The Egg Man
Andrew Blevins | Essays
“A neat example of a psychical system shut off from the stimuli of the external world, and able to satisfy even its nutritional requirements autistically . . . is afforded by a bird’s egg with its food supply enclosed in its shell.”
— Freud, “Formulation on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning”
I had been home for less than an hour when my dad asked to show me something in the garage. I followed him into what used to be the music room—a room he had built himself, at one time the practice space of a few short-lived high school bands. In the corner, where the drum set used to be, there were now shelves. On the shelves were bird eggs. My dad was showing me the shelves, not the eggs, which were not new to me. The eggs were the creations of my grandfather, a former Southern Baptist preacher named C.E. Blevins, who toward the end of his long life had made more than 20,000, each one a painstaking mimicry of the eggs of an actual species. Hand-painted and hand-turned, the ceramic sculptures were lifelike enough that people who saw them tended to mistake them for real. My grandfather had initially sold them through a catalog, marketing them as Avian Jewels. He’d made a little money this way, but his ambitions for the project had always been out of proportion with its reception. Long after it had become clear that few people had much to say about the bird eggs—or long after it would have become clear, to a different sort of person—C.E. had continued to produce them anyway, carefully organizing specimens into hundreds of cubbies in his basement workshop.
Occasionally a local newspaper would run a slightly bewildered profile of the “Egg Man of Cohutta”—largely, I think, because of how insistently he contacted them. The truth was that even among neighbors, the project was and remained obscure.
C.E. had also been an art teacher earlier in life, and he said that he wanted to let children see what eggs looked like up close without disturbing the birds. He also claimed that encouragement for the project had come directly from God. As he was lying in bed one night, thinking about how he could make eggs that were durable, lifelike, and mass-producible, a high-pitched, nasally voice had spoken very softly into his right ear. “Anyone who can learn to teach fifth graders how to make art,” it had said, “can find a way to make these bird eggs.” He would always find it significant that when he lost his hearing a few years later, the ear God had spoken into was the first to go. Shortly after the visitation he developed a solution, which he called the “Symmetricizer”: a vertical vacuum tube which suctioned the clay into place and spun it, at an adjustable speed, allowing him to round the edges to perfection with a wad of steel wool. It was a process my brother and I were forced to watch many times when we were young, with C.E. seeming to forget, each time, that he’d shown us already. He would stop us at the top of the spiral staircase that led down to the basement and make us swear not to tell anyone what we were about to see—a request I found insulting. It was my suspicion that he was playing a trick on us, trying to imbue his dull workshop with the thrill of an arms race or a spy mission, as if somewhere, in other basements, fevered craftsmen were scheming over similar designs. It was only recently, talking to my dad, that I realized how earnest C.E.’s paranoia had been.
When he was in his early eighties, the work became too draining for him to continue. That would have been the end of the bird eggs—everyone in the family certainly expected it to be—but my dad, who until then had never shown much interest in his father’s work, made a surprising choice. He decided to create a museum for my grandfather’s work, in the nearby tiny town of Cohutta. He would run the museum for nearly a decade, until shortly after my grandfather’s death in 2012. It was called the C.E. Blevins Avian Learning Center—or more often, in conversation, the Bird Egg Museum. When it closed in 2014, my dad was left with a difficult decision: What would he do with the eggs now?
A few months before my visit home, he had elicited some interest in the collection from a privately owned wildlife preserve near Chattanooga, whose board of directors had promised him space in one of their display rooms. I had happened to be home from New York when the relocation occurred, and had driven with my mom to help unload the boxes—hand-drawn posters of avian reproductive tracts, nests both real and recreated, and case upon case of eggs. When we were finished, my mom and I drove home with the windows rolled down. We bought ice cream at a gas station. It was a warm spring day and our mood, although neither of us said so, was celebratory. It was finally over.
Or so it had seemed. And yet here, in the garage, were the eggs. The board, my dad explained, had left the eggs in the boxes we had brought them in while they applied for a grant to fund the installation. My dad had spent years applying for grants without success, and didn’t believe the money would come. Finally, without asking anyone’s permission, he had loaded the eggs back into his truck and shuttled them home. He would make the shelves himself, he decided. Having recently retired from a forty-year carpentry career, he had both the skill and the time.
As he directed my attention to one of the shelves, where he had already glued a row of eggs down, I nodded and made sounds of approval. But I could already tell that I would soon feel guilty about the way I was handling the conversation. The shelves were beautifully crafted, but because of their contents, I was uncomfortable expressing more than a minimum of interest. My father’s fixation was even deeper than I had thought, and I was wary of feeding it.
