Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Vanessa MacLeod, the protagonist of Margaret Laurence’s story “A Bird in the House,” is twelve—that profoundly disturbing bridge year between childhood and adolescence. The story opens on Remembrance Day (the Canadian version of Memorial Day), when Vanessa has refused to accompany her family to the Remembrance Day parade and the quasi-religious service that follows. She recognizes that this day has a profound significance for her grandmother, particularly, because it recalls Vanessa’s Uncle Roderick who died in the war. But Vanessa herself has nothing to remember, and the sight of men her father’s age dressed up in the military uniforms of their youth seems hopelessly ridiculous.
It is not until she realizes with a shock that her father actually witnessed his younger brother’s death that anything of the significance of Remembrance Day comes to her. She still has nothing to remember, but suddenly she has something to imagine: “He had to watch his own brother die, not in the antiseptic calm of some hospital, but out in the open, the stretches of mud I had seen in his snapshots. he would not have known what to do. He would just have had to stand there and look at it, whatever that might mean.” Thus, in a brief epiphany, Vanessa receives her first intimation of death.
When she accompanies her father to church, she looks at him: “He was frowning deeply, and I could see the pulse in his temple. I wondered what he believed. I did not have any real idea what it might be. When he raised his head, he did not look uplifted or anything like that. He merely looked tired.” On the way home, she asks him if he believes in “Heaven and Hell, and like that.” He does not have a ready answer: “Well, I don’t know. I don’t think they are actual places. Maybe they stand for something that happens all the time here, or else doesn’t happen. It’s kind of hard to explain. I guess I’m not so good at explanations.”
What Dr. MacLeod is trying to explain, of course, is that to him Heaven is a state of mind, or rather a state of soul; as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” His answer dismisses Heaven as a condition of immortality and places it soundly within the sphere of the here and now. But Vanessa has sensed that the here and now will soon not be enough; she does not know precisely what she’s asking her father, but she knows her father’s answer isn’t any kind of answer at all.
In the secret way children have of knowing things, Vanessa anticipates the brevity of her father’s life. When she finally loses him to a freak illness, she grieves wildly, yet gradually comes to see his absence primarily in the way it changes her own life, rather than in the fact that she’s lost a bastion of comradeship and support. Even though she clearly loved him and he just as clearly loved her, she does not recognize that he may have been the only person in the house who was completely “in her court.”
As she grows, the raw, gaping wound of her grief heals. But it is reopened five years later when she discovers a love letter from a young French girl to her father. At the time she finds the letter, she is, in her words, “seventeen and in love with an airman who did not love me, and desperately anxious to get away from Manawaka and from my grandfather’s house.” She cannot read the letter because it is in French, but the photo of the girl is pretty in an old-fashioned way, and Vanessa “hoped she had meant some momentary and unexpected freedom.” She recalls that on the day of the Remembrance Day parade so long ago, her father had told her that the war hadn’t been entirely bad; his youth, after all, had been bound up in that war, and with it some bittersweet memories: “None of us had ever been away from Manawaka before…. It was kind of interesting to see a few other places for a change.” Vanessa suddenly realizes that her father would have understood her, had understood her, in a way no one else ever has. She suddenly feels, as keenly as if he had died yesterday, all the possibilities of things she might have discussed with him—things he might have shared with her, had they time—but they did not. She lost him too early, and now that she’s grown into a spirit so much like his own, that loss is almost too much to bear.
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