Posted by: zhak39 | October 11, 2005

Oral History

My parents used to have a box, handcovered in red vinyl. They kept it in a low cabinet in their library, a spot easily accessible to the short reach of little arms. Some summer evenings as the warm breezes filled the filmy livingroom curtains, one or another of us would be permitted to fetch the box. We would sit on the soft green wool rug, three of us spilling over my mother’s legs as she opened it. Inside was the past.

The box was filled with photographs, black and white snap shots from my mother’s family, my father’s family. There were uncles in knee pants, dark haired grandparents standing stiffly in front of impossibly clunky cars. There were saucer eyed babies in long white dresses–I could never figure out how my mother remembered which of us was which.

As we pulled out photographs, my mother told us stories. The pictures were only the springboard–her stories were our legends. They were the visible edge of a history that still informs my choices today.

At the bottom of the box was a fuzzy close up picture of a rightly colored parakeet named Yak-yak.

“Tell us about Yak-yak!” we’d clamor.

“Yak-yak was a noisy bird,” Mom would tell us. “We got him from the Bird Lady.”

The Bird Lady was an informal breeder. She didn’t own a pet store, she didn’t order up her parakeets by the peck. Rather, she raised them from the egg and hand trained them from hatching. She dispensed instruction and advice with each bird she placed. Her most important guideline–

“Make sure that the dear feels at home, and part of the family. Let him out of the cage to fly, visit with you in the evening, share the family meals.”

“We let Yak-yak fly around the house even though we had really low ceilings. Yak-yak would screech and squawk. One night when we were having dinner….”

“Chicken dinner,” one of us would say.

“With mashed potatoes and gravy.”

“That’s right. We had a chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy. I had my plate and Daddy had his plate and Yak-yak had his own little plate of bird seed.”

“But Yak-yak didn’t want birdseed.”

“That’s right,” Mom would say. “Yak-yak watched me and Yak-yak watched Daddy and when Daddy wasn’t looking–what happened, Daddy.”

My father, with a pained look on his face would say.

“That bird walked across the table, got on my plate, ate my mashed potatoes and left gravy footprints across the tablecloth.”

My sister and brother and I would roar, imagining that bird playing such a trick on my father.

A couple of years ago we opened our home to a fine feathered friend named Toukie-Bob. Toukie is a cockatiel. He is part of the family, he has the wing of the house. He’s a great companion, an accomplished musician, and a bit of a clown. Thanks to the lessons of our oral history, though, we take some precautions at the table. As you can see, Toukie gets his own chicken dinner.


  1. What a treat! My memory doesn’t reach back like yours yet I know I was there. Although, now you mention it…chicken dinner…!

  2. If it helps to jog your memory, the complete story includes that before Yak-yak toddled off of Dad’s plate, he left a little something behind.

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