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Opinionated Octogenarian 5: The Cuckoo

December 10, 2014

The Cuckoo

Mother, my little sister Gwen, and I went to live with our Nanny after Father died. We were 4 and 6 years old.

Our  Nanny had a cuckoo clock in her kitchen. Perhaps it was a momento from her mother, my Great Grandmother, who was born in Germany and came to America sometime in the 1880s. Nanny’s clock may have been a reminder of the Black Forest from which her mother came. Nanny told a story about her mother. When my sister Gwen and I were naughty, she reminded us how severely her mother dealt with misbehaving, and she showed us the scar on her arm where her mother had placed a hot iron. After several ignored warnings to stay away from the hot iron, her mother picked up the iron and put it on her arm, causing a severe burn that left the scar. If the cuckoo clock was a reminder of her mother, my Nanny was a forgiving person. I would not want to remember that cruel mother.

The clock hung on a remote wall the the large dark kitchen, a small ugly brown house with a door at the top. In that house lived a small brown bird that came out of the door for air and sang a song in a croaky voice, “gung cuckoo, gung cuckoo”. The gung was the sound made by the opening door. Gwen and I could make the sound by clicking the back of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. It’s fun. Try it. “Gung cuckoo, gung cuckoo.”

Chains with pine cones attached to the bottom hung under the house. If Nanny forgot to pull the chains, the little bird would not come out. Sometimes Nanny had to be reminded to pull the chains.

Later, after I could count, I figured the bird sang according to the numbers on the clock. The big hand had to be on the top, a twelve, and the little hand pointing to a number. The bird cuckooed the number. Fascinating, but it took a long time to reach the top, so we pulled over a chair, climbed on it, and pushed the big hand around the clock to the top. Nanny heard us and was angry. “That is naughty. You could break your fool necks,” she scolded. “You are being onery, and I’m going to tell your mother when she gets home from work.” Nanny always forgot to tell on us.

Much later I learned the cuckoo is an onery bird. Cuckoo mothers lay eggs with hard shells, and they deposit the eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo babies hatch before the host’s babies, and the cuckoo baby pushes the host’s unhatched eggs from the next. That is naughty, way beyond onery, and hard to forgive.

Fortunately most cuckoos live in Western Europe and not in the United States. I have never seen a real cuckoo. A real mother would never put her baby in another nest, but sometimes, when we were naughty, mother said she would put us in the White House, the orphanage. Mother’s doctor said she should do that after Father died. The doctor told mother, a pretty young widow, to put us in an orphanage and  to get a life.

Nanny told the doctor, “Marie has a life, her babies.” I bet my Nanny shoved that doctor out the door, and I bet the cuckoo bird in the kitchen sang a lot of “gung-cuckoos.” That doctor was cuckoo too.


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