Over the years I had benefited in my own way from the story of the museum, and my grandfather’s obsession. It made a good story at parties, on dates. It was the kind of thing no one could make up, and in some ways I always liked what the story implied about me, as the descendant of an unsung, prolific, “visionary” folk artist—a kind of figure easy to romanticize from afar. Now, looking at the eggs again after a long absence, I was realizing that my own feelings about them and the museum were muddled by years of uncritical compliance, as well as unexamined resentment of a grandfather I’d barely known. I started to wonder whether there might not be hereditary factors at play, things I needed in the most practical way to know about. I already knew my family had a high prevalence of mental illness. Now I imagined an unlit fuse of ancestral monomania deep in my subconscious, a fuse that might someday be sparked unexpectedly by the call of a thrush, the cracking of an omelet. With the anxiety of a son who had watched his dad transform from a bewildered observer of his own father’s obsession into its sole impassioned advocate, I decided to investigate. I had learned that an obsession rarely just happens to one person. An obsession, a real one, is like a vortex. It sucks in everything—materials, ideas, buildings—and the people it doesn’t wreck or repulse end up adjusting to the pull until they can no longer feel it at all. What an obsession wants is to bring everything swirling around itself forever.
I began this project over a year ago.
• • •
My dad made a large portion of his income by flipping houses on the real estate market. That was his intention when, in 2000, he bought the building that would become the museum. It was white, cinder-block-industrial, low and ugly, on a patch of land impenetrable with kudzu, an invasive vine almost impossible to kill. To get there from our house, you drove half an hour down winding country roads—past chicken houses, the county voting precinct, and a church day-care with a sign ominously advertising SLOTS OPEN—and arrived on the main and only drag of the kind of tiny Southern town for which the word “quaint” must have been invented: Cohutta, GA—population 582.
Two owners ago, before nearby Dalton (“Carpet Capital of the World”) had siphoned off Cohutta’s last trickle of industry, the building had been a processing plant for rabbits. That is, for processing rabbits; in some rooms the floor sloped down into drains for collecting blood. When the plant had closed, a local hippie bought and converted it into its spiritual antithesis, a wholesale vegetarian food distributorship named The Love Burger. That had not lasted long, and the owner moved on to literary pursuits. Boxes of his self-published romance novel, There Is a Tomorrow (on its cover a giant rainbow piercing Earth), were still in the walk-in closet when I visited for the first time. The next-door neighbor owned hogs, but not a fence, so they would escape occasionally to irritate neighbors or tangle with the stray dogs that wandered up and down the road. A woman across the street kept a hundred caged parakeets in a house not much larger than a trailer. Up the hill, a man lived in a geodesic dome surrounded by bamboo and marijuana. He liked to carve flutes out of the bamboo and play them on home-recorded albums with titles like Bamboo Rain and Secrets of Bamboo.
My mom resisted the purchase, reasonably enough. I heard them arguing about it during their daily porch sessions. My dad listened, argued his case, but the decision was finally his to make. Six years earlier, the children’s clothing company where my mom had worked as a designer had outsourced her job to China, and since then my dad had been the sole earner. He was optimistic. Real estate seemed to be booming, and he was sure the property was undervalued. It wasn’t so much that he was wrong, as that his prediction and its eventual realization would bracket the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Two years passed without a serious offer, and the situation looked bleak. Cohutta was a bad place to start a business—the mayor himself had told my dad that it would never grow—and the building was even harder to pitch as a residence, what with the blood drains and cave crickets and general disrepair. The place needed new ceilings, new sheetrock, a new air conditioning system; there were trees to plant, walls to repaint, wires and pipes to replace. But the biggest obstacle was the kudzu. For years my dad waged an admirable war of attrition against that vast underground root system; he mowed every Sunday, exhausting lawnmowers and tractors, ignoring the ubiquitous middle-aged men in pickup trucks who would stop by to tell him about their own failed skirmishes against the vine. The property had come to seem like a curse he couldn’t shake. More fittingly than they could have known, he and my mom began calling it his Albatross.
By this time, my cousin Zach had taken an unforeseen interest in my grandfather’s egg project. He had become a kind of apprentice to C.E., at a time when even my dad still saw the eggs as fairly inconsequential. Pretty—yes. Arrayed in cases, they made attractive bookends, yes. The individual eggs, however, seemed to belong more than anything to the category of things you came across in drawers while looking for a roll of tape. Zach—who famously read There is a Tomorrow cover to cover and had only nice things to say about it—felt differently, and still does. When I told him recently what I was writing about, he seemed genuinely thrilled, and spoke of our grandfather with an unmitigated admiration that made me feel mean-spirited, like there must have been something important that I’d missed. He’s in his early forties now, and I’m twenty-six, so his sense of the man is grounded in an extra fifteen years of knowing him. C.E. was so delighted by Zach’s involvement that he bestowed on him the title Head of Nesting. It was only when my dad saw the work Zach had been making that he became convinced of the project’s worth.
