Father’s Day: Daddy and the Whippoorwill

I get a bit sad as Father’s Day approaches every year, even though Daddy has been dead for more than 30 years now.  I still miss him.  A social worker I spoke to last week about a blog post I was writing for my job said it’s not unusual.  She said, “Feel your feelings, it’s all right to be sad.”  She also recommended doing something on Father’s Day to remember, whether it’s lighting a candle, writing a letter to your dad, or telling a story.

I remember so many things, but I decided this week to try to find a funny story.  I had dinner with some friends the other night, and we were talking about how certain kinds of birds have been singing at the top of their lungs at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning for the last few weeks.  That reminded me of Daddy and the whippoorwill.

That was the summer our house on the farm was being built.  Daddy rented an old farmhouse from Mr. Johnny and Miss Ora, an ancient couple who lived further along the road from this house, so we moved to the country a few miles from the farm.  It was an old white clapboard house with a rickety porch.  The wood floors had cracks between the planks big enough to permit odd-looking insects to emerge on occasion.  I would not walk barefoot on those floors.

The house was not air-conditioned, of course, so we had to leave the windows open and use window fans or circulating floor fans to cool off as the summer got hotter.

The house was surrounded with old cedar trees.  There was a huge one in the back yard.  The trees made it shady most of the time, and they were a haven for birds.

If you’re not from the South you may not know whippoorwills.  They look a bit like meadowlarks, only they aren’t as pretty–no yellow throats on them.  What they are known for, and named after, is their call.  WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL, repeated over and over and over again.  Rumor had it that they sang faster when the weather was hotter, but no one has validated that claim so far as I know (unlike crickets, of which this is true.)  You hear them sometimes in a field during the day.  But during their courting season they like to get a jump on things by singing during the night.

One night long after we were all asleep a whippoorwill began singing from the clothesline on the back porch.  WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL!  Daddy ran out to the porch and shooed the bird away, then went back to bed.

He hardly got in bed before the bird started again, this time from the big cedar tree in the back yard.  WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL!  I could hear the murmur of Mother and Daddy’s voices.  Mother probably said something like, “Leave it alone, George, and it’ll quiet down.”  But the bird went on and on.  Daddy went out in the back yard in his boxer shorts and T-shirt and yelled at the bird.  It shut up the moment he came out.  But as soon as he was back in bed it started again.

That was it.  Daddy grabbed a shotgun and ran out to the cedar tree.  I got up and looked out to see what was going on, but it was pitch black.  I did hear Mother say, “George, put that gun down, you’ll just shoot yourself!”  The bird was dead silent.  Daddy waited a few minutes, then went back into the house.

Maybe the bird sensed real danger for it must have flown out of the tree.  I heard it calling again, but at a distance, out in tree-lined field in back of the yard.  So we all went back to sleep, to the hum of the fans, and no whippoorwill calls.

Decorating the Tree

My mother had a yard sale at our house on the farm before she sold the house and moved to an apartment in town, some years after Daddy died.  She was tired and ill, and there was very little she held on to other than her clothes and her china and crystal.

I came to help out, and ended up hauling stuff back home with me that I couldn’t bear to be sold.  My sister Sherrie was there, and she spotted all the Christmas ornaments and lights, heaped on the ground.  Mother had kept the ornaments my sisters had given her, but had dumped all the balls and lights.

“Look at this,” Sherrie said.  “These lights are older than you are.”  She was right–I remembered them.  The bulbs were plastic or glass and shaped like birds or stars.  Sherrie always claimed the yellow bird sang to her from the top of the tree one Christmas.  I took the string, as well as a string of the original Bubble Lights.  Both strings were the kind that, if one bulb goes out, the string goes out, so you had go around the tree tightening and replacing bulbs until the string came back on again.

Those lights went to Atlanta with me, and then on to New York.  I haven’t used them for several years.  I bought one of those pre-lit artificial trees that looks more like a bottle brush than anything else a few years ago.  When I load it down with ornaments it doesn’t look too ghastly.

But this time of year I remember searching over the farm for a cedar tree without a fork in the top.  The first year after Daddy died, Mother and I went out into the fields with an ax, determined to have a Christmas no matter how awful we felt.  We found a big, lovely cedar, round and full.  It was all we could do to cut it down and drag it back to the house.

We put it in the garage and went to set it in a bucket of water so it could soak up some before it went in the tree stand.  The tree was about six inches too tall for the garage ceiling, which meant it was more than a foot too tall for the house.  Mother looked like she was going to burst into tears.

Then the phone rang.  Uncle Floyd called to see what was going on.  Mother told him our problem.  He showed up 15 minutes later and sawed off the bottom of the tree to the correct height.  So we had Christmas after all, using those bird lights, the Bubble Lights and all the other strings we had.