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“Blue Jay Feathers”

September 1, 2005

Sally Middleton is a North Carolina artist who specializes in wildlife paintings. When I first became familiar with her work, I noticed in almost all of her paintings a single blue jay feather. I knew that there must be a story behind this pattern in her work. Blue jays do not enjoy the best reputation in the world of ornithology. Legend says that on Fridays this raucous bird carries sticks to the Devil to keep the fires of Hell stoked. Why, I wondered, was Sally Middleton so consistent in including a blue jay feather in her paintings?

I later learned the story. One gray day, burdened with family problems and financial concerns, Sally Middleton took a walk in the woods near Ashville, North Carolina. As she walked, a blue jay feather floated down in front of her. She caught it in her hand and took it as a gift of grace. From that day on, the blue jay feather was her personal symbol of hope.

I have told the story many times. I mailed to Sally Middleton a copy of a sermon in which I used her story as an illustration. Her kind response was that the blue jay feather had become a source of hope for many others who treasure her paintings.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a funeral service for a young man who died in a drowning accident during the first month of his senior year in high school. His death, of course, was very difficult for his family, especially for his parents. The funeral service was at a Methodist church filled to overflowing with teenagers, parents, and teachers, as well as family friends. The body was cremated for the committal at a camp where this young man had spent several happy summers.

The committal service was for family and a few close friends only. I was invited to travel to the camp to lead the service at a beautiful spot beside the lake. I had been trying to think of a symbol of hope for the parents and siblings of the young man. As I walked along a path through the woods, I found one blue jay feather and then another. Picking up both feathers, I put them in my Bible. When we arrived at the burial site, a shovel with a stirrup handle had been pushed into the ground behind the simple wood and brass urn containing the ashes. The shovel stood like a marker above the place of interment.

At the gravesite, I read scripture and shared the story of Sally Middleton. I gave both the father and the mother one of the blue jay feathers, suggesting that they might become for them signs of hope. We had a closing prayer including the words of committal. Just as I concluded the prayer, a blue jay squawked, flew through the circle of those gathered, and perched on the handle of the shovel just above the urn. The audible gasp in unison of the assembled mourners gave way to a holy silence. No one made a sound, not even the blue jay. It was a singular moment of quiet reverence.

Later in the week the young man’s mother returned to the camp to place flowers on her son’s grave. As she stood weeping with a friend, she was astonished when a blue jay landed on her shoulder. The bird flew away after a moment or two.

The Camp Ranger gave a logical explanation for the blue jay’s behavior. During the summer, the camp staff had fed peanuts to the blue jay training him to perch on their shoulders. When the camping season ended, the blue jay, unafraid of humans, continued to beg for peanuts whenever they visited his domain. For those parents, the reasonable explanation did nothing to diminish the blue jay and his feathers as symbols of hope.

Emily Dickinson wrote:

“Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul.”

 

So it is.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, September 2005

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