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The Commute


Fri, Jun 15th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, June 18, 2001

People who commute to the big city, in my case Rochester, often have the opportunity to run big city errands for the ones they love. I recently had the chance to pick up a canary and canary equipment at a pet store in Rochester for some Fillmore County folks. The drive home, with the occasional fluttering of wings coming from the small box in the passenger seat, gave me a chance to think about birds. And my father.

Fifteen years ago I rented a large house in the small town of Madelia, Minnesota, and commuted 25 miles to Mankato to work on my degree. My parents lived 30 miles away, and my father was still the man in my life when it came to emergencies. Not that there were many emergencies. I worked hard to maintain at least an image of independence.


To be honest, my father wasn’t known for his handyman skills anyway. He was tender-hearted, helpful, and had a finely tuned sense of humor, which he tended to use whenever he felt anxious. He more than made up for not being a Mr. Fix-it with his other qualities.

But my move to Madelia came at a time when Dad was considering retirement, and maybe he thought becoming more of a handyman would make retirement bearable. For whatever reason, and to my surprise, he started calling me once in awhile. He’d say things like "You really ought to trim the winter kill off that shrubbery." Or , "I noticed you have a cupboard door that won’t close." Or, "I could give that Lawnboy a once over and show you how to mix the gas and oil." Each time, he just happened to have a holiday from work, or was taking an experimental "day off" in preparation for the inevitable retirement. "I’ve got some time," he’d say. "I could stop over."

This was such a strange, new development in my relationship with my father, but I’m glad I didn’t question it. He never actually "fixed" anything: the shrubbery he trimmed died a week later, he forgot to close the bottom drain on the Lawnboy so I was able to mow ten feet of grass before it quit, and the cupboard door never did close. But in between and during these mishaps, we had some of the best conversations we’d ever had.

There was one time that I sought his help in an "emergency," and it involved a bird. A sparrow had found its way down the old chimney and into my fireplace. I unwittingly let it out while trying to prove to my two cats that there was nothing in there. After about an hour of highly charged activity, the cats and I managed to shoo the bird out the front door. What a relief! (I have a slight bird phobia. Okay, more than slight. But I really love birds—from a distance.) Unfortunately, we had to repeat the whole ordeal an hour later when the bird came down the chimney again.

It was with dread that I noticed the next morning that the cats were once again standing and pointing like spaniels into the glass doors of the fireplace. Did this bird have a death wish, or just enjoy being chased around the inside of a house by two overweight cats and a screaming woman?

Without hesitating, I called Dad. I had at least a glimmer of self-awareness back then and I knew I didn’t have whatever it would take to either skillfully remove the bird myself, or let it die a slow death while my cats watched.

Dad came after work. He’d brought along the proper equipment—a paper grocery bag. I was quietly impressed as he reached an arm into the fireplace, gently picked up the brown bird, and placed it in the sack. My heart soared as we walked to the door together. I pictured my dad opening the bag to let the little sparrow fly off into the heavens. I would stand nearby and maybe cry, "Be free!"

Instead, Dad turned toward me from out on the porch and said, a little nervously, "Now for the coup de grace!"

While my brain struggled to remember the meaning of "coup de grace", Dad removed the bird from the sack and wrung its neck.

"Where would you like the corpus delicti?" he said importantly, without looking up. Dad was an intelligent man—not a showy kind of intelligence, but the kind that sneaks up and surprises you. I know it pleased him to say "corpus delicti." But then he saw my shocked face. "Sorry," he said. He seemed so sad that I was sad. He looked like he was about to hug me, but then remembered the dead bird in his hand, and didn’t.

"It would have just found its way back inside," he explained.

"I know," I squeaked. I hadn’t known, but wanted him to think I did.


Later that summer, we had a Fourth of July picnic at my house. Before getting in the car with Mom to leave, Dad put his arm around me and said, "We should appreciate these times when we’re all together. We never know whether we’ll all still be here next year."

I don’t remember, but I’m sure I rolled my eyes and said, "Oh, Dad!" He was always saying goofy things like that.

The next year, when the Fourth of July rolled around, Dad was the one who was no longer there.


This is to all the Dads who work too hard, change the oil and trim the shrubbery. From all the daughters with birds in their fireplaces, who call their dads when their cars won’t start and cupboards won’t close—Happy Father’s Day.Bonnie Prinsen

Bonnie Prinsen of Rushford is a regular contributor to the Journal. In real life she teaches English Composition at RCTC.

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