Kid, Hon, Bird, Mrs. Birdsong, Mother Bridsnog, Sugar Britches. Kathy, Katharine, Kath, Miss Kimball, Ma, Mom, Mommy, Grammy, and (long story) “Susan.”
Katharine Evans Kimball Birdsong went by many names, but the one name that best captures her spirit is…
She was a gentle soul with a poet’s heart, and on June 2nd, 2016, Katharine Birdsong took her last breath. Most people would equate the last breath with death, but when my mom learned of her terminal condition, she felt like she was just going on a long trip- quite literally at first.
Shortly after her prognosis of having three to five months to live, she was eager to start packing, and began with the most important possessions: her well-worn Agatha Christie novel, and her even more worn pair of favorite slippers, only to realize with a disappointed laugh that it was true what they say —
“You can’t take it with you.”
And she was more of a giver than a taker anyway. One of the greatest things she gave us was a colorful childhood.
Words like “colorful,” “unconventional,” “eccentric”… these are polite substitutions for words less kind — words that sometimes come with unwarranted shame. They are a gentlemen’s code used to describe people whose brilliance, creativity and compassion come with some heavy crosses to bear. And though our mother’s “peace of mind” was often tested by personal demons, great tragedies and deep loss, she always strove to find some kernel of happiness amidst the struggle.
It’s hard to explain our unconventional household, but if you’ve ever come home from school and found a wounded (but very much alive) goose staring back at you from the bathtub or a large (but very much dead) deer in the back seat of your mom’s broken down Oldsmobile, you’ll have an idea of the colorful childhood our mom painted on a Jersey Shore canvas.
Her unorthodox life was matched by her eclectic resume, with jobs including, but not limited to:
· convent cook
· monastery maid
These jobs may been humble, but they were not without their perks. While working as a live-in cook and housekeeper for a Catholic bishop (in a beautiful oceanfront home) she’d occasionally “borrow” his house when he was off doing bishop-y things. Her daughter Mary’s 8th birthday party was held in his living room. It beat the one bedroom efficiency apartment over his garage where she and her four children actually lived.
Besides being a heck of a party-planner, the girl could cook. She nurtured the food she was cooking just as she nurtured the folks fed by it, working a pot of soup like a sculpture. Many sat at her table: friends, neighbors, folks down on their luck or without family. Even from time to time the creepy neighbor who claimed to be an orthodox Ukrainian priest (“He wasn’t no priest!”). The mouths she could feed with a can of tuna and a loaf of generic white bread would put Jesus’ loaves and fishes to shame.
Born in Upper Montclair NJ in 1944, Katharine wouldn’t remain a Yankee for long- her parents relocated to the Deep South (where they’d both grown up) and chose to raise their children in Baton Rouge,
Married at seventeen,
our mother had her first child at eighteen after having to relocate quite unexpectedly with her new husband to Germany, where they lived an almost medieval lifestyle complete with chamber pots and cauldrons of boiled water for bathing.
After returning to the states and her Louisiana life, she eventually wound up in a South Jersey Shangri La called Long Beach Island.
Choosing a remote island for her home, where she knew not a blessed soul had its own unique challenges, but she was nothing if not resourceful.
Case in point: Her first day on the island she’d tucked her three small children into bed with kisses on their cheeks and thumb-swiped crosses on their foreheads, then returned to unpacking. Much time and many boxes later, she still could not find the alarm clock. Desperate to make sure they’d all wake up in time for school, she called the police, and in her soft whisper of a southern voice, she asked the amused cop on the other end of the line for a wake-up call. He was putty in her hands, and her children all got to school on time the next morning.
How a woman as beautiful as she could be so self-conscious of her looks is hard to fathom, yet she never saw the beauty that was so apparent to others. Despite her poor opinion of her looks, she stopped many a heart and turned many a head.
In fact, one Halloween while taking her children trick-or-treating, she was hit on by a bold 13 year old who mistook the dark-haired beauty for a gypsy. “Son,” she said, “I’m somebody’s Mama.”
Her Mama’s “depression-era” mentality certainly rubbed off on her, and she was simply unable to throw things out. Cupboards and countertops overflowed with cookie tins, plastic bottles, boxes and bags of all shapes and sizes. Her refrigerator was crammed tight with little baggies contain-ing half pieces of toast or a few crumbles of bacon, each labeled meticulously with a black marker on a piece of masking tape.
Although she would use paper plates, she refused to throw them out until they were threadbare, wiping them off over and over because they were still “perfectly good.” Some say “Hoarder,” others say “Green.” Tomato, tuhmahhhto.
Regardless, though she had to feed four children from a poverty-level pantry, she knew all there was to know about British Royal Family lineage, Shakespearean sonnets, biblical archaeology, and the latest installment of Masterpiece Theatre. She was quite the anglophile. Yorkshire Pudding was a regular item on the menu, but her children would eat it off of rickety TV trays while sitting on a three-legged curb-rescue sofa watching Laverne and Shirley.
Cooking and kindness will likely be what folks remember most about Katharine. A friend recently said of her, “She was always so kind to me. Every time she saw me she would compliment me, tell me I was a good father, and that God had a special place for me.” That was just what she did.
She lost her only son Donald (her first-born child) to brain cancer when he was just 33 years old. And when his illness went from bad to worse she cared for him when he could no longer care for himself. She was with him through all of it.
With her intelligence and her compassion, she could have excelled in any field, but due to so many struggles (both internal and external) she never found “success” in the traditional sense of the word. She was, however, wildly successful in making those around her feel loved and cherished, and as unique as their fingerprints. There were many times she could not access her heart of gold, her generous and kind nature. But when she could, you felt flooded by the light of the angels, and buoyed by the voice of a poet:
by Katharine Birdsong
To all who’ve touched my life, my soul,
Who’ve broken me or made me whole,
Or who’ve revealed a glimpse of you,
Stripped by all except what’s True —
You’ve left your mark no other’ll see,
Indelible, a part of me;
An imprint only you could make,
And from me none’ll ever take.
Light and dark, these works of Art —
Fingerprints upon my heart — —
For good or not, I cannot tell,
But I’ve left my own as well.