Rob and I decided early in our marriage not to have children. We were late bloomers; he was 42 and I had just turned 38. We were happy being a couple without the responsibility of kids or pets.
That all changed when my widowed great-aunt Madeline passed away. Aunt Maddy was my late mother’s aunt; the last time I saw her was 11 years ago at Mom’s funeral.
Last month Aunt Maddy fell while out for her daily walk. She hit her head on a stone wall and suffered a concussion. She lapsed into a coma. When she awoke, she was in a very weakened state and unable to leave her bed. She spent her final days in the house she loved with her caregivers around her. I found out about my great-aunt’s passing when her lawyer contacted me.
Being Aunt Madeline’s only relative, I was named the sole beneficiary in her will. I was in shock when I learned that she left me her Victorian estate in Rhinebeck, New York and the staggering amount of $2,000,000 with the stipulation that I agreed to the terms stated in her will: to immediately take occupancy of the estate and make it my permanent residence, maintain it in the same meticulous manner as she and to take on the responsibility of providing a nurturing home for Frankie and Johnny – Aunt Maddy’s beloved scarlet macaws.
Rob and I lived in a small brownstone in Brooklyn; we didn’t know anything about caring for birds. However, for the incredible amount of money and the gorgeous home I inherited, we would learn. How difficult could it possibly be?
It had always been our dream to manage an art gallery; the closest we came was our photography studio in Battery Park. Now we would be able to pursue our dream in Rhinebeck. In recent years, the once quiet historical town in upstate New York had become a cultural mecca boasting museums, performing arts centers, galleries, etc. We packed our bags and headed north to meet the birds and make Aunt Madeline’s home our home. It was all quite intoxicating and a little bit terrifying.
On the drive upstate, Rob searched for info on scarlet macaws. “Hey, hon. Listen to this” and he read from his phone:
“Scarlet macaws are stunning birds and popular pets.
They are excellent mimics with an average repertoire of 20 to 30 words.
*Hm … that’s kinda cool.*
They use their incredibly loud squawks and screeches to communicate.
These calls are intended to carry over a distance of several miles.
*Miles? Whoa, these are some loud birds!*
Scarlet macaws prefer humid evergreen forests and their diet consists of
nuts, leaves, berries and seeds and weigh about 2 to 3 pounds.
*Good, they don’t eat rodents and they’re lightweights.*
They are the largest parrots in the world with a wingspan of
44 to 47 inches and are 32 to 36 inches long.
The average lifespan of a scarlet macaw in captivity is 75 years.
As Rob read those last couple of lines, his voice got louder until he was shouting.
“Holy crap, Lucy! Did you hear what I said? That last part can’t be right!”
“Yes, Rob. I heard. I think everyone in a five mile radius heard what you said.”
“For Christ’s sake, Luce! These birds have a wingspan of 4 feet. Four feet!”
“It’s not like they’re going to be flying around the house, honey. Besides, Aunt Madeline had them for a long time; they’re probably not going to be around much longer.
“Babe, it says here they can live for 75 years. Let that sink in.”
“You make an excellent point. Well, we’ll just have to be positive about this. Let’s try to relax for the rest of the ride.”
“Oh, I’m positive alright” Rob replied. “I’m positive I’m not gonna like these birds very much.”
And we drove the rest of the way silently obsessing about our new-found knowledge.
As we turned onto the long gravel drive leading to my aunt’s estate, all thoughts of scarlet macaws and 47 inch wing spans vanished. Our new house appeared before us and it was beautiful beyond our dreams. We had seen a lot of Victorian painted ladies in Brooklyn but none were as spectacular as this. We decided to walk around the exterior of the house before going inside; everywhere we looked were weeping willow trees, evergreens and fields of wildflowers. At the rear of the house we came upon a glass-enclosed room – obviously a solarium. The beveled glass was a pale shade of green and there appeared to be large potted palms inside. We inched closer and our jaws dropped; this was the enclosure for the scarlet macaws.
Rob and I stood transfixed; we were looking into our very own Jurassic Park and the two intimidating inhabitants were staring back at us. They were a living Jackson Pollock painting, a startling shock of magnificent colors. They were huge, intimidating and majestic. They didn’t move a muscle and their cold black eyes were locked on us.
“I see you’ve found the birds!”
A voice called out from behind us and we screamed like two little frightened kids. We whirled around to see a tall silver-haired man in an incongruous safari outfit.
“Jeez, man! Don’t ever do that again! You scared the daylights out of us!” Rob shouted.
The man laughed and apologized. “I’m sorry, folks. I thought you heard my Jeep pull up.” He extended his hand and introduced himself as Douglas Farrell, a friend of my late aunt and the manager of the nature center in Kingston. “I wanted to be here when you saw the birds for the first time. Impressive, aren’t they? I figured some explaining would be helpful. Shall we go inside?” and he reached for the large sliding glass door of the aviary.
I noticed the glass panes were hinged and would fold like an accordion when opened. “Hold on a second. Won’t the macaws fly out when you open up the room?”
“I assure you they will not. Please, follow me … and there’s nothing to fear. These scarlet macaws are harmless.”
Douglas slid open the panes and strode inside; the birds were undeterred. Still, with great care Rob and I followed closely behind. When we were within arm’s reach, I whispered in awe “So, this is Frankie and Johnny.”
“Actually, no. It’s not” replied Douglas as calmly as you please. “You see, shortly after your aunt’s accident, there was a delivery of new plants and trees for the aviary. The people from the nursery inadvertently left the glass doors open when they were done. Frankie and Johnny, doing what comes naturally, flew out the large opening, took off into the wild blue yonder and haven’t been seen since. Surprisingly, it’s rather amazing a macaw sighting was never reported; they are not common around here. It was agreed upon by me and everyone who works at the house that, given your aunt’s failing health, it would serve no purpose telling her about her beloved birds. Instead we replaced Frankie and Johnny with life-size versions of the stuffed variety and no one was the wiser.”
Rob and I were dumbfounded and we blinked at Douglas in disbelief, allowing what he just told us to sink in.
“See, I told you an explanation would be helpful. Well, enjoy your new house.” Slapping Rob hard on the back, Douglas climbed into his Jeep and took off, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.
“Well” Rob offered weekly. “One problem solved.”
“From now on this room stays closed just in case Frankie and Johnny decide to make a return visit” I declared.
“You don’t really believe they’re anywhere around here, do you” Rob asked.
“No, of course not” I laughed trying to sound convincing.
We retreated into the house while scouring the skies overhead and closed the doors behind us. With feigned nonchalance, Rob took the key and stuck it in the dirt of one of the potted palms. Rubbing his hands together, he said “And that is the end of that!”
But sometimes at night when it’s very still and quiet, I can almost hear the sound of flapping of giant wings.
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