Like a Swallow

Peter, my late husband, used to say that I was like a swan. I looked cool and collected on the surface, but underneath I was pedaling fast as hell. Maybe that was true; it resonated with me, since growing up I used to think that I was sort of an ugly duckling. But now I think that I am more like a swallow.

I love swallows. One of the first poems I memorized as a young literature student was “Volverán las oscuras golondrinas” (“The dark swallows will return”) by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, a Spanish romantic poet. The first stanzas went on to say that the swallows always come back to nest on one’s balcony, but the ones that remember our name, those will not return. The poem ends with the poet’s affirmation that there will always be love, but no one would love his beloved as he did. How is that for a romantic thought?

Another beautiful encounter with the faithful swallows took place when I lived as a Marine Corps wife in Southern California. Every year, on March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day (which happens to be the Patron Saint of Valencia, where I was born), the swallows arrive from Goya, Argentina, after a 6,000-mile trip, to San Juan Capistrano, one of the famous old Spanish missions. Visitors from all over the world gather that day to witness the arrival of the birds. The sky darkens and all the chirping deafens one’s ears. When my mother visited us, we went to San Juan Capistrano to see with our own eyes. It was summer, so the swallows had already arrived and were nesting everywhere. The Mission was a luscious, beautiful spot; the historic church stood in ruins from the 1812 earthquake, providing all kinds of hiding spots for the nests. My mother, always a source of wisdom, reminded me of a Spanish saying: “Una golondrina no hace verano” (one swallow doesn’t a summer make). Go figure the meaning in English; something like don’t count your chickens before they hatch, works with the bird motif, I think.

Many years later, when we had a summer house in Ocean City, New Jersey, some barn swallows nested under the eaves of our carport every year. Not enough of them to darken the view, but aggressive enough that we couldn’t park there until the chicks had left their nest, leaving behind a mess of dry mud, eggshells and feathers. We never saw them arriving; I don’t know if they came from South America or if it happened on the same day, but it always was in the spring, around Easter. One year, our grouchy downstairs neighbor, unexpectedly, destroyed the nest with a broom and the swallows never came back. I remember that I cried unconsolably and never spoke to him again.

Now, from my deck in Brigantine, I see the swallows flying hastily above all the other birds, jumping over the marshes. They are eating insects, chirping incessantly, getting ready for their trip South. I don’t know where they nested, they must be a different species; tree swallows, I believe. But they seem to have the same schedule: from spring to fall they are all around. I know I’ll soon miss them and I’ll be expecting their return next year.

Another sign that summer is ending was the last Tai Chi class this week. Diane, the teacher, made us swing our arms, imitating our favorite bird and creating life energy; she soared like an eagle. Most of the students spread their arms gracefully, gliding like seagulls or flying majestically like cranes. I moved faster, a tad fretfully, like the swallows.