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March 23 • 11:15 AM
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Aunt Beulah's birds


February 20, 2019
Aunt Beulah kept birds. Chickens. Rooted in Appalachia, she could snare a hen and serve it fried within the hour to her husband and five children.

Back in the 1950s, Uncle Charlie fenced in a spacious poultry yard when they lived in Oceana, West Virginia. He painted the henhouse the color of their timbered hillside.

My father, Uncle Charlie's youngest brother by nineteen years, once perceived the farmyard the ideal set to direct his niece to model her new dress and heels before his camera.

The baby of nine children, Dad's siblings obliged his self-appointed role as the family's Cecil B. DeMille. The only child of Alonzo and Laura O'Brien to turn his back on Kentucky and settle in Michigan, Dad usually got his way. And when it came to his home movies, I'm glad of it.

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Otherwise, I'd have little record of my father's family. For the O'Brien clan could be nomadic and forget to preserve genealogy and story.

However, Dad captured countless moving moments and images on hundreds of three-minute reels. Now over sixty years old, that film is rich with kinfolk and their settlements.

I remember with old fear the swinging footbridge that spanned a creek and led to the front porch of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah's house. Yet, there's joy in my aunt's voice as she sits upon the steps. She honked a birdlike laugh.

Seven years later in the summer of 1963, Dad announced Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah had moved to Kansas City. Mom packed his 1959 two-tone green Dodge for our vacation. Like a dope, I put my 45 of Stevie Wonder's Fingertips in the back window and pouted all the way to Kansas. Why did we have to go to a boring ole city instead of Peter Creek? I couldn't imagine summer vacation without my McCoy cousins.

Dad didn't say his brother and sister-in-law lived in a house perched on a hill in the middle of a graveyard. My uncle had enough of the coalmines and found a job as caretaker of Mt. Hope Cemetery in Kansas City. The work above ground suited Uncle Charlie, a kind and physically strong man. He traded his pickaxe for a shovel.

Aunt Beulah kept a myna bird instead of chickens. In effort to awake her teenage son for work in the morning, she taught the bird to say, "Kyle! Wake up!" and, "Kyle! You'll be late for work!" The bird called Kyle's name all morning until he appeared for breakfast, or Aunt Beulah capitulated and covered the cage with a towel.

Oddly enough, Dad didn't take one reel of film during our vacation in Mt. Hope Cemetery. There are no movies of the hours my sisters and I played tag with our cute cousin Kyle around gravestones and under mature shade trees.

Yet, I can still see Dad standing before Aunt Beulah's myna bird, the loyal creature that refused to repeat one word my father said, no matter his effort.

Dear Reader, it took a talking bird to show the O'Brien baby who's boss.

Email Iris at irisleeu@sbcglobal.net.

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