When I asked my dad last spring to explain how the idea for the museum had developed, he was eager to emphasize that the need had been mutual. Sure, C.E. had a basement overflowing with eggs, an unfulfilled yearning for recognition, and dwindling time, but my father, with the Albatross around his neck, was also desperate. “It was financial for both of us,” he said. “It wasn’t just about loving bird eggs.” He has a way of nodding when he wants you to accept what he’s saying, a kind of agreement via mirror neuron. As someone familiar with the cramped and roundabout channels through which love between men is constrained to flow in the American South, I believed not that my dad was lying—nor that it had been “just about loving bird eggs”—but that perhaps he was using money as a smokescreen for a desire he found awkward to admit. I felt confirmed in this later in our conversation when he made a reference to the movie Nebraska, which he summed up as “Last chance to help your dad.”
The show of devotion must have been just as awkward for C.E., who had never been the most paternal of patriarchs. To hear my dad and his siblings tell the story of their childhood, half of it took place in a church pew, playing games to stave off boredom, and the other half in the back seat of the station wagon as C.E. drove the family to some out-of-state preaching gig. The stories they tell tend to revolve around an almost legendary cheapness. How he used to run out of gas because he wouldn’t stop until he’d found the cheapest station in town. The time he found a dumpster full of some other family’s portraits, printed on styrofoam, and used them to insulate the attic. When the Blevins children went to the bathroom during dinner, they took their plates with them; C.E. was hungry. “Son,” one of his favorite sayings went (and my dad had repeated it to me, with a layer of sarcasm), “I’d give you money, but I wouldn’t want to be a burden to you in my old age.” It’s possible that the museum presented itself as a loophole, a way for C.E. to give aid without breaking character. Or maybe he just wanted a monument. Either way, he poured a substantial amount of his retirement savings into the project, enough to get my dad back on his feet.
My dad remembered stopping by his parents’ house after work around this time, soon after a biology professor at a local university had given C.E. an important commission. He had been asked to make 1,800 mockingbird eggs—mint blue and the size of a thimble—to be included in visitor gift bags at a biology conference. Dad found C.E. in his workshop, which was dimly lit and scattered from end to end with art supplies. C.E. sat in a hard-backed chair, painting. “One egg at a time,” my dad said, “with a sponge and some paint and a brush. He would pick up an egg, paint it, put it on a drying table. Pick up another one, paint it, put it on a drying table.” Next to him was a wheelbarrow already containing hundreds of mockingbird eggs. “It was then,” my dad said, “that I realized I couldn’t tell whether this project was killing Dad or keeping him alive.”
• • •
What I remember most clearly about my grandfather is the feeling of being cornered by him. During family gatherings at his and my grandmother’s house, he could pull this off without leaving his armchair. I don’t know how many times I stood in that living room and nodded, my eyes wandering among the African artifacts that lined the walls, and waited to be rescued by one of my parents—more often my mother—while C.E. ticked off each item in a sort of litany that began with a generic question about school (the answer to which he barely registered), then proceeded to a recollection of his own sparkling academic achievements (class president, valedictorian), wandered from there to other exploits, perhaps an estimation of how many people he and my grandmother, Laura Comfort Blevins, had “saved” when they were missionaries in Zambia (a hundred, he once told me, in a single revival), and arrived inevitably at a joke, always the same joke, in which an old man tells his wife of fifty years that he’s proud of her, and the deaf old woman turns to her husband and says, “Yeah, you old coot, I’m tired of you too.” It was hard for me not to see this joke as being about him and my grandmother, the most unapologetically tired person I’ve ever known—a woman who would inform strangers within five minutes of conversation that her mother had died of cancer when she was two years old. I very rarely saw the pair speak to each other, and they slept in separate rooms, allegedly because they couldn’t agree on whether to allow Laura’s six cats to climb on the bed.
Having run out of things to brag about, C.E. would take a bluebird or killdeer egg from his pocket and hurl it to the hardwood floor. “See?” he would say, oblivious to the startling noise. “You can’t break them.” Then, picking up the egg and handing it to me, he would adopt a warning tone: “You must not put these in your mouth.”He was a tall, crane-like man, and even in gardening clothes he looked the part of a reverend. In youthful photos he seems contemplative and unworldly, not unhandsome but a little goofy—eyes slightly unfocused, fine brown hair. By the time I met him, tributaries of veins ran along the sides of his nose and he wore thick bifocals and hearing aids that didn’t work. In my mind he is constantly shaking his head and exclaiming. “How about that?” he’d say, or simply, “Well!” It was as if for him too, life just kept on handing him little presents and he was too polite to ask what they were for. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard of who wrote his own obituary—he said he wanted to be sure nothing was left out. A similar anxiety may have motivated the writing of his six-hundred-page autobiography, Remembilia (his own coinage, combining “remembrance” and “memorabilia”), which he drafted while he was a missionary in Zambia in the late eighties. He wrote the book for his descendants, but to my knowledge no one has ever made it all the way through this manuscript. I recently fished it out of a cabinet at my parents’ house, and within a few pages I knew why. To give you a sense of the pacing, C.E. is born on page 23.
