On Purple Angel's Wings

The birds returning every year to the gourds he'd made taught him a lesson about faith.

by

An artist's rendering of an angel holding gourds filled with purple martins

Six perfectly shaped gourds lay before me, spread out on the grass of my backyard.

I’d grown them myself and harvested them carefully. Now it was time to turn these fruits into the perfect house for my favorite birds–purple martins. I cut a round doorway in the front of the gourd, scraped out the insides. Hollowed out, the gourd would be perfect for a purple martin to nest in.

I looked up. The September sky was empty. But come February the purple martins would return, spinning and tumbling like acrobats above my head. For me, they were more than entertainment. They were a reminder that God is with me, even when everything else seems lost.

As I lovingly crafted my next gourd birdhouse, my mind drifted back to a day many years before, a day I couldn’t imagine anything in this world making me happy...

*  *  *  *

“Tim! You’re not paying attention,” my father called out.

Ugh! I’d put too much paint on my brush and now thick globs were running down the side of Uncle Harold’s house. “Sorry!” I said. It was far from my first mistake that morning.

At eight years old I loved nothing better than working beside my dad and Uncle Harold, who could whittle anything from wood and identify any bird by the sound of its call.

But that day the only place I wanted to be was far away from everyone and everything. My world felt like it had been broken in two. Beyond repair.

My parents had divorced a few months earlier. My sisters and I lived with Mom on weekends and Dad during the week. But the sadness inside stayed with me no matter where I was.

I loved my dad, but he didn’t know how to tuck me into bed like Mom did. Didn’t play Chutes and Ladders with me on the floor. Couldn’t make eggs the way I liked them.

I wanted my family back together. Nothing was the same anymore. There was no consistency, no one I could really count on to always be there for me.

“I’ll try to do better,” I called back to Dad.

I heard a strange call above my head and looked up. Dozens of small glossy blue-black birds flit in and out of gourds Uncle Harold had hung from tall wooden poles in his yard. It looked like an apartment complex for birds, complete with penthouse views.

“I see you’ve met my new tenants,” Uncle Harold said, coming around the house. “They’re called purple martins. They’re one of a few birds that depend on people for their homes, ever since Native American times. Once they feel comfortable they’ll come back every year.”

I gazed at the birds, lost in wonder. They were constantly in motion, flitting about the gourds. Some perched on the utility wire. Others soared high into the air, only to then fold their wings and dive with lightning speed, twisting and turning.

“They’re catching bugs,” Uncle Harold said. “When they’re around I never have to worry about flies. You couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”

I turned back to my work, but I could still hear the martins chattering away. Cherr. Cherr. Cherr. A constant refrain. It was comforting, somehow. Cheerful.

Back home my loneliness returned. Dad tried his best to boost my spirits but it was no use. A cloud hung over me that wouldn’t lift.

Come fall I trudged off to school. The trees lost their leaves. A cold and gray winter was coming on. Uncle Harold’s purple martins were long gone. They left a few weeks after we’d painted his house. Somehow it felt personal.

“They fly to South America, to the Amazon,” Uncle Harold told me when I’d asked where they’d gone. “But don’t worry. Come February they’ll be back. That you can depend on. You just wait and see.”

I’d never known Uncle Harold to be wrong, but I knew better than to count on anything.

One day in January my dad came home from work carrying a bag of... gourds? I must’ve looked confused.

“For the martins,” Dad said. “Why should Uncle Harold have all the fun?”

Together we drilled entrance holes in each gourd, hollowed them out with a knife, then strung wire hangers through the tops. We built a rack from hickory wood. Uncle Harold showed us where to put the elaborate gourd rack in the yard for maximum curb appeal.

“It needs to be away from other trees,” he said. “So the martins have plenty of space to cavort.”

Every day I rushed home from school and stared up at the gourds. Nothing. Not a single passerby. Until one afternoon, standing on the back porch, I heard a familiar sound. Cherr. Cherr. Cherr. Soaring high above the gourds were a half dozen purple birds.

I ran to find Dad. “I’ve got martins! I’ve got martins!”

Soon more martins arrived. I practically lived on the back porch, marveling at how they dipped and dived, gracefully slicing through the air. My backyard was suddenly like a circus. There was always something to see.

The birds weren’t just there to entertain me. They needed me too. I kept a lookout for starlings and sparrows trying to move into the nests. One day I heard a faint peeping noise. A few days later a tiny head peeked out of a gourd.

“I’ve got babies!”

That spring the martins were a constant presence. Busily working. Their cheery calls never failed to lift my spirits.

On the weekends I told Mom all about my birds and their antics. It wasn’t quite the same as having her around all the time, but sharing the martins made her feel like a part of things, even when it was time to go back to Dad’s.

Come summer I grew my own gourds in the backyard for even more martin houses. In late July the martins began to leave. It hurt to see them fly away. What if they don’t come back? I wondered.

“You have to have faith,” Dad said. “Sometimes, when we’re struggling, that’s all we have to fall back on. It’s like angels. Most people never see an angel. But we know the angels never really leave our side.”

I didn’t totally get everything he was saying. But the next year, just like Dad promised, the martins returned with their families.

And they came back again every year after that. They were there the year I started junior high. The year I started high school. They were there when I was 15, the year my mother died.

I came home after the funeral, a miserable, gloomy April day, and sat on the back porch with my head in my hands. The all-too-familiar grief welled up inside of me once more.

Cherr. Cherr. Cherr.

I lifted my head. There were the martins, dipping and diving. They didn’t make the sadness go away. Not that day. And yet I knew–with absolute certainty–that I wasn’t alone. I had Dad. And Uncle Harold. My martins. My angels. And God. Each one of them dependable and ever faithful.

 *  *  *  *

With five more of the fruits at my feet, I held up my hollowed-out gourd–now a perfect purple martin house.

I’d had other hardships in my life since losing my mother. Divorce. Unemployment. Worry. But through it all I’ve been blessed. I had a second marriage, a son I couldn’t be more proud of, a great job–and I still had my martins.

Come February, I knew they would return again. They’re my own little angels. A constant reminder that God is with me. Ever faithful. 

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