When I was little, my grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived in a two-story, white house in Central Village, Connecticut. The house sat right on the street with a railroad track just on the other side. When the trains came, you swore they would go right through the house. I remember that sound. I remember that feeling. As I loved trains, I always thought it a wonderful feeling. The only other good thing I remember from there was my grandmother. My grandparents were French-Canadian, Gagñon. My grandmother was called Mémé. She loved me. I knew she did. She was the only one. I remember one day, I was three or four, playing by the train track, alone. Apparently I disturbed a bee, and was stung on my bare foot. I remember running into the house, crying, and my Mémé scooped me up into her arms and sat in her rocking chair, and rocked with me, holding me close, and comforting me. I felt loved. She died a short time later. They didn’t let me go to her funeral. I never got to say goodbye, and I never felt loved again.
My mother often told me “Nobody loves you. Everybody hates you.” She would say I was good for nothing, and nothing but “a millstone around our necks”. She also told me I was responsible for all the ills of the world – and somehow even “the price of tea in China” was my fault. I never understood if there was in fact something bad about the price of tea in China, or how I could possibly have affected that. But somehow, I supposed that I had. Given that I was autistic, there were plenty of bullies throughout my life who bore out my mother’s words. They called me names, hit me, kicked me, broke my things, stole from me, terrorized me incessantly – and suggested I should die. I thought about dying. Sometimes it seemed like the best answer. But I was afraid. My mother had said that among the “nobody” who could love me – was God. So if God didn’t love me, and I died… that would not be a good thing. I was afraid of what might happen if I died. So I was afraid to die.
After my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I spent her last years waiting and hoping to hear something loving from her, a good word… but then she was gone. My father lived almost three years beyond her, and again I waited, and again I hoped. But when he died, my hopes died with him. I began considering suicide. It seemed that there was no place on this earth for me, no hope that I might see someone who wanted me, who cared that I was there.
A few years prior I had accidentally fallen into the pastime of birdwatching. I had been sitting in the living room of my parent’s Tampa pond-front home, early on a spring morning. As my husband’s job was seven hours away, I soon would be making that long drive home, only to turn around and come back down to Tampa on Monday. I had been looking sadly out the window, trying not to think about my mother’s illness, spending so much time away from my husband, or the job I had at that point, which I really did not enjoy.
There were birds flying in and out, and I absently picked up a “Florida Birding” book from on the ottoman in front of me. A bird flew in, and I paged through the book to find it. A Great Blue Heron… I had always loved all animals, including birds, but admittedly knew very little about them. Another bird flew in, and again I looked it up, and then another, and another. By then my mother was up and about, and I said, “You have a lot of birds here.” But I had doubts as to whether you could find very many of all of those species listed in the book. But over the next hour or so, as one bird after another flew in, I found that I had identified twenty-five different species of birds – sitting indoors looking out the window. I was rather hooked.
Over the years after that, I ranged all over the US to find birds. It kept me occupied, allayed the sadness. After my father died – when I hit my lowest, I realized that I had to find positive things in my life that would counter the pain, and would help me to find enough happiness to battle the sadness that had overtaken me. I began to take pictures of birds, and then of other things, and in the attempt to photograph my surroundings I became again more keenly aware of how much I enjoyed the outdoors, and how beautiful things were.
Early in my birding excursions, I coined the term “feather presents”, which originally referred to those momentary gifts at the discovery of a new bird, or in watching birds do things that were cute and endearing. Over time the term expanded in scope, to include all of the bits of joy and excitement provided by those often small occasions and moments in life which bring us pleasure. As I paid more attention, I realized that there were feather presents all around me, and that as much as I had always credited myself with being highly observant, I had been so lost in my misery to be able to fully enjoy them. Once that realization hit me, it seemed that the more I looked, the more “feather presents” were there to be found. And as I found them, not only did the sadness wane, but I found a purpose in my realization – to share that understanding with others.
I had always loved people, but given my autism, and my mother’s admonitions of being unloved, I actually didn’t feel like “a people”, and did not believe I belonged among them. However, as the feather presents I was finding peeled away those layers of hurt, I began to create inspirational posters with my photographs. As I began to create my posters, a common theme developed, followed by the awareness that what that commonality was, in fact, was love. That love I had discovered for my surroundings, for the birds, for nature, and eventually then in the realization that no matter my mother’s words, no matter the bullies, that in reality people had always been a great source of joy for me, despite all the fears I had of them.
I have seen those memes that say that it is not what happens in your life, but rather your attitude towards what is happening that matters, and although it is such an oversimplification of what can be and is often a rather difficult reality – there is truth in those words. As I had sadly experienced for so many years, life can be hard, and full of difficulties – but it is also always full of beauty, and wonder, and love. And although I continue to find it difficult to see that I am in fact loved, I continue to build on the truth I know without question – and that is that I love. I love so many things in the world. I love the beauty of nature, I love animals, I love people. I love – with difficulty sometimes – me. At the least I love the love in my heart. And on that foundation, I build.
Life is full of feather presents. They are everywhere around us… even inside us. We just need to look – sometimes look hard – to see them, to notice them, to appreciate them, to be grateful for them, to love them.
Jean Williams is a 62-year-old, autistic woman. A career in Software Engineering for over 30 years left her sadly unfulfilled and wishing to believe that there was something more she could give to the world. Hoping to be a late bloomer, she has begun to create inspirational posters, which she shares on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, including on her Facebook Page, “Feather Presents”. In addition, she has just self-published her fourth book. Even with the realization that her writing “talents” may still be in need of refinement, she shares her experiences with that hope that her thoughts and her heart might touch people.