MINNEAPOLIS – You likely know the shrill tone, the pesky flyover and the bright colors of the red-winged blackbird, but you probably don’t appreciate the creature quite like Nancy Miller.
“I think they’re kind of tough,” admits Miller, as she stands in a corner of a Minneapolis park, which she likes to keep a secret, where the red-winged creatures come flying when she arrives.
Despite that tough exterior, she appreciates the birds.
That appreciation is really a reflection of Miller’s attitude about life. As she puts it, “I think I’d like to be known as the great appreciator.”
Her appreciation for the red-winged blackbird begins in her kitchen. It is there that she washes the salt off peanuts, dries them in the oven and smashes them into bird-sized bites.
“Whap them! It’s a verb; it’s a technical term,” Miller says.
With the crushed peanuts in a baggie, Miller departs for a multi-block walk to the park – no small feat when you consider her age, which she is not shy about sharing.
“I’m 89, and I can’t believe it; I’ll be 90 in December, and I’ll have to start behaving,” Miller says.
Along the journey on a set of stairs, Miller finds one of life’s many little things that she appreciates.
“I never met a bannister I didn’t like,” Miller says.
Upon arrival at the park, Miller discovers her beloved red-winged blackbirds are feasting on something in the grass.
“I’m a little concerned that somebody has come and sprinkled nuts or peanuts,” Miller observes.
But Miller does not waste her work in the kitchen by tossing it on the ground in the park. Instead, with an extended arm and a small handful of her prepared peanuts, she waits.
Gently, Miller says, “Come on, sweetheart.”
And these territorial, sometimes aggressive creatures come; they fly and land on Miller’s hand.
First, one arrives. Soon, others follow. As if sharing an outdoor café table, two red-winged blackbirds suddenly land for lunch.
It is remarkable to watch.
“They know I got good stuff, and they know that they like it, and I can give it to them,” Miller says.
But the birds are not the only beneficiary. In this moment, Miller finds peace.
“It’s a little like when I’m painting; I am focusing on that and nothing else. And the rest of the garbage in the world just falls away,” Miller reflects.
In another corner of the metro, Miller’s eye for life takes weekly water color classes at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts.
Looking over Miller’s shoulder while she works, instructor Catherine Hearding notes, “You worked out a lot of problems.”
Miller is here to learn, but she never loses her eye of appreciation. She encourages this KARE 11 crew to notice the work of others.
“I hope that you will be able to get some of the other people’s paintings here because there’s some really very classy painters,” Miller advises.
Miller’s paintings are inspired by photos from years of travel, and they decorate her Minneapolis home.
Showing off one, Miller says, “This is ‘Greece, I think,’” she chuckles. “Can’t be too sure.”
But not every photo becomes a painting. Miller shows a photo of her beloved husband Rob, who passed away 28 years ago. Even in such loss, Miller’s appreciative spirit comes through.
“It’s just wonderful to see this face every day because he was funny and such good company,” Miller says.
Sharing red-winged appreciation
A brick, bearing Rob’s name, can be found back at Miller’s park.
Surprisingly, she has not painted red-winged blackbirds either. But Miller helps others appreciate the perhaps underappreciated bird by sharing her peanuts.
Melody Krantz arrives with her children, 7-year-old Charlotte and 6-year-old Kirby.
Charlotte quietly entices the birds with a handful of crushed peanuts. The birds never land on her outstretched hand, but Miller, of course, appreciates the youngster’s effort.
“I think Charlotte is doing very well in being quiet,” Miller notes.
Still, from the brief encounter, Melody has a new appreciation.
“I didn’t realize they were so willing to come up to people. I think Nancy’s the right person to have this hobby,” Melody says.
The red-winged blackbirds clearly agree.
Some of the handheld visits seem to last and last. “I’m so pleased that one came and stayed for a minute,” Miller says.
Appreciative, as expected.
Still, Miller, who clearly is the definition of 89-years young, would appreciate one more thing – a little more time.
“I’m not ready to turn up my toes just yet,” Miller says.