One of the strangest things I remember from childhood is my Dad whistling as he did the dishes. He’d stand before the sink, belly pressing into the counter’s edge, and let his own exaggerated vibrato carry him away. He was not much of an artist or a musician. That went to the ladies in the family. But he was a scientist and engineer that loved music. He especially loved my mom’s piano playing, and he proudly took three young girls to the symphony. He couldn’t make the music himself, but he always appreciated it.
He even started the “piano business” where he bought pianos from the 10’s and 20’s and had a crew restore them to sell them for three times what he’d payed for them. (This was how he’d planned it would work anyway.) The man that would never be able to play the piano loved them in a way an engineer could–by restoring them.
His shameless expulsions of whistled notes in the kitchen were the only times he ever made a performance of any kind in the house. We ladies puffed on the flute, bowed on the violin, mastered the piano, or in my case, forcefully warbled out scales, ignoring the family audience in other rooms of the house. My dad similarly made his own music from his very own lips, but it was not practice like ours–it was a joyful performance for no one but himself.
My dad, like most men, was never really expressive, except for the times he was angry, and every once in a while when he was happy. He was passionate about science and physics–say the physics of sound, or of the freezing of ice; he would explain things like that to anyone who would listen. But his only unique expression was his whistle. I’d hear it coming from under the car sometimes when he was changing oil on a Saturday morning or through my bedroom windows when he was standing just outside them, hose in hand, watering the bushes.
I can only remember my dad being affectionate when I was still a toddler and he’d carry me around the house at night, not bothering to turn any lights on as he paced the carpets until I stopped crying. Past those very young and understandably needy years, I don’t remember any hugs or anything and I didn’t sit in his lap or crawl up on him for hugs like I see so many of my male friends experiencing with their children. There was no visceral connection with my father except for three things: the sounds of him quietly getting ready for work in the morning, as he was the first in the house to rise, of which his careful shutting of the garage door and the vibration of the car engine completed his barely audible presence. Then there was his occasional voice mail on the phone when I was in college. Sometimes I’d listen to them twice to remember I had a dad. And then there was the whistling in the kitchen once we’d trickled away into our bedrooms after dinner to leave him to his voluntary chore of cleaning the dishes.
Later in life, I found similar sounds comforting. There was the soft and intermittent click of the computer mouse as my college boyfriend stayed up late to work. I’d drift in and out of sleep, hearing the faint sounds of his business, and to this day, I can recall the exact feeling of peace I felt from knowing his body was somewhere in the same room.
Memories of things that happen over and over again are strange–made more special as they age, gathering emotional clout the same way a cigar will grow plume on it when left to sit in a humidor for months or years. Those kinds of memories are driven so deeply that they carry their feelings’ fingerprints along with them in their wake.
I was never close to my father, but the whistling I heard allowed some shield to come down in the house without him ever knowing it. About a year ago, I was working on a childrens book about a little being that came from another planet to live with a man. It’s a classic baby-in-the-basket-on-the-doorstep story with a twist. In it, the father and the boy he never expected to enter his life never speak a word to each other, because this alien being doesn’t use speech to communicate like humans do. So the story of their bonding and love happens at all other levels besides words. They begin to grow on each other. Without thinking much of it, as I illustrated that part of the story, I drew the alien boy laying on his tummy in the attic with his ear to a hole in the floor to hear his “father” whistle as he did dishes in the room below. His eyes are closed and one of his toys cocked on its side to lay with ear to the floor in adorable mimicry. It astounds me how autobiographical this scene is when I think of it, the little one being as close to his father as the situation would allow.
I’ll never have a huge collection of memories about my father because there isn’t much there. But I’ll remember the whistling. And the way I liked it when I wouldn’t admit it. And I can still remember the exact pierce it had in the air and the brassy vibrato. And the way I didn’t hate him when I heard it. Not at all.