blood, and finds some of her stuff interesting, but all of Mom’s stuff is in the attic, neatly labeled, and not in the house. My Auntie Di shares nothing in common with Grandma Birdie, except for DNA from the same father and mother. Auntie Di’s solution to the apartment clutter would be backing up a garbage truck and hauling everything away and then fumigating. But not my mom, she had to look through everything!
Ella, Auntie Di’s eldest granddaughter, was with us. She was 7 and a girly girl, with long blonde hair. She was sitting beside Sweetie Pie, looking through Grandma Birdie’s sketchbook when she brought a loose-leaf old sketch for me to look at.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed holding the tanning, age spotted, drawing of a duck in flight in my hand.
“Honey, don’t take the name of the Lord in vain,” Mom corrected me, and I groaned.
“Look at this,” I told my Mom.
“That looks old.”
“Yes, like 500 years old.”
“Yes ma’am, it is. Do you know what this is?” I shook my head in disbelief. I couldn’t be right.
“No,” she answered hesitantly. By this time Auntie Di had joined us.
I gingerly set it down. “This looks like the lost drawing from the Gates collection.”
“The Gates Collection?”
“You know, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, like the richest guy in the world.” I’d forgotten that Jeff Bezos had passed him earlier this year. “Years ago, Gates bought all Da Vinci’s notebooks and ‘Duck in Flight’ was missing.” I pointed to the sketch, laid out on the table in front of me, “This IS ‘Duck in Flight.’ It made national news. Everyone was talking about it.” If it wasn’t on Fox News no one in my family would know. “But, NO… it’s not missing; it’s right here in Grandma Birdie’s apartment, tucked away in her sketchbook.”
“I’ve seen this before,” Auntie Di interjected, she picked up it up off the table scrutinizing the drawing. “There’s lots of smudges.” She turned it over in her hands. “I thought it was just torn from book.”
I laughed, “Of course it has smudges, it’s 500 years old. And it WAS torn from a book alright, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebook.”
“No,” my mother said again disbelieving.
“Mom, I just graduated last year with a degree in art history and Da Vinci is one of my favorites. I’ve even seen the Notebook when it was on tour. This isn’t a reproduction. I’m telling you the truth. I mean if it is, it’s a really good one.” I then flipped through her sketchbook full of pencil sketches of the duck. “These are reproductions.” I lifted the sketchbook for them to see and continued to flip through dozens of attempts to draw the duck, all well done copies by Grandma Birdie. “But this,” I took the Da Vinci drawing from my aunt, “this is the original. It isn’t a copy. Oh, my God.”
“Honey, what did I say about taking the Lord’s name in vain,” Mom corrected me as if I were nine.
“Gloves! I need gloves and a bag. We’ve got to get this in a bag!” Auntie Di retrieved a gallon zip-lock bag as I slipped on a pair of latex gloves we’d brought to use for cleaning. I gingerly slipped the sketch into the bag.
Everyone was now inspecting the drawing. Ella didn’t seem to grasp the significance, “It’s just a duck.”
“It’s a 500-year-old duck, Honey,” Auntie Di, her grandmother, explained.
She inspected the bagged drawing. “Kaylee, do ducks live 500 years?”
“No, Baby Girl,” I answered, “they don’t. This drawing of a duck was done by a great artist 500 years ago.”
“What’s it doing in Grandma Birdie’s house?” Ella asked.
My Mom, Auntie Di, and me all looked each other. I answered for them all, “We haven’t the slightest.”
Discoveries continued now as we looked carefully through everything we found. While there were pages torn from old Birder’s World and Bird & Blooms, we found that all the artwork on the wall, all hanging in yard sale frames, all what we thought were prints, weren’t prints at all. The few contemporary prints were numbered and signed.
Mom, who had taken art in high school, was inspecting hanging art and then bringing them over to me. Ella sat next to me watching everything I did. Seldom did she ever sit so still, but as always, she had thousands of questions, each answer generating another thousand questions.
My mouth dropped open when Auntie Di brought me a framed finch. It was Carel Fabritius’, “Goldfinch.” “I know this painting! I wrote a paper about it. It was stolen from New York while on tour years ago. No one had any idea what had happened, or how it was done. In its place had been placed a plate of the painting reprinted in an old folio of Fabritius’ work. The book it was taken from would have been expensive, but not priceless. Oh, my God, we need more bags!”
Mom didn’t correct me this time and instead hurried to look for more bags. She did add as she was looking in the cabinet, “I bet there is a folio around here missing ‘Goldfinch.’”
We were busy online the rest of the afernoon, cataloguing figurines from the Charles Gouyn Factory dating to the 1700s. In a box in the closet, wrapped in old newspapers, we found an oil flask with a bird painted on the side. In the same box we even found a prehistoric sculpture of a bird from India. I looked up from my iPad, “This ceramic sculpture was missing from an Indian Museum. The date of its disappearance is given. Do you know when it was stolen?” Everyone shook their heads, “No.” “It happened when Grandma Birdie was on her last mission trip to India with her church choir.” We returned to our search.
“Look what I found,” Mom announced and unrolled a beautiful watercolor of a white bird painted by Persian artist Mu'in Musavvir.
“Roll it back up, roll it back up!” I told her. My hands were shaking.
Looking through a big box next to the bookcase Auntie Di said, “Call your Dad, I just found what looks like a big old book by Audubon published by, I think it says, Havell. No, wait, there are four of them. Gosh, these books are big, and heavy.” We all scrambled over to her. The prints were big and beautiful. And there was a signature in front of the folios.
“Oh, my God! This is a first edition set. Put it back in the box,” I exclaimed. Mom didn’t correct me for taking the Lord’s name in vain this time either.
We were exhausted and overwhelmed, so we took a break. After a snack of cold pizza Mom sat down and went through Grandma Birdie’s jewelry box. Mom and I had sat with Grandma Birdie many times looking at her jewelry. I remember doing so when I was a little girl. Each had a story which she was happy to retell. On more than one occasion she mentioned that a stone was loose, or a clasp broken, and she had to fix it. Grandma Birdie had nimble fingers and explained that since she was young she replaced all the stones herself. We closely inspected all her jewelry. After examining them all through a magnifying glass I asked Mom and Auntie Di to look. “I don’t think any of these are glass.”
In her dresser drawer we found a jewelry repair kit. It contained glue, fittings, precision tools and a pouch full of stones, most small, all sparkling in the light.
In the bag of stones, we found a note, “To my sisters, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. I planned to give it all back. I just got sick and didn’t get a chance, MA.” We all gathered in a group hug and wept.
Later that afternoon we found Ella playing with a stack of what looked like passport books. “Where’d you find those?” I asked.
“Over there,” she pointed at the Asian floor vase that stood hip high. I hadn’t investigated it. “They were all inside. Grandma Birdie’s picture is in all these little books from all over the world.” We passed the passports around. We were again amazed. It was like the cache Jason Bourne found when he first opened his safety deposit box. I looked at the large Asian vase with birds painted on the side. The names on the stack of passports all had multiple name variations on Mary Ann, Grandma Birdie’s first name, and from countries around the globe. The same photo was in them all—a smiling, innocent looking, white-haired Grandma Birdie.