A columnist reflects on the off-center Wisconsinites that make America’s Dairyland a little less flat.
Steve Hannah wasn’t born a Wisconsinite; he became one by choice.
The New Jersey native landed in the Midwest during a cross-country trip, calling off the rest when he got to Chicago and met a Wisconsin woman who would eventually become his wife. She led him to the state he would call home for the next 43 years.
He spent much of that time documenting the cultural and human landscape of Wisconsin, as a reporter and editor for the Milwaukee Journal and a freelance writer. From 1994 to 2006 he wrote “State of Mind,” a syndicated column that was a “weekly self-guided tour of Wisconsin” featuring characters of all stripes from all corners of the state. He’s collected the most memorable of those stories into an anthology, Dairylandia, published in September by the University of Wisconsin Press. Each essay is “bookended by personal stories, the odd moment of self-reflection, and hopefully a little wisdom born of hindsight.”
He still lives along the Wisconsin River in Sauk County, though spends some of the year in Austin, Texas, as well. Our favorite chapter – and “damn near my favorite,” Hannah says – is excerpted here.
A FEW AFTERNOONS EVERY AUTUMN, almost always during the cool, crisp days of October when the gentle green hills across the Wisconsin River are a riot of red and gold, I take a walk along the wooded trail that hugs the shoreline at Sauk City. It is a peaceful place to be serenaded by all manner of birds, some starting their winter trip south, singing from tall trees or hidden in the thicket of growth that lines the riverbank.
There is a laminated plaque on a pedestal at a small turn in the trail. In the center is a photograph of a tiny, smiling, white-haired woman named Edna Koenig. Above her face in boldface it says, simply, The Bird Lady.
I’ve long ago stopped reading the text of the Bird Lady’s tale. I just pause and stare at her face, smile and go on my way. It’s not because I’m not curious about why this woman has a memorial dedicated to her on the river. No, it’s because I had the good fortune of meeting Edna Koenig many years ago – and then again several years after that – and I remember her story well. She is the source of a very sweet, very funny memory.
WHAT I RECALL MOST VIVIDLY about my first trip to the Bird House was a flock of cedar waxwings flying from room to room like the Blue Angels; a pair of mourning doves perched side by side on the mantel, moving their heads in sync, watching the flyby; and roll after roll of paper towels protecting every exposed surface.
I also remember one exceedingly rotund robin that had arrived at the Koenig house years earlier – 14 years, to be exact – for a broken leg. The break was set with a toothpick and healed. Nonetheless, the robin decided to stay. On that day back in the late 1970s, he was perched on a ledge above the kitchen door watching me eat a piece of chocolate cake and scoop of vanilla ice cream that Edna Koenig had graciously served me.
And then, before I knew it, that bird swooped down and landed on my shoulder. The cheeky little beggar wanted a handout.
“His name is Robbie,” said Edna, smiling at her by-now-domesticated feathered friend. “He came here years ago. He never left.”
I was trying to make a living as a freelance writer, and I had been assigned by a Midwestern magazine to write a story about the Victorian house-turned-bird-hospital on a quiet street in Sauk City, Wisconsin. It was owned and operated by an elderly couple who could have stepped out of a Grant Wood portrait – Edna and her charming husband, Henry. They were utterly and totally devoted to those birds. It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon with a matched set of sweet but slightly eccentric human beings. I was happy to have made their acquaintance. When I visited them on that summer day years earlier, the Koenigs told me how they had become the Doctors Dolittle of the bird world. They explained how they had cartons and cartons of mealworms shipped air express from Georgia each and every week, and they estimated how many trees died to provide all that bird-poop protection and how many wounded flyers had been nursed in their emergency ward through the years.
But mostly they talked about Robbie. He could follow their commands. He was affectionate. He sat in Edna’s lap and took a nap. He was smarter than any bird they had ever come across. I was impressed. In fact, if Edna told me that Robbie was launching a hedge fund that fall, I would have written a check on the spot.
“He’s quite a boy,” Edna said with a mother’s pride. “He’s our boy.” It made a nice story, and, given my precarious financial circumstances at the time, I got paid well. (I think it was $250.) As an added benefit, Edna and Henry received lots of mail and more than a few donations from bird lovers who appreciated their efforts.
Years later, I came across Henry’s obituary. Not long after that, when I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop and pay my respects. The plaque announcing the Bird House was still in place. Edna answered the doorbell and invited me inside. She was out of the bird-saving business. Henry’s absence was palpable. And, with all due respect to her late husband, so was Robbie’s.
