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On Wings and Prayers

At 77, Ione MacMasters Has Found Peace of Heart in the Shelter of Her Yard and the Company of the Creatures She Cares For

July 08, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mockingbird's crystal bel canto melts Ione MacMasters as she sits in the shade of magnolia and memories. Pigeons flutter, doves coo. A one-eyed duck nestles in the center of the backyard while a counterpart, Matilda, scruffy and headstrong, wobbles toward the ivy for privacy befitting the birthing of an egg.

Through wisdom that comes only with age, MacMasters, 77, has gathered in the boundaries of her life that which brings pleasure and peace: a rickety piano she calls her friend, this West Los Angeles home, and the company of birds and animals, many of whose broken legs and wings she has mended.

A cataclysm wasn't required to change MacMasters, to cause her to shed ways that no longer fit into her scheme of what was important. Her life changed 18 years ago while she was mowing the lawn.

She had been cutting this same grass diligently for more than 30 years, so it wasn't as if she had begun the day on a mission of self-discovery. But from the mundane emerged what proved to be an extraordinary moment: She saw a fallen bird in her flower garden.

"I saw this little-bitty naked sparrow. He'd fallen out of the tree and had crawled all the way across the lawn to the flower bed. I said, 'You gutsy little devil.' "

And that is how it started.

She called the Audubon Society, which put her in touch with a woman who rescued birds. Along the way she met the Hummingbird Lady, the Hawk Lady, a small gaggle of bird rescuers. She read books and talked to veterinarians. Neighbors heard about the convalescing sparrow and brought her more. Soon, her garage was filled with as many as 55 birds at a time.

She has retired from the rigors of rescue work, but birds and other critters are still delivered to her doorstep, and she can't turn them away. (About a dozen live with her at any given time.) She receives donations of old bread, but most of the other expenses come out of her own pocket.

A squirrel named Webster scurries helter-skelter in MacMasters' garage, up and down cages and into everything like a hellbent child. Webster couldn't have been more than 10 days old when he (later discovered to be she) arrived with "a broken arm."

A male cockatiel named Barney and a soft brown rabbit named Carson have formed an enigmatic union. Since meeting a year ago, the two have become inseparable, seemingly not by Carson's choice. Barney shadows the rabbit's movement around the garage, sings to him gleefully and throws a feathery fit if his buddy is picked up.

Henry, a plump, white, blue-eyed rabbit stares straight ahead, resting motionless like a fluffy mannequin in a cage. "He's anti-social," MacMasters says. "He doesn't like anybody."

Seiko, a raven, lies on its back on a blanket, unable to lift itself with crippled legs. The last raven also was named after a watch, Elgin. In cages are baby mockingbirds, mourning doves and finches, opening wide their beaks in anticipation of vittles when they see the white-haired MacMasters slowly approach.

"Mockingbirds are God's perfect birds," she says. "They're agreeable, they wean easily. They're just heavenly, but I could live forever without those damn finches."

She once performed CPR on a duckling, opening its beak, puffing three gentle breaths into it, then massaging its chest until it came around. "I did it on impulse," she says. "Then afterward I asked myself what the hell I was doing giving CPR to a duck."

She may not have done the same for an unruly rooster she once boarded. He became known as Edsel, like the car, "a big mistake."

The chair beside MacMasters is death-like empty and still referred to as "Peggy's chair." Peggy was a dog of multiple breeds, including a shade of pit bull--not unlike MacMasters. For 11 years the two of them sat here in this sagging gazebo, rimmed by Christmas lights, half the bulbs beyond the age of glow. Peggy died suddenly two months ago.

Pseudo the Psiamese snoozes in her lap, but MacMasters is more of a dog person. She has applied to the Braille Institute to adopt a retired Seeing Eye dog. She chose the institute because it will take the dog back if she dies.

MacMasters is hoping not for a canine playmate but a pal who--like her--has seen enough of life to understand that you can travel beyond every bend in the road, climb mountains or chase sunsets, only to learn that peace of heart is found at home.

*

This love of birds and animals gave MacMasters new vision to see the truly important things in life. Housekeeping wasn't one of them.

"My house looks like it was stirred with a spoon," she says. "There's so much more to life than cleaning a stinking house."

As her former self, she ironed her husband's underwear and even the bedsheets, which always matched her pajamas.

"Miss Tidy," is how her daughter, Sally Newton, describes her.

"Anal," is the word MacMasters uses.

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