The Hummingbird and the Pine Tree

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My childhood was unusual. I am thinking about this as a hummingbird darts into view. She levitates among the crocosmias that have blossomed in my yard, tubular flowers that celebrate summer in showy scarlet.

I look forward to this yearly visit and now — a rare treat — the hummingbird perches on a crocosmia stem, preening her feathers in shimmery golds and emeralds. She is inches from where I sit. We quietly share the same air but not the same concept of time. Her heartbeat vibrates at over 1,200 beats per minute. She is the size of a house key. In a single minute she has sucked in 250 breaths while I hold mine, admiring her pygmy physique. I think about where she will build her nest.

In the late ’70s, my father accepted a job in the oil industry, embarking for Iran. My mother joined him, fearlessly boarding a life of Persian practice accented by saffron, hijabs and cockroaches the size of bats. Iran, volatile and brimming with culture, was in political turmoil under the shah. My young, newlywed parents abided by a citywide curfew and were once held up against a wall at gunpoint for staying out of their compound past 10 p.m. They were evacuated from Iran during the Islamic Revolution and started a sojourner life. They moved homes often, passports stippled with stamps. My mother gave birth to my sister and me two years and 4,700 miles apart, one in northern England, the other in Sharjah, and raised two tiny children on Singapore street food and the prayers that spilled from golden mosques.

We moved from place to place, imbibing the nectar of different cultures, much like the opalescent hummingbird. We had Arabic and Indonesian lessons, we drove jeeps across sand dunes, our yards visited by camels and king cobras. And every time we moved country or house, my mother started from scratch, decorating our new home as if it were the first and only. She took extraordinary care in the choice of furniture. She selected art that celebrated wanderlust and the promise of variety and diversity, arguably the biggest gift of travel. Whether we lived in them for three months or three years, my sister and I learned that home may have many veneers, but it is always a sacred space, worthy of delicious detail and the gift of your time.

Where my sense of home is a hummingbird’s kinetic cross-pollination, my husband’s roots are as strong and sturdy as a stately red pine. In 1983, my mother-in-law had a house built in West Saint Paul, ensuring there’d be enough rooms for a growing family and streets safe enough to paint with training wheels. She chose its design, waiting anxiously for it to be finished, her hopes a part of its foundation, deep in the mortar and brick of it. She built a nest for her eight children and nine grandchildren, a house that is wallpapered with memories and warmed by homemade gingerbread houses in the biting jaws of a Minnesota winter. Windows are decorated with the smudgy fingerprints of tiny children with big imaginations.

In thinking of starting a family of my own, I ponder the merits of a nomadic life and of growing up in one family home. Which is better? Fixed or flying? Which is right for a child? If I raise a child in one place, how will I share the adventures of my youth, offer the worldwide collection of flavors to be savored? And if I travel, how can I instill that enviable sense of belonging, the anchored homegrown pride that is such a big part of my husband’s identity?

The hummingbird will build her nest in a sheltered knot of the tree of her choosing. She will construct a compact velvety cup, no bigger than a quarter, from fiber of cotton and dandelion, twigs she has selected, the right balance of leaves and a stitching of moss and lichen for camouflage. She will use the gossamer silk of a spider to pull it all together. The nest will be fleecy and spongy, elastic at the sides to allow for her chicks to grow.

She will make adjustments to the nest’s décor, modifying to accommodate the brood. Once they have outgrown it, she will move on, though perhaps, if the nest is good enough, she might return to it the following year for her next brood. Perhaps she will build a new and improved nest model on top of the old one. Perhaps she will find a preferred tree and start fresh.

Her nest will be exquisite, an architectural wonder of nature. It will be intricate, snug and secure. To her tiny, bean-size chicks, it will be home. There is no right way. There is just her way.