Edna and I talked about Henry mostly. At one point she insisted I have cake and ice cream – just like that day years earlier – and we sat down at the kitchen table. I remembered old Robbie trying to mooch a bite. I asked – gently, respectfully, the way a person asks a mother about an absent child – “Whatever became of your boy Robbie?”
“He died,” replied Edna. Frankly, I was a little taken aback by the buoyant tone of her voice. I mean, Robbie had been a sort of surrogate child to the Koenigs. And now he was gone, as was Henry. Edna was all alone.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I’m sure you miss him.”
“I do,” replied Edna. Then, just as quickly, she asked, “Would you like to see him?”
“Of course,” I answered.
I figured that, like most serious pet lovers, Edna was about to show me a snapshot of the late, lamented Robbie, maybe from his First Communion or in his graduation gown. I knew I was wrong when she headed for the freezer, pushed a few bags of lima beans and mixed vegetables aside, and withdrew what looked to be a frozen box of Hallmark greeting cards.
She walked over and placed the box ever so gently on the kitchen table next to my cake plate. The top was clear plastic but covered with a crusty layer of frost. Slowly, Edna began to scrape the ice with her fingernails. In an instant, the dignified image of old Robbie, eternally resting on a bed of artificial Easter grass, appeared.
I felt just a tad queasy. I was sure I had seen a weird scene like this in a movie. I figured this sweet little old lady was about to pull a gun and usher me down the basement stairs, where she would put one shot in the nape of my neck and then freeze me, too, simply for the pleasure of my company.
“When he died, I couldn’t bear to part with him,” she explained, looking at the frozen bird lying in repose. “Then, I thought, ‘Why not just freeze him?’ So I did. This way, you know, whenever I want to see him, all I have to do is pull him out of the freezer.”
It was odd, I thought, but I had seen stranger things in my lifetime.
I stared at the box. The frost was quickly turning to little lumps of water. There was Robbie at rest, stiffer than a frozen mackerel. At the time I thought it was pretty peculiar but, a few decades removed, I have decided that it was also sort of sweet. Anyway, you had to concede one thing: Old Man Robbie didn’t look any the worse for wear.
“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Edna asked.
For some reason, her comment immediately brought to mind my late father’s wake. My dad had been a big man diminished by illness. He weighed well over 225 pounds most of his adult life; lying in his silk-lined casket, he might have been 100 pounds. I hardly recognized him.
As I stood in the greeting line next to the casket on the night before my father’s funeral, a long line of people passed by to pay their respects. And what did many of them announce, not knowing what to say at that moment? The same nonsensical thing that people always say in that situation: “He looks good. He looks really good.” Of course, he didn’t look good at all, he looked little and long gone. Yet I completely understood why people would say such a ridiculous thing: They simply didn’t know what else to say.
And so, I instantly strung together a couple of awkward sentences in Edna Koenig’s kitchen that day. “He looks great,” I said. “The guy looks just great.” And the truth was, that dead bird did look pretty good. Cheeky Robbie hadn’t aged a day. I half expected him to get up and go for my cake.
Edna looked pleased.
When I heard awhile later that Edna had died – strange as it seems – I wondered what in the world had become of the robin in a box? Years later I was told that in the diary she kept religiously, she had asked that Robbie be buried with her, but I was not able to nail that down. Like a lot of other mysteries in my life, I guess I’ll never know. But it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit.
WHEN I FIRST WROTE that magazine story about the Bird House, I did what any dutiful son would do: I sent a copy to my mother in New Jersey, who was worried about how her prodigal son was making a living in a place that didn’t have decent – in her considered opinion – cable TV. That was a mistake. My mother, who spent most of her life inhaling cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes while reading detective novels and poetry, had a very peculiar sense of what was and what was not “normal,” one of her favorite words. It didn’t matter that she herself was nobody’s version of normal; in her own mind, she was the universal but unrecognized arbiter of “normal.”
She read the story and called me. “Very nice,” she said from her perch a thousand miles east in the pantry off the old kitchen. “But I’ll tell you one thing – those people are not normal. Especially that old woman who thinks the robin is her child. It’s a bird, not a kid. I’m telling you, that woman is not normal.”
I want to say here and now that I never kept or thought about keeping a deceased pet – robin, dog, cat or goldfish – in the freezer. But if that sweet old Bird Lady derived some degree of comfort from keeping a robin on ice, that’s fine by me, normal or not. She loved birds, and she wasn’t hurting another living soul. Quite the contrary, she devoted her life to helping all small creatures with a beating heart. Plus, who can really explain this thing called love?
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.
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