When I visited my uncle two days ago, before I left I asked him if it was alright if I went to the back room—to my grandmother’s old room— to say hello to her cockatiel, Ponchito. The room now belongs to her beloved bird. My uncle has the large cage propped up high, so that I have to walk up to the top of the stepladder to peer into the cage. The whole house is different. It’s my uncle’s house now.
My grandmother used to speak with Ponchito, whistle to him and blow kisses. Ponchito was shy with me at first, since it had been a while since I went back to visit him. I said, “Hello Ponchito bonito, mi Ponchito bonito.”—Hello pretty Ponchito, my pretty Ponchito.—And I would say it over and over and whistle and kiss. My uncle said if I put my face right up to his cage so that I was practically touching my nose to it, Ponchito would come down; and he did. We were talking back and forth and he was dancing on his stick, side to side. I would turn my head and he would turn his, as though he was looking in a mirror.
Ponchito has outlived his two canary friends and his cockatiel friend. He is now a solo man. All of his body feathers are in tact. His head feathers are missing, so you can see his baldhead and his cheeks. I told my uncle he reminds me of my grandfather because of his bare head, his tough spirit.
Ponchito came into my grandmother’s life by accident. She was merely taking care of him for her niece while she was on vacation. It turned out that when the niece got back from vacation, she didn’t want the bird back because of her busy schedule so my grandmother adopted him.
My uncle and I were trying to figure out how old Ponchito is. We had to base it on how long my grandmother has not been with us, and also how long the niece has no longer been a part of the family. We had to do some family math of what has transpired in between and when we stopped becoming a family. I think that makes Ponchito at least 25 years old, maybe a few years younger. I turned my head from speaking and whistling with Ponchito and said to my uncle, “Ponchito is going to outlive all of us.” We laughed. “Probably so,” he said. There aren’t many of us left and we are split up anyway. It’s difficult when the foundational pieces of a family die—when the only hope of glue to hold them together is gone. I’m all right with it. It has been a reality for many years—too many years. I’ve seen the pillars fall down one by one.
And then I remember when my grandfather was alone and I’d catch him teasing the bird, poking a butter knife through the cage, riling the bird up, making him run back and forth, flapping his wings—running for his life. My grandfather had some peculiar ways about him and looking back, I love him all the more for it. I miss his whiskers scraping against my cheek when I would kiss him hello or goodbye and the smell of Aqua Velva after-shave when he’d shave those whiskers.
Ponchito is quite a bird—quite a cockatiel. He is very much an extension of my grandmother, as he says her words and whistles her whistles, blowing us her kisses. He also has a bit of my grandfather in him too. For all that Ponchito has been through, he is still very much alive and it’s a somewhat surreal feeling to stare into his cage, into his eyes—in my grandmother’s room—hearing her words.