Fiction: Helena Writes #53_On destiny and bird language

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 53rd post, Helena shares another continuation of her favorite of her original works, Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn. Enjoy!


From a chapter following Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn: “Rocks and Birds of Brooklyn" (continued from last month’s post) (© Helena Clare Pittman) 


Meant to be

“Destiny,” I’m saying out loud, about my two science projects. “Destiny is way beyond Nina Present’s extra credit,” I’m saying, coloring in Ella’s tail with yellow crayon. Canary Yellow, I read on the label. That’s a coincidence, I’m thinking. 

Ella is Aunt Dorothy’s canary. Aunt Dorothy told me that she’s happy that I’m using Ella for the Science Fair at our school, P.S. 221. My little brother Georgie wanders into my room. 

“What’s festiny?” he asks. I stop coloring and look at Georgie. “Not festiny, Georgie,” I say, sounding as patient as I can. “Destiny, with a d.” I sigh. I know Georgie doesn’t know what a d is.    

“But what is it, Ruty?” says Georgie.  

I think of what Pappa said, looking proud, about my two science projects, my rock collection and my construction paper book of pictures of birds that live in the tri-state area—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—flapping over the birdhouse Pappa and I built, diving for Benny Pitt’s suet. I’m thinking of the fossil of the insect wing we found when we dug the hole to put the birdhouse up in our backyard, after I’d cracked open rocks all year in the alley looking for a fossil, after seeing them at the museum, to distinguish my rock collection from being just a, well, rock collection. I’m thinking of that moment when Pappa and I froze, then turned to each other in disbelief. I’m thinking of Pappa’s eyes, wide through his glasses, and me seeing sparkles in the air I never knew were there.  

“It’s when something is—meant to be,” I tell Georgie.  

Now Georgie is quiet. He walks to the window to watch the birds still feasting on Benny Pitt’s suet. I sigh again, with relief. Then Georgie says, “Meant to be what, Ruty?” 

I pick up the Canary Yellow and finish coloring Ella’s tail. I know Georgie is waiting for me to answer, but I don’t look up. Then I hear him turn and walk out of my room to find our mother. 

“Mamma!” he calls up the hall to the kitchen. “WHA-A-TS FES-TI-NEE?” Mamma is wringing the laundry. I can hear the squeak of the wringer’s handle. 

“Ruthie, don’t torment your brother!” Mamma calls down the hall. Then she’s at the doorway of my room. “What shall I tell him?” she asks. “What are you talking about?” 

“Mamma,” I say, “No one will have two science projects but me. But the fossil Pappa and I found makes them one science project, almost.” Linked together like subway cars, I think, but I don’t say it. “It was meant to be—Pappa said so.”

My mother is silent. I know what her face is saying. I know she’s thinking about what she’s going to tell Georgie. She sighs, too. Georgie is persistant. Pappa says it’s because he has a curious mind. Then Mamma’s gone, walking back up the hallway to the kitchen.

“Georgie,” I hear her say. “It’s beshert, sweetheart.” Then Mamma sings with her beautiful operatic voice, a song with the word beshert—Yiddish, for meant to be. Mamma loves to sing. “Come, Georgie, we’ll hang the laundry. Here’s your jacket, see how clean it is? Come, darling, you’ll help me. Beshert, beshert,” she sings, making up a tune. Our mother is singing, as if the song she’s singing is one everyone knows.

Beshert! I’m thinking. A song about—destiny! Destiny. Even Yiddish has a word for it.


Bird language

I admire the picture of Ella. Aunt Dorothy named her for Ella Fitzgerald, the singer my aunt adores. Aunt Dorothy was so enthused about the idea of my feeding the birds and drawing them, that she went to Benny Pitt’s to get suet for Ella, and put some at the bottom of Ella’s cage. 

“Did she love it, Ruthie?” Aunt Dorothy sounds like Benny Pitt. “Ruthie,” he said. “The birds will lo-o-ove it!”

And Benny Pitt, the butcher on Troy Avenue, was right. Birds have come from New Jersey and Connecticut to New York! To Brooklyn, right to our backyard! I’m thinking, birds must have some kind of telephone system, or how would they all know? I’m thinking I will write that in my composition about birds, the one that will be on the last page of my bird book—the bird book part of my two-part science project.  

“Hey! There’s candy in Brooklyn, lots of it!” The New York birds might call. “Come on over!” I imagine them saying in bird language people just don’t understand, thinking they’re chirping and tweeting happily while they’re really talking about some crazy bird party happening in the Pincus’ backyard. And who knows what else? 

Have you ever had to explain a complex word to a young person, or consider how other species might communicate to one another, and about what? What did you think of this continuation of Helena’s novel? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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