Three sons left home, went out on their own and prospered. Getting back together, they discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother.
The first said, "I built a big house for our mother."
The second said, "I sent her a Mercedes with a driver."
The third smiled and said, "I've got you both beat. You remember how mom enjoyed reading the Bible? And you know she can't see very well. So I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites the entire Bible. It took elders in the church
Soon thereafter, mom sent out her letters of thanks:
"Milton," she wrote one son, "The house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house."
"Gerald," she wrote to another, "I am too old to travel. I stay most of the time at home, so I rarely use the Mercedes. And the driver is so rude!"
"Dearest Donald," she wrote to her third son, "You have the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious."
[Reader's Digest, 1958]
Trying to eclipse his brother's gift of a Cadillac, a Hollywood producer paid $10,000 for an amazing mynah bird to give his mother on her birthday. The bird spoke
"Delicious!" she said.
A certain lady who lived on Park Avenue loved birds and her husband was rich enough to indulge her every whim. For a birthday present he found her a parrot that spoke eleven languages and that cost him exactly $100 for each language. When he got home, he said, "What d'ya think of that wonderful bird I sent you?
"It was elegant," she answered. "It's in the oven right now."
The husband's face turned purple. "In the oven? he shouted. "Why, that bird could speak eleven languages."
The wife asked, "Then why didn't it say something?"
Variations: The "competition between brothers" element isn't always part of the story; some renditions star only a dutiful son, his mother, and an ill-fated bird, or the gift-giver's role is played by the woman's husband.
Origins: The earliest print sighting we've yet located comes from 1945. The tale finds its popularity in the caricature it presents of the foolish, out-of-touch woman. She's everyone's Mom in that each of our mothers has at times said or done incredibly dumb things that we, as perennial finger-pointing little children, will never let them live down, or she's the cartoonish fool-headed wife of Gracie Allen persuasion. Parents occupy an unsteady pedestal at times — their progeny both look up to them as invincible and infallible but practically do a Snoopy dance when they catch them being human. It's probably for this reason mother/son versions have remained in circulation even into this generation whereas ditzy housewife forms of the tale have dropped by the wayside — one caricature has been outgrown but the other hasn't.
Would the woman in this story mistake a talking bird for something she should kill and pluck for dinner? It's unlikely the bird would fail to say anything between the time of its arrival and its death (wouldn't it at least ask for a last cigarette and a blindfold?), but then, it's just as unlikely the bird would be shipped with no enclosed instructions about how to take care of it, or without any advance warning to give the giftee time to round up proper feed and a perch for it. Then again, such legends aren't supposed to be factual — we're supposed to just enjoy them for what they are.
Barbara "mynah details" Mikkelson
Last updated: 1 August 2011
Cerf, Bennett. Laughing Stock. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1945 (p. 80). Smith, Paul. The Book of Nastier Legends. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. ISBN 0-7102-0573-2 (p. 98). Reader's Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, 1958 (p. 233).