One Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I awoke to the sound of chain saws … never a good thing in my book because it means a tree somewhere is coming down.
It took me a while to determine where the sound was coming from. Then all of a sudden, one of the trees to the west of my apartment disappeared from the horizon. I eventually walked to the end of the block to witness the scene — four trees in all, three hollow and decayed in the center — the perfect place as I would later discover, for finches to make their homes.
The tree guys were really nice. They even saved a log for me and one for my neighbor (who was also fond of the trees) and carried them up the steps to our apartments.
The next day, I awoke not to sound, but to silence. The 10 or 12 little finches who had welcomed each day with a song in the tree outside my kitchen weren’t there. For the past several years, it had become a joyful morning ritual for me; feed my cats and rabbit, put on the coffee, walk outside and sing “Good morning!” as I poured seed into the feeder. The birds even stayed in the tree as I poured! Then, standing at the window, coffee in hand, I watched and listened as my little friends enjoyed their breakfast. Sometimes, I’d sing a song.
“Early each day, to the steps of St. Paul’s the little old bird woman comes. In her own special way to the people she calls, Come buy my bags full of crumbs. Come feed the little birds, show them you care, and you’ll be glad if you do. Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare, all it takes is tuppence from you … Feed the birds, that’s what she cries, while overhead her birds fill the skies …”
I was just a kid when “Mary Poppins” came out in 1964. My family and I went to see it at the drive-in (remember those?). It took me months to be able to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” not a song I found myself singing very often. But this song was. I relearned it after hearing it in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” the story of Walt Disney’s collaboration with P.L. Travers who wrote the book. In the movie, “Feed the Birds” became a metaphor for the transformation of Mr. Banks, a disillusioned father who has forgotten how to laugh.
But for Disney, whose father Elias was a tough, hard-working man who demanded the same of his children-often by force, and Travers, whose father was an idealistic dreamer who loathed his job in a bank and drank himself to death, the metaphor seemed to go much deeper. Both loved their fathers, and perhaps sought redemption for them by choosing to bring the opposite into the world — joy for Disney, and healing for Travers.
Disney’s song-writing team, Bob and Dick Sherman, remembered the first time Walt heard the song. He turned to them and said, “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” He often visited the song-writing room to “see what you boys are up to,” and would inevitably spin his chair, look out the window and say, “Play it.”
In the movie the “little old bird woman” is played by one of Disney’s favorite and most respected actresses, Jane Darnell, known best for her role as Henry Fonda’s mother in the 1940 film “The Grapes of Wrath.” Living in an actors’ retirement home, in her 80s and feeble, Darnell at first declined the role. But in true Disney fashion, Walt drove to the home to plead with her, and, flattered by his insistence, she agreed. It was her last screen appearance.
“Feed the Birds” became a sort of anthem to the act of giving charity, bringing joy and showing kindness. At the dedication of the Walt Disney statue at Disneyland after Walt’s death in 1966, Richard Sherman played the song “just for him.” He was later told that during the song, a single bird flew down from the blue sky to where he was playing, and then back up into the clouds. Sherman was certain it was Disney himself.
This morning as I write this, there have appeared six little birds at my feeder! Magic, or miracle? I’ll just keep singing.