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'A bird in the hand'

Summer and winter we would only nod in passing, Neighbor and I. You've got to understand us to realize what changed that. Neighbor is fashion-magazine material. Her lovely dark hair dips and waves with flair. Her polished shoes match her purse. At her finger tips the nail polish glows a spectacular red.

I, on the other hand, am the casual, lowheeled, denim type.

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All things considered, it was highly unlikely that anything would bring us together, altering that cool pattern we have maintained for years. But it happened.

Above her white painted wrought iron chairs, covered with bright yellow cushions, Neighbor had hung from the ceiling beam of her porch a basket holding a lovely plant covered with pink blossoms. Leaves and flowers cascaded down exuberantly.

But one day, coming down the street, I noticed that the lush beauty of the plant had turned into a disorganized mess. Leaves were missing. Blossoms -- those that were left -- had a hangdog look. This just did not fit in with my neighbor's scheme of things.

I saw her going to her car and called, "what on earth happened to your handsome plant?"

She beckoned me to come over and took me up to the porch. She carefully lifted the basket off its hook and lowered it. There, tucked into the dirt and roots, was a rather deep and narrow nest.

"I don't believe it!" I exclaimed.

Neighbor and I laughed together. We made lame jokes about building on other people's property.

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Then she went to her shiny car and I headed up my front stairs. But there was a strange new feeling of neighborliness, of having something in common I had not felt before.

wo days later Neighbor called me up.So seldom had I heard her voice over the phone that I didn't recognize it.

"Come see what we've got," she said.

I ran over. Neighbor came out on the porch, stood on a chair and unhooked the basket. She held it so we could see inside. There was an egg: gray-blue-whitish in color with brown spots at one end.

"Look at this! No one sitting on it. It'll get cold," she said with a concern I had not seen before.I felt helpless, and, like her, anxious about the abandoned baby in the shell.

We looked at each other and shook our heads at the thought of the cold-blooded mother who had left her offspring in such a precarious state. Next day Neighbor called again.

"Guess what. Another egg."

Apron still tied around my waist, I hurried over. Sure enough, spotted at one end, like the other, it lay next to its brother. The first egg was apparently not an oversight by its mother.

"Where is she? Have you seen her?"

"I've seen something flitting past, but I've never seen her coming to sit on the eggs."

Neighbor and I chatted. Matrons both, we now also had the eggs in common. It was a good feeling.

Next day the third egg arrived. It lay gleaming dully next to its siblings in that mess of a nest.

"Wally's really worried about them, with nothing but a giddy mother who pops in occasionally to keep them warm," Neighbor confided.

It was apparent that she shared her husband's concern.

"Why don't you call the museum?" I suggested. That would be like sharing the burden, we decided. With the museum in the act, the weighty reponsibility for those eggs would no longer be wholly ours. And by some fluke, Neighbor reached a member of the museum staff who was writing a dissertation on our birds.

"The bird is a house finch," the museum person said. "You may not see them, but the parents are watching you. don't take the basket down from its perch. Chances are that there will be a cat in the neighborhood watching, too."

Her thought was disquieting. Anything happening to our babies? It was unthinkable!

The fifth egg arrived, dull and spotted, like the others.

and then Neighbor called up with great excitement."They've hatched!"

We ran over. Despite the museum's admonitions, Neighbor took down the basket.

They didn't look like much. Just a very quiet bunch of dark, roundish, scruffy-looking little things huddled together. The only movement was their fuzz, ruffling in the breeze.

"Wally's worried they're not getting enough to eat."

We stood there, two women powerlessly worried about our-yet-not-our children. How could anything as vulnerable as those babies make it into the world? But we needn't have worried. About two weeks later I met Neighbor going to her car.

"They all grew up -- all five of them -- and they're gone."

She looked a little sad, I thought. We talked about children leaving home.

But gradually we went back to our old pattern, waving as we passed, but no longer having much in common except the weather. That nest was what both of us needed.

I'm rooting around for a basket to hang next summer. It could mean much more than a bird's nest.

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