I’ll preface this brief exegesis by saying that the book was disappointing to me, although it contained much of what I’d been looking for. His obsession with eggs, for instance, was abundantly foreshadowed, for example, by his boyhood fascination with marbles (the more common clay ones were known as “peedabs,” and they were never round enough for his liking), by his family’s practice of collecting the eggs of the farm’s ducks and guinea hens, by the early praise he received as an artist and the biology and ornithology courses he took in college. It all fit together, even a little too nicely. What I was frustrated not to find was something I hadn’t known I was searching for, and which had nothing to do with eggs: it was a sense of depth, or awareness, or philosophy, or maybe, if I’m being honest, simply unhappiness. This was a man who had narrowly survived brutal poverty and a world war, and yet the story of his life read much like a child’s report of a summer vacation, and exhibited the prideful piousness of a much younger man. I should have predicted as much from someone who, as I’d learned from my father, had quit a lucrative college teaching job because they served alcohol at a faculty party—a man who had invented his own set of words to circumvent the sin of cursing: “frep” in place of shit, “coose-a-nagle-boogle-doogle” as a general expression of surprise.
Nevertheless, the book had a deromanticizing effect, even as it described a life I could barely imagine. C.E. spent his most formative years in Robbins, Tennessee, a region of rolling hills on the Cumberland Plateau (about 140 miles north of Apison, where he finally ended up) whose three major industries consisted of lumberjacking, coal mining, and bootlegging. Born in 1924 as Cleatis Edral Blevins—a name he would become ashamed of and shorten to C.E.—he was the sixth of nine children, one of whom would die immediately after birth, and one of six brothers, all but one of whom would become ministers. His father, Shade (short for Shadrach) Howard, worked as a broom pusher at a Ford plant in Detroit, and was often away during the early years. He, Cleatis, was closer with his mother, Ella Shoemaker, a devout churchgoer and a deep appreciator of nature. In one of C.E.’s earliest recorded memories, Ella would spot a bird’s nest and tell him which nearby tree he could climb to see down into it. The eggs inside were, as he would much later tell a reporter for the Dalton Daily-Citizen, “the most beautiful things you could see.”
When he was seven, the family moved one hundred miles southwest to a clapboard house on a farm in the Sequatchie Valley, where they became sharecroppers. Shade had “felt the tremors of the 1929 depressions shaking the world,” C.E. writes, and quit his job in anticipation of being laid off. Later, almost as an afterthought, C.E. mentions:
Another reason that led us away from Robbins was that Dad had run for a petty political office in Scott County [where Robbins was located] and was soundly beaten. During the electioneering, he made a promise: “If I don’t have enough friends to elect me, I’ll leave the country!” [“He said the coundry,” reads the margin.] Dad has always been good at keeping his promises!
This rare note of sarcasm is followed by a more cryptic statement:
Let me slip in another reason, albeit may be disputable. Dad seemed glad to skirt his unfortunate and sad childhood. In those days, kinfolks seemed to love to visit their disappointment upon the children.
I don’t know what misfortune or abuse C.E. was alluding to. I do know that Shade was a bastard, as people said then, an illegitimate child—a real mark of shame at that time, and maybe a clue to his disgrace as a politician. He was also poor, which wouldn’t have helped. In a moment of vulnerability, C.E. remembers the shame he felt when the family’s first motorized vehicle, a barely-working Chevrolet “peddling truck,” lost one of its wood-spoked wheels on a dusty gravel road. “There we stayed most of the day trying to get the tire patched,” he writes, “with little to do it with except plenty of nothing else to do. I remember being embarrassed and feeling really poor as vehicles with motors and animals passed us up going both ways and everybody looking.” Later C.E. would “marry up,” as he puts it, attend college on the G.I. Bill for Navy service, and earn two masters degrees, one in divinity and another in English literature. But he received his primary education in a one-room schoolhouse, and lived amid the rifle shots of moonshiner’s feuds, one of which took the lives of three of his cousins in as many months. The sense of rural isolation in these early pages was infectious. My skin prickled when I read about C.E.’s first encounter with a radio, which his teacher brought to class one day. The first broadcast they picked up was in German. It was Adolf Hitler, C.E. recalls, speaking from across the ocean. (C.E. would later become a radioman during World War II, decrypting naval signals on a destroyer.)
The family had food, but not enough money for winter clothes. C.E. once wrote to Santa, care of Sears & Roebuck, “I sure would like to have a new cap because I was playing in the hog lot one day and hung my winter cap up on a bush and the hogs ate it up.” He was mortified when the catalog printed the request. He saw his beloved older sister Mabel die of tuberculosis when she was just a teenager, shortly after she defied her parents and married a young man—“well-dressed,” as C.E. describes him, but with “the oddest eyes”—whose family turned out to be infected with the disease.
