Bethany, our thirteen-year-old, has always loved to hear me whistle. I didn’t know I was that good until she told me I was, and I believe her because I want to. She’s pretty good now herself, and she joins me when she hears me whistle a familiar tune.
I had a song stuck in my head this morning when she wasn’t around. It was a Christmas carol my dad whistles out of season, like on summer mornings on the way to his car. When I was a kid, my second-floor room faced the front of our house, just above the cars. I always felt a bit lazy, lying in bed and watching my father’s shoulders and the tops of his head and shoes, and hearing snatches of his whistling coming through the screen beside me.
My mind wasn’t hearing my dad whistle at first. This morning I was tuned into the same organ crescendo he probably plays in his mind some of these summer mornings – the final verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” played at my hometown Episcopal church, sort of a high church where a good organ and organist can transport a congregant up and out of a blue collar shipyard town for an hour or so.
I don’t strictly whistle. Like Pop, I kind of whistle-warble and I throw in some “ya da da”s and even some words when they suit or come to mind. However, I’ve kind of taken Pop’s tools and built a louder and more obnoxious version of whistling, because I want to capture the drama built into the particular performance I am recalling. I wish to amuse myself. Pop’s whistling seems haphazard and thoughtless in comparison, more like the bubbles from an underground spring. He doesn’t consider his whistling on his way to the car, probably. The hymns in his head are kind of a quiet benefit of regular church attendance, the agreeable background noise of clean living.
Pop and I were the optimists in our family when I was growing up, or at least my mother says so. She alone makes determinations like this, since my father doesn’t speak about himself or about any of their three children in so sweeping a manner. His comments about someone tend to involve concrete proficiencies. He says, for instance, that I “interview well”– a point made in one of the many stories he enjoys retelling. (I love hearing that story.) He also has very little to say on abstract points concerning our faith and deflects all questions of doctrine to my mother, whom he refers to on such occasions as “the Vice-President in Charge of Religion.” Mom sometimes expresses what Pop feels at his core, the things he nurtured silently, perhaps while sitting for hours on the porch a lot of weekend afternoons, enjoying a quiet space away from a busy law practice. When my mother articulates a heart matter well, my father sometimes wipes away a tear or two, hearing it put just right.
I inherited my mother’s pull toward abstraction, so I distinguish my father’s optimism from mine by calling his a grounded optimism. I’ve adopted the line about there not being anything more practical than good theory. Victoria (my wife) would put it this way: if theory doesn’t direct me to do something, it won’t get done. Pop, though, sticks to practicalities, particularly with regard to his faith.
For instance, I don’t know anyone who cares about the sick or bereaved more than Pop. A few years ago, I asked Mom why Pop is so disciplined about calling or visiting people who, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.” Given the same chore, I sweat over what to say, how to comfort, and sometimes I just chicken out.
“I wondered the same thing,” Mom said, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that he just picks up the phone.”
Almost every weekday morning of my forty-eight years, Pop has just gone to work. (At eighty-one, he’s now semi-retired; these days he substitutes for judges around the state and also mediates cases.) This morning I pictured him walking to his car some two hundred miles southeast of here in Newport News, under the same window I used to sleep beside until nine or ten o’clock summer mornings when I was Bethany’s age.
The organ faded into Pop’s “ya-da-da”s. Pop – the raconteur that he is – sticks to the narrative spine. No matter how beautifully high church performs a carol, it always returns to a melody line, to a story, to a lowly cattle shed.
Bethany is accompanying Victoria to rural India for two weeks this Christmas to help the poor. I’ll be home, whistling.
Posted July 2005