“If you want me just whistle. You know how to whistle don't you?
Just put your lips together and blow.”― Lauren Bacall in “To Have and To Have Not”
When October sunsets begin to slide through leafless trees, and late afternoon breezes whistle through skinny tree branches, I am transported back to my hometown in South Carolina.
Spiraling smoke climbs from the Thompson’s backyard and my nose stings from the lingering smell of burning leaves. I scarcely notice either the nose-sting or the burning leaves because leaf-burning is as normal as grits in my neighborhood. It is what everyone does in October.
As I ride my bike down the block, I see my friend Phyllis sweeping the driveway to earn her weekly allowance of two dollars. Her daddy is stuffing raked leaves into a wire basket to be burned Saturday morning when he’s off work and his teenage sons don’t have football practice.
I join a bunch of my friends and we chat about homework assignments, the cute boy who recently moved to town from Charleston, the latest Revlon lipstick color, my new pair of Weejuns and who we are planning to invite to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance. We flap our hands a lot.
Before long, I hear the sound for which I have been half-listening. No, it’s not the musical tones of a cell phone interrupting our girly chatter. It is much too early in the century for microchips and fiber optics to govern almost all aspects of our lives. We can only pick up a heavy black telephone an) to say, “Number, please?” Touch-tone phones are light years away from discovery by the brainiacs at Southern Bell. Cell phones? Get serious.
Upon hearing the first sound, my friends and I stop talking and hand-gesturing in order to listen for the second one: my daddy’s whistle. It is his signal telling me to come home for supper.
All of the neighborhood fathers whistle for their kids to come home, and each whistle is different. With two fingers in his mouth, my daddy rolls up his tongue and then blows through his fingers. His whistle is unique. It has its own timbre and gains in pitch as it reaches a final crescendo.
“Whew-a-WHEW!” No problem hearing it even a block away.
Daddy whistles twice, allowing about ten minutes in between for my brother and me to finish up whatever we are doing. After the second signal, he expects us to be on the way home. At that time of day, we are both hungry enough to jump on our bikes and get there by the time supper is on the table.
The crisp autumn weather often puts Mama in the mood to make a huge pot of chili and a full steamer of rice. She bakes corn muffins, too. My brother and I drink milk with our chili supper. We pour it from quart bottles that our milkman, Mr. Sanders, leaves by our front door before the morning sun comes up.
We layer our corn muffins with Aunt Polly’s country butter ~ a sweet, slightly tart taste about which Land O’Lakes can only dream.
After supper, Mama and Daddy retreat to the living room where they sit quietly reading the day’s newspaper. My brother and I remain in the kitchen to do the dishes while trying not to kill or permanently disfigure each other.
It is a ritual, an evening regimen played out by our Southern family of four. It is how we close the door on each day. It may not be what other families do, but it suits us. We say grace before eating supper; my brother washes the dishes and I dry and put them away; Mama and Daddy read the paper and don’t talk much.
Our ritual begins with Daddy’s whistle.
No doubt cell phones provide a far better form of communication between parent and child in today’s world where everyone seems to be on the fast-track to somewhere. Immediate contact capability has proven to be invaluable. But back in the day, there was a much simpler signal that sent a message of home to me. It began when October sunsets slid through leafless trees and late afternoon breezes announced a change of seasons, or when a nip in the autumn air makes me think of chili and corn muffins.
That is when I listen for a long ago, “Whew-a-WHEW!”
~~Cappy Hall Rearick