In the face of death and deprivation, it’s unsurprising that C.E. took refuge in his mother’s old-time religion. C.E.’s commitment to Southern Baptist theology seems to have developed without hesitation or doubt, or none that he’s willing to record. Religion gave him identity and moral purpose, although there are moments when his theology seems a little threadbare. One revealing anecdote: Sometime in the seventies (he would have been close to fifty), when C.E. was out searching for Native American artifacts with family friends named the Blaylocks, Doyle Blaylock pried up a rock that C.E. had been “stumping his bare feet on” for twelve years. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a largely intact Native American millstone. C.E. writes, in what is really one of the book’s more emotional passages:
I admit, I felt a sudden feeling of being cheated by my ignorance. I suffered a feeling of great loss. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered that we agreed with the Blaylocks that it would be “finders, keepers”. Blaylocks would take that grindstone off to Mississippi! I wandered a bit away from the others and prayed quietly, “Lord, how can I stand that? I admit that I’m hopelessly jealous.” As I wallowed in self-pity, lo and behold, right there on the ground was another stone on which I remembered stumping my toe. It was just like the Blaylock stone, except a bit better! I grabbed it up with a prayer, “Thanks, Lord. You knew I needed that!” This stone is in our possession, even as I write. God does answer prayer!
Even adjusting for hyperbole, it’s difficult to read this passage without inferring a somewhat warped conception of the gospel. As a Southern Baptist, C.E. believed in a personal God, and to him this seems to have meant a God who was personally helpful. In this way the millstone prefigured the message he’d receive about the Symmetricizer, which began to look less like an isolated schizophrenic episode than the continuation of an egocentric philosophy. In fact, God had intervened on C.E.’s behalf at least once before this. Toward the end of the war, while he was serving as a radioman and unofficial chaplain on a naval vessel, his ship came within a few degrees of capsizing before gradually righting itself. “Like Jonah,” he writes in the margin, “this ship couldn’t sink because God had a man on it He wanted to use: me!”
• • •
C.E.’s stated ambition was to make the eggs of all 10,000 migratory species before he died. When the museum opened in 2006, it would include the eggs of about 1,200 migratory birds, and 300 others from around the world. We hauled in pews from a shuttered church. Other members of the family donated tables and benches. On the outside of a door, my dad copied a heron from a book of Audubon paintings, by hand and with a surprising degree of skill. On the other door, C.E. painted an advertisement. It said, “Wowee!” His first move to drum up publicity was to contract an engineer friend to build a nine-foot-tall egg. He called it the World’s Largest Whooping Crane Egg (Replica), a claim you didn’t have to factcheck to accept. For the next few years, during our town’s Christmas parades, my parents would strap the World’s Largest Whooping Crane Egg (Replica) to a trailer and drive it down the main drag. Someone would invariably explain to the other confused onlookers that it was an Easter egg, or a dinosaur egg, or a snowball; one year a woman yelled, “It’s a potato!”
C.E.’s next invention, a contraption he titled The World’s Largest and Safest Bird Feeder, would be built on top of the museum, where birds would be able to see it from miles away. He drew up a detailed schematic, but there was never enough funding for the construction. I never discovered the secret of its safety. This was the kind of grand scale his mind worked on, or tried to, stretching always toward a world record, a biggest or a most. He was aiming for wonder and failed to mark the crossing into absurdity, or else didn’t care. One day when he and my dad were making the museum’s floor plan, C.E. expressed his opinion that there should be separate doors for entering and exiting the building. When my dad asked why, he patiently explained that with all the people streaming in and out, just one door would create a bottleneck.
• • •
I have a hard time placing myself in these memories. I was around—not necessarily present. Dad would take my brother and me to the museum to have us mow the grass, and I would zone out and run over the trees he’d planted, and he would plant new trees and I would run them over too. To me, the museum was like so much of the world outside of novels and video games: I didn’t hate being there, but I wasn’t exactly invested. I dreaded visitors. There were never many, almost always one or two. They stopped by because they’d seen the curious sign out on the highway, or because someone had mentioned it to them at the convenience store just down the road; or maybe they were simply out for a drive and came across this building decked out in bird silhouettes. My dad loved meeting these people, but I preferred to continue working or sit outside with a book until they drove away. I knew anyway that there would be a detailed recounting of the visit over dinner that evening, the opening to a perennial discussion that revolved around a question which, at the time, confused me endlessly: Did it seem like they had gotten it? I wondered—did I get it? What exactly was “it?” As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to believe that my parents asked of other people what they couldn’t answer themselves. Sorting people into categories based on whether they did or did not appreciate the work was simply how they reaffirmed what they both, for different reasons, needed to believe: that there was something special about the museum; something incredibly fragile but inherently worth protecting. That they weren’t just wasting time.
