Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes. ” Gloria Naylor
When I see October sunsets sliding through leafless trees each day and late afternoon breezes beginning to whistle up and down neighborhood streets in my South Carolina hometown, I am unable to stop myself from remembering how life used to be when I was young.
Smoke is climbing over the rooftop of the Thompson’s house and my nose is stinging from the pungent smell of burning leaves. I scarcely notice the nose-sting or the burning leaves because those two things occupy an ordinary place in my life. Everybody burns leaves this time of year.
Down the block, my friend Phyllis sweeps the driveway to earn her dollar a week allowance. Her daddy stuffs raked leaves into a wire basket to be burned Saturday morning when he is at home all day and his teenage boys don’t have football practice.
I am chatting with friends about homework assignments, the cute boy who just moved from Charleston, the new Revlon lipstick color, my hot pair of Weejuns and Friday’s Sadie Hawkins Day Dance. We take turns talking and we flap our hands a lot.
Pretty soon I hear the signal for which I have been half-listening. No, it’s not the musical sound of a cell phone interrupting our girly conversations. It is much too early in the century for microchips and fiber optics to govern our lives. My family has one black telephone in our house and it has no dials or touch-tones. I’m not allowed to use it until I’ve finished my homework and practiced the piano for an hour.
Upon hearing the anticipated sound, my friends and I immediately stop talking and hand-gesturing in order to listen for an anticipated second signal. We are not disappointed.
It is my daddy’s second whistle signaling me to come home right now for supper.
All of the fathers in our neighborhood know how to whistle, but it’s my daddy’s whistle that is unique, used only for calling my brother and me. With two fingers in his mouth, he rolls up his tongue and somehow blows out through his fingers. The whistle has its own timbre gaining in pitch as it reaches a final crescendo. Whew-a-WHEW! I can hear it a block away.
The whistles of other dads are recognizable, but it is Daddy’s distinctive sound that I respond to as fast as I know how. He whistles only twice, allowing ten minutes for us to stop what we’re doing and come home. We know better than to tarry.
The crisp autumn weather puts Mama in the mood to make a pot of chili and a full steamer of rice, a South Carolina staple, even today. Along with our supper, my brother and I drink milk in quart bottles left on our doorstep before the morning sun came up.
If any chili remains in our bowls, it is sopped up with thick, crusty bread, layered on with Aunt Polly’s country butter ~ a sweet, slightly sour taste about which Land O’Lakes can only dream.
After supper, Mama and Daddy retreat to the living room and sit quietly reading the local newspaper. My brother and I mosey into the kitchen to do the dishes and try not to kill or permanently disfigure each other.
It is a ritual, an evening regimen played out in our little Southern family. It is how we close the door on yet another day. We always say grace before eating our supper; my brother always washes the dishes and I dry them while trying not to break anything. Mama and Daddy read the newspaper without talking and all of it begins when Daddy whistles for us to come home.
There is no doubt in my mind that cell phones are a far better form of communication between parent and child today. But nothing can ever replace the warm feeling I get when my nose starts to sting from the smell of burning leaves, when I need a sweater to ward off a late afternoon nip in the air, or when it’s time to cook a pot of chili and call my family to supper.
I wish I could still hear Daddy’s special, unmatched whistle. He passed away long ago, but if I could go back to that earlier time, I would tell him how much that small piece of everyday life meant to me then ~ and means to me even now.