The recording is 12 seconds long — my father whistling on March 21, 2015. It’s there in an app along with other recordings, including one of my now 10-year-old grandson singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” when he was 2.
My dad would die 42 months after I recorded him whistling. I would kiss his head the night before he died in the hospital, certain I’d see him the next day.
My father’s whistling was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. When I heard it, I knew he was in a good mood. It was a better soundtrack than this one: My father stringing together “goddamnsonofabitchbastard” while he thundered through our home, certain that one of us six kids had misplaced his hammer yet again.
It didn’t take much to set him off.
My dad whistled most mornings after drinking his coffee, eating his cracked wheat toast, and reading the newspaper. If I happened to see him on his way to shower, he’d sing out a cheery, “Well, hello, Birdie!” — the nickname he gave me because of my high-pitched, little girl voice.
After 45 minutes or so, he’d emerge, smelling of Old Spice and Brylcreem, whistling on his way out the door to go to work.
I treasured my morning dad, his predictability, the way he perfectly matched his shirts, suits and ties with shiny black, brown or white shoes that he wore to his optometric practice. It was the non-whistling dad I loathed — the one who came home well after we’d eaten dinner, who sat at the kitchen table drinking martinis and arguing with my mom, the weekend dad who screamed when he couldn’t find a tool.
My evening-and-weekend dad was quick to anger, someone to avoid, particularly if he was in the garage working under the hood of a car, which he often did. When I knew he was out there, I steered clear of the garage and the adjacent family room so he wouldn’t command me to come and hold the flashlight for him. While this might seem like an easy task, it apparently wasn’t. I didn’t aim the light where he wanted it aimed, even though I was certain I was following the tilt of his head.
“Can’t you even hold a flashlight right?” would echo well into my adulthood, drowned out by the other things I feared I was doing wrong, like being a good wife and mother.
To escape my non-whistling father, I scaled the hemlock in our front yard, climbing until I could no longer see the ground, until the branches grew sparse and thin, until I could see downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2 miles away. My five siblings also scattered — my oldest sister ran away from home many times; the others found their own places to hide.
Sometimes in his frustration, my dad came looking for us. From atop the hemlock, I couldn’t see him, but his “You better not be up in that goddamn tree again” found me. Before long he’d give up and his “Fine, just don’t come running to me when you break your goddamn neck” would trail off. When I heard the front door slam, I knew it was safe to come down. When I finally did go back inside, the sun setting, my dad would be in his chair in the living room, reading while drinking a beer and eating dry roasted peanuts from a jar.
“Well, hello there, Birdie! What have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” I’d say.
When my mother’s alcoholism ramped up in my teen years, my dad sat us six kids down in the living room. He had to work, after all, and didn’t have time to do the housework, too, he said. We’d have to step up. My job was to do the laundry for our family of eight, including ironing my father’s collared dress shirts, just so. It also meant matching at least his black and brown dress socks — the rest could stay in the “sock basket.”
I learned to fold the clothes as soon as the dryer stopped so ironing was kept at a minimum. I’d hang some things, but mostly I’d make tall piles for each of us on the large folding table. I knew not to leave my father’s clothes in the basement for him to retrieve. I’d carefully fold his white Munsingwear T-shirts and briefs into thirds and place his stacks on top of his dresser. I’d put away his clothes wrong so many times I wasn’t allowed to put them in his drawers.
Though my father threatened divorce every time my mother blacked out, my parents stayed together for 30 years. But on their 30th wedding anniversary, he gave her flowers, took her out for a fancy dinner, and gave her a pink star sapphire ring with a gold band. But when talk turned to the inheritance my mother had received from her mother, my mom made it clear that my dad wasn’t getting any of “her” money.
Within the week, he moved out. That was 1990. Fifteen years later, he’d leave all of us, moving to Georgia with his new wife, blaming the harsh Iowa winters, parting with: “Well, we didn’t see much of you kids anyway.”
On his birthdays and on holidays and when guilt got the best of me, I called my dad. Our conversations were often about the weather. He would ask how I was but never seemed interested in my response. Our calls ended when he ended them. “Not much else to report” was my cue to hang up.
When I was 48 and my dad was close to 80, I returned from a writing workshop in Colorado and ended my second marriage a week later. I’d met a lesbian writer from Brooklyn, New York, and felt my body react while we sat next to one another at dinner. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I’d even had an affair once with a woman, at the tail-end of my first marriage. It was time to take a hard look at my sexuality, to search my insides for the truth. I needed time alone, time to listen to myself, time to excavate my life and see if I’d somehow missed signs that I was a lesbian. Like my father, that meant leaving behind everyone and everything I knew and loved in Iowa. Six months after my marriage ended, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, not far from where I’d attended the workshop.
One sister implored me not to tell my dad what had prompted my decision to end my marriage and move away. It was too much for an old man to handle, she said. But I knew I had to tell my dad. I was tired of lying. Tired of keeping a secret. Tired of being uncomfortable so that others were comfortable. I wanted to live an authentic life, though I had no idea what that meant.
Weeks after I moved, I picked up my mail at the post office. In it was a typed letter from my father with the word “personal” highlighted in yellow on the envelope. I sat in the parking lot and read. In the letter, my father told me I needed to be careful, that people could be wolves in sheep’s clothing, that the next person I would be with would have the same “abnormality” as me. Under that crisp blue Colorado sky, I vowed to never talk to my father again.
I took long walks with my dog, Duke, and spent long swatches of time in my cabin writing next to the wood-burning stove, my only source of heat. While gathering wood under the starry sky, scanning the forest for bears, I’d think of my dad and why he wrote what he did. Was it the whistling or non-whistling dad who sat down at the typewriter?
Over the coming days, I read and re-read my dad’s letter. In time, I heard what he was really trying to say: I love you. I’m afraid for you. I don’t want you to get hurt. He had written from a place of fear — and love. I picked up the phone and called him.
After nearly a year alone in Colorado, I moved to Brooklyn to be with Michelle, the writer I’d met at that workshop. We’d fallen in love from 1,900 miles away. Eight months later, we moved to rural North Carolina to be closer to her mother, who had an end-stage heart condition. Our new home was just five hours away from where my dad and stepmom lived in Georgia.
Over the next five years, I made regular trips to see my dad. While my stepmom was away at work, we had deep conversations, often around my sexuality, which I never could put a label on. While he’d come to love Michelle, who became my wife in 2014, my sexual about-face still confused him. That I didn’t define myself as heterosexual or homosexual confused him even more.
“I just don’t understand,” he said during one of my visits to Georgia. We were drinking wine on his back deck while he grilled salmon with bacon-wrapped asparagus for dinner.
“It’s okay that you don’t, Dad. I’m just glad you try — and that you still love me.”
“Well, that’s true. I do,” he said. With his back to me, he tended the grill and began to whistle.
I pushed “record.”
Annie L. Scholl is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, Brevity, The Sunlight Press, Past Ten, Unity Magazine, and Daily Word, among others. She is at work on her first memoir and blogs at anniescholl.com. In addition to being a writer, Annie is a Reiki Master/Teacher and certified dying coach and death doula.