Some people took one look and left seeming embarrassed. Others walked politely from corner to corner, room to room, inspecting each individual egg because they were too proud or polite to admit they were bored stiff. A few, having accurately read the evidence of my dad’s liberal and environmentalist values, were actively hostile to the whole idea, whatever it was. (“I heard this was a bird place,” one man said to Dad from the window of a massive Ford pickup truck. “Ah kill birds.”) And then there were the select few who loved it. My dad gave his spiel and they shook their heads and made noises of astonishment. They had questions—they had always wondered—Why were eggs shaped like that, anyway? Where did the markings come from, and what did they mean? This was evangelical country, and for every person turned off by the tree-hugging, there were equally many who saw the eggs as a confirmation of God’s boundless creativity. How, they marveled, could one mind be responsible for such variety? And my dad—perhaps the only person I know, still, who has actually read On the Origin of Species—would take great pains to explain the theory of evolution without using the word.
But it was the story that tended to fascinate them, more than the art—the strangeness of a man who would do this kind of thing, the expanded notion of how a person might choose to spend time. Through the eyes of these people it sometimes became possible to see C.E. as a kind of monk or saint—a man who had done something irrational and punishing for so long, and with such devotion, that it became humbling to witness.
• • •
One day, while C.E. and my dad were putting down tape to paint the floor, C.E. suddenly stopped. He said he felt faint, and lay down on the cold concrete. My dad offered to call an ambulance, but C.E. refused. A few minutes passed before he was able to get back up. Some time after, he fell, and broke his leg. The long slide had begun.
The reader will be familiar already with the slide’s basic outlines, even if they haven’t yet witnessed one firsthand. It begins with the relinquishing of keys—car keys, then bank keys, and finally house keys—and proceeds from there into an ever-tightening succession of waiting rooms, each smelling more thickly of Clorox and Febreze than the last, transitioning almost smoothly into a bureaucratic procedure that simply must be managed by whomever is willing to do the paperwork. Every step is monitored and facilitated by well-intentioned but harried people, of nihilistic fortitude, who make a point of wearing watches and looking at them to remind you that the same thing is happening down the hall to someone else. You harry the harried people regardless, because you care, and because it’s easier than trying to navigate the increasingly unanswerable questions your loved one keeps directing your way—questions like “Who are you?” and “When am I going home?”
C.E. was diagnosed first with dementia, then more specifically with Alzheimer’s. My dad continued to run the museum. He had been working for a while to orient it more toward school field trips, which were proving to be a surprisingly steady generator of revenue and public interest. He had sculpted a trail through the property, now free of kudzu, and he and my mom had created a bird identification scavenger hunt for the school groups to explore—a revelatory experience for many of the kids, who lived in suburbs and rarely ventured into the woods. My dad would visit C.E. in the nursing home and tell him about these visits, and even when C.E. barely knew who was speaking to him, my dad, alone among his siblings, could still get a response out of the old man by filling him in on recent developments. From somewhere deep inside himself, C.E. would smile and come out with a “How about that?” or “Well!”
I have one vivid memory of visiting that nursing home. Even for what it was, it seemed like a bad place. The turnover rate among the staff was high enough that none of the nurses ever recognized my dad, who visited at least once a week. The rooms were arranged alphabetically, an impersonal touch that put C.E. right across the hall from another man also named Blevins, who kept seeing his name on the door and walking in with a confused look on his face. My dad wheeled C.E. into the dining room—he couldn’t walk by this point. His face was pale, and for the first time since I had known him he was perfectly silent, almost peaceful. I remember clearly how he was that day, although I hated looking at him. I watched instead as one old woman pushed another woman in a wheelchair across the living area. The woman in the wheelchair was repeating something, and it took me a second to realize what it was. “But I don’t want to be here,” she was saying, and continued to say, long after the other had abandoned her to an empty corner. The nurses ignored her plea, perhaps construing it broadly.
A nurse brought our food, and my dad picked up a spoon and started feeding C.E. mashed potatoes. I kept my eyes on my dad’s face, looking, I think, for some reflection of my own horror. It wasn’t there. I really don’t think it was. He just had this sad, calm half-smile, and he kept his eyes on his father’s open mouth as he guided the mush into it.
C.E. died finally in 2012, at the age of 87. He’s buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery, beneath a white cross. Not knowing how I would come to regret this decision, I used my college final exams as an excuse to miss the funeral.
• • •
During the estate sale, my parents found a letter in one of C.E.’s filing cabinets, in an undated manila envelope on which “Very Personal” was written in large, underlined red letters. My mom dug it out for me during my next visit home, and I read it that night in bed. The envelope was addressed to C.E. at his home in Apison. There was no postage stamp. The name at the top left corner, smudged slightly, was that of my great-grandfather, the bastard Shade, who had died in 1988. The full return address read:
Shade Howard Terry Blevins
Shady Lane, Memory Rd.
Tennessee Hills, Heaven
Judging by the flawless penmanship, the letter inside was the last of multiple drafts.
This is your old Dad speaking to you. I have been wanting to write to you for some time now, and the time is finally right. I know that in a way it is difficult for you to believe, and I’m counting on your artist’s intuition, and your natural ability to imagine. This is very important because I have some things to tell you that you need to hear. I want you to really hear me—receive what I say—absorb everything in this message for you. . . .
. . .
