“Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.” — Gloria Naylor
When the sun begins to drop behind houses and buildings each day, I find myself looking out through the windows of my past and thinking about my daddy.
It is late afternoon, mid-October, 1955. A nippy breeze drops down to settle for the night in our small South Carolina town while I gossip with girlfriends in a neighbor’s yard.
Smoke climbs over the rooftop of the Brantley’s house making my nose sting from the pungent smell of burning leaves. Like other things I scarcely notice, the nose-sting and the smell of burning leaves occupies a rightful position in my young life.
Down the street, my friend Linda sweeps the driveway to earn her dollar a week allowance. Her daddy rakes leaves and stuffs them in a wire mesh basket to be burned Saturday morning when he is off from work and his teenage boys are not at football practice.
My friends and I talk about homework assignments, the cute boy who just moved from Charleston, the hot, new lipstick color, my brand new Wejuns, and the upcoming Sadie Hawkins Day Dance on Friday night. We take turns talking, and we flap our hands a lot.
Pretty soon I will hear the sound for which I’ve been unconsciously listening. No, it’s not the ring 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. We have only one basic black telephone with no dials and no touch-tones. I’m not even allowed to use the phone until I’ve finished all my homework and practiced the piano for an hour.
Upon hearing the anticipated sound, my friends and I stop talking and hand gesturing. We listen for the second sound we know will follow soon. Sure enough, it does.
My Daddy is whistling for me to come home for supper.
Like all the fathers in our neighborhood, Daddy’s whistle is unique, used only for calling my brother and me. He puts two fingers in his mouth, presses down hard, rolls up his tongue and then blows through his fingers. The sound he makes has its own timbre, slightly rising as it reaches its final “ah-whew.” It is loud enough to be heard a block away.
I recognize the whistles of other fathers, but it is my daddy’s distinctive sound that I respond to as quickly as I can. He whistles only twice, allowing a full ten minutes for my brother and/or me to stop what we’re doing and come home to get washed up for supper.
The crisp autumn weather will put Mama in the mood to make a pot of chili and a full steamer of rice. (South Carolinians seldom eat a meal without rice.) With our supper, my brother and I will drink milk in quart bottles left at our door before the morning sun came up.
If any chili remains in our bowls, it will be sopped up with thick, crusty bread, lathered with Aunt Polly’s country butter -- a sweet, slightly sour taste that Parkay can only dream about.
After supper, Mama and Daddy will go into the living room to sit quietly and read the day’s paper. My brother and I will go to the kitchen to wash and dry the dishes and try not to kill or permanently disfigure each other.
It is a ritual, an evening regimen played out in our little family and it’s how we close the door on another day. We say grace before eating supper; my brother washes the dishes and I dry; Mama and Daddy read the paper, and it all begins with Daddy’s whistle.
There is not a doubt in my mind that cell phones are a far better form of communication between parent and child. But nothing can replace the warm feeling I get when my nose starts to sting from the smell of burning leaves, when I grab a sweater to ward off the afternoon chill, or when a nip in the air tells me to kick off my sandals and put on sensible shoes. My soul then nudges me to cook a pot of chili.
At those times, I ache to hear that special, unmatched whistle that came from my daddy’s lips. I know I can’t ever go back to that time, but if I could, I’d let him know how much that small piece of everyday life meant to me then, and means to me now.