I want you to know that your Mother and I both love you very much. We have always thought of you as our best and highest achievement. We have always been so proud of you from the start, with your very capable mind, your sensitive nature, your compassion for other people, and your passionate love for the beauty and wonder of nature. I feel that you are the expression of everything good and noble in me and your mother.
It went on similarly for nine more pages. When I compared the handwriting to C.E.’s margin notes in the Remembilia, I found that it was the same. He had written the letter to himself. “Shade” continued to express his pride in C.E., saying that he had had “a profound impact on the world” and changed it “in ways that [he] cannot know, as yet.” He thanked C.E. for taking care of him in his old age. “When I arrived here,” he said,
the Lord took me and allowed me to see something. He showed me my heart, which was like a stone that had dried and become hard from all those years of not being able to express my love for you and my other children and grand-children, and even my wife. He taught me that when we don’t express our love, that our hearts become like a dam on a stream. The water backs up, and stops flowing, dries up and becomes stagnant.
That part of the letter ended with a kind of incantation:
Feel my love and be sure.
Feel my love and be sure.
The next page was blank. Then he had started a fresh one:
Now, Son, I’m going to give you one more task to do for me. I have sent you to the fields many times before, and now I want you to go down and tend the crops again. The fields are white unto harvest.
I want you to go to each of your children and each of your grandchildren (and especially to Laura Comfort), individually, and alone. You have something to tell each one:
What followed was a form letter. “Dear _____,” it began, “what I want most for my family (and for you in particular as a very special member of our family) is for the Love of God to flow through us to each other.” This continued for two pages, in the same sermonic register as the rest of the letter, before the voice of Shade picked up again:
Son, you are the spiritual leader of our family. . . . It is your responsibility to take care of these spiritual matters above all else. Go to each person individually and in private. This will become easier the more you do it. Tend my crops, Son, and you will have a bountiful harvest. . . .
I’ll see you when your chores are done.
Your Loving Father,
I slid the letter back into the envelope, switched off the light, and lay in the dark wondering what C.E.’s intention had been. Was it self-analysis? Wish fulfillment? Had he hoped to stumble across the letter later, having forgotten writing it? Or did he really believe he was taking dictation from the beyond—another voice droning in his ear? Was the “Very Personal” on the envelope a warning, or an invitation?
Had any of it worked?
More than anything I was touched by the childishness of the exercise, the naivety it must have taken to think he could fool himself with such a transparent trick. “This will become easier the more you do it”—that reassurance killed me. And then there was that blank page, that fresh start. It seemed to me that he must have read back over the first half of the letter and found it hypocritical, realizing that he’d never said such things to his own children. The next morning I asked my dad if C.E. had ever approached him “individually and in private” about the love that flowed between them. He said no. He had read the letter, but wasn’t eager to discuss it.
I realized I had been taking C.E.’s pride at face value, never considering what it would have told me about anyone else. The letter’s false persona expressed this vulnerability better than his autobiographical self had been able to, offering the glimpse of a suffering that the Remembilia had kept thoroughly repressed. His reticence may have been rooted in religious fear. I began to reconsider, for instance, the incident of the millstone. When God had given C.E. an artifact of his own, had He not saved him not only from the pangs of jealousy, but from the sin of it—the sin of being covetous, even spiteful?
I began to wonder whether egg-making had been, like the letter, a vehicle of prayer:
A man, facing his death, makes thousands of images of birth.
• • •
In March 2016, Audubon Acres held an opening ceremony for the newly relocated C.E. Blevins Egg Collection. Imagining what this would be like—just the more devoted members of my extended family gathering, once again, to eat snacks and compliment the exhibits—I didn’t fly home to attend. My mom called me the next morning. Two hundred people had shown up, she said—the kind of crowd the museum had never attracted. The event had been well-publicized on the radio and in the newspaper. There were food and drinks, and the avian biologist who had once commissioned C.E.’s hummingbird eggs showed up with members of his raptor rehabilitation non-profit, bringing with them screech owls, a kestrel, and a broad-winged hawk. The people just kept streaming in, my mom said—bottlenecking at last.
At some point that afternoon, my dad gave a speech. My mom sent me the outline he’d made for it, in which she’d highlighted the sections he hadn’t ended up saying. The three discarded sections, I noted, were all about C.E.—about his vision, his spirituality, and his reasons for making the eggs. In the moment of his speech, it seemed that my dad had chosen to focus on people who were alive—the volunteers at the wildlife refuge, and others who had helped over the years for little or no compensation. About the museum itself he apparently said only one thing, in closing:
The seven years we were open at our learning center we had many responses from visitors and there was one response that I remember vividly. A man brought his family to see the collection and his response was apt. He said “This is a project of love.” I had never put it in this perspective, but he was right on. I hope others see it the same way.
“It was shocking,” my mom told me. “Your dad—I’ve never seen him so happy.”
She was kneeling on the wooden floor in the living room, dabbing wood stain on a painted plywood cutout of a bald eagle for the new exhibition. It was spring, and I was visiting home again.
“What he had a hard time letting go was the fact that his father’s eggs were not going to be recognized,” she said. “He couldn’t handle it. He had to find some way that that was going to happen, and he didn’t know how. But this worked. He’s at peace. He had to honor his father’s wish.”
From the beginning, my mom has had difficulty relating to my dad’s sense of posthumous obligation. When her own mother died, she waited only a few months before putting all of the woman’s paintings at the end of our driveway. And yet, despite her consistent verbal opposition, it was she who glued the eggs on the shelves; who mopped and dusted after each renovation; who sanded and painted the giant whooping crane egg, before C.E. added a symbolic last coat. Most recently she had been making bird nests. She and my dad thought that people might like to buy the nests together with the eggs of the appropriate species. “It was very unsuccessful,” she said.
She continued: “When the nature center took the collection, I was so relieved. I was so completely relieved. But then I ended up having to work at the nature center! Then, when they didn’t—your dad was just so fretful about them not doing anything with it. My opinion was, we’re rid of it! Count your blessings! He couldn’t let it go. And when Audubon took it, your dad worked for five weeks building those displays. I thought, this is our future. He can’t let it go. He’s not going to be able to let it go.
“And he has—which I’m just so relieved that he has—to the point where he’s actually giving all the leftover eggs to Zach. When he told me he was doing that, I knew it was over with, he’s satisfied. He can let it go.”
“But—it isn’t really over, is it?” I asked after a pause.
She looked at me. “What do you mean?”
Her eyes followed mine to the eagle cut-out. Suddenly she yelled, as if realizing:
Later in our conversation, I confessed to her that it was always a stretch for me to see the eggs as having anything to do with birds. “They look similar to real eggs,” I said, “but they’re always something my grandfather made more than. . . .”
“You know, that is a really huge part of it,” she said. “They’re not bird eggs. They are everlasting. They’re not squeezed out of birds. They’re not real! They’re really, just—they’re a collection of someone else’s obsessions.”
What I haven’t mentioned is that she, too, is an outsider artist—a painter, a collagist, an assembler of found objects—and a prolific one. Unlike C.E., she has always resisted the idea of selling her work, to the extent that she’s often frustrated when people suggest it. Instead, her art inhabits every wall, shelf, and table in her and my father’s spacious two-story house. I imagine this is partly why this subject felt so necessary to me. One day I’ll inherit my proverbial egg collection—nevermind the real one—and I’m not sure what I will do. I’m not like my mother—I won’t be able to leave it at the end of the driveway. But I’m not my father, either—I fully expect, and intend, to die without opening any museums.
We had fallen quiet, our thoughts diverging. It is undeniable, I reflected, that eggs, real eggs, are objects of beauty. They’re alive. Well—maybe. It’s a divisive subject. The egg embodies a paradox, a merging of life and unlife—the smell of a rotten egg is disturbingly similiar to the smell of a corpse. The egg’s unworldliness feels irreducible. It is a fat zero in a thicket of irrational figures, settling for camouflage because it knows it can’t truly belong. No other shape in nature is as platonically symmetrical, as arbitrarily perfect, as absurd. It feels right that the bird’s first act, long before flying, is to shatter this. Despite their fidelity, C.E.’s replications had missed that quality. Instead, his fake cells had multiplied, cancer-like, far beyond the needs or wishes of anyone but him.
“Penguins are going to be extinct,” my mom said suddenly, looking off into some middle distance. “It’s predicted that in a very short time they are all going to be gone.”
• • •
Before I left, my parents accompanied me to Audubon Acres to see the new exhibition. It was spring, the air was full of honeysuckle and privet, and a pleasant hum was rising from a fleet of picnic tables near the building, where a group of middle schoolers on a field trip were eating sack lunches in matching tie-dyed shirts. We walked up a gravel path and entered a dim room. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that the collection fit surprisingly well in this much smaller space. Along one wall were all of the educational displays C.E. and my parents had made over the years. On another were children’s drawings of owls from a recent contest. The eggs had been compressed into three tall, glass-enclosed shelves that took up two corners of the room. For a few minutes, I stood and ran my eyes along the rows while my parents discussed an exhibit on the other side of the room. I inspected each egg in turn. Then I stepped back and looked again. After all this thinking, reading, and writing about my grandfather, it would have been good to feel something different this time, something like what he may have been hoping to find again as well—the feeling of being eight years old, climbing, and seeing, below you in a tree, something brilliant.
Two young girls came out of the bathroom behind me, chattering to each other, heading confidently back towards the sun.
“Are those eggs real?” one asked.
“No,” the other said. “They’re just painted.”
Andrew Blevins is a writer from North Georgia, currently living in Brooklyn. His nonfiction has appeared in The Point, n+1 online, Real Life, The Common, and WebSafe2k16.Photo of Shadrach "Shade" Blevins, circa 1950 by Unknown