This isn’t really my memory, it’s my father’s memory. But the story has become so much a part of our family’s folklore that I almost feel as if I had been there, and had witnessed the whole thing myself. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly when all this took place. My grandmother, my father’s mother, died in the fall of 1981, so it must have been that summer, the summer of 1981.

The whippoorwills had all left ten years earlier. They used to nest in the hay fields behind our house and call in the evenings — whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will — but then one summer we didn’t hear them any more. Sometimes we’d say, Remember when the whippoorwills used to call at in the summer evenings? And one of us would reply, Boy, we haven’t heard one of them in years. That summer, a whippoorwill returned.

Then what happened to my father must have taken place after I had returned to college. I have this vague memory of him telling me about this over the phone as I sat in the darkness on a hot, steamy Philadelphia evening. His story went like this:

For several nights, he had been awakened by the whippoorwill. It was loud, as if it were right next to the house. That it would be that close was surprising; even more surprisingly, its loud calls didn’t awaken either my mother or my younger sister. My mother tended to be a light sleeper; my sister a little less so; but dad usually sleeps like a log, and only the alarm clock can awaken him. Yet he was the only one whom the whippoorwill awakened.

One night, it sounded unbelievably loud, it sounded as if it were closer than it ever had been before. Dad was awakened by its ceaseless calling — whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will — so loud he couldn’t get back to sleep, and no one else was awake. He got up and walked down the hall to the bathroom, and stopped to look out the hall window, over the roof of the porch. The moon shone brightly down, and there it was: the whippoorwill, sitting on the porch roof, right outside the hall window, calling and calling and calling.

He stood there watching it for awhile. They’re shy, nocturnal, well-camouflaged birds and maybe one in a thousand people ever sees one. Dad, who is Pennsylvania Dutch, remembered an old superstition: if you see a whippoorwill, someone close to you will die. He stood there in the moonlight watching and listening to the whippoorwill, with maybe a little chill running down his spine.

You know the rest of the story. Dad’s mother, who was in a nursing home that summer, died in October. As much as I like birds, as much as I’d like to see a whippoorwill, that seems too high a price to pay to see one.

4 thoughts on “Memory

  1. Abs

    Well, I need to add my comment here, as the younger sister…
    I VIVIDLY remember the whippoorwill that summer — it was SO loud
    that it woke me, and Mom, and Dad, up every night that summer.
    I remember waking up many times and looking out on the roof ridge
    that ran adjacent to my north-facing window, and each time I
    could see the whippoorwill in silouette against the very early
    morning sky.
    The Pennsylvania Dutch superstition has stayed with me always
    since Grandma’s death, and I truly hope that I never, ever hear
    a whippoorwill again.
    Just needed to add my own personal memory to your tale…
    :) love, abs

  2. DadH

    As the person who heard and saw the whippoorwhill, I feel required to make
    a comment. It did happen just as you relate; and I am glad to have someone
    else corroborate the story. It was a spine-chilling experience, and perhaps
    some of the old superstitions need to be re examined.
    With a graduate degree in Physics, I have difficulty accepting such tales;
    so, perhaps, we must ascribe it to chance. I do know that after that summer,
    we never heard a whippoorwill again.

  3. Mary

    My husband and son are both in the army. For the past 3 MORNINGS, I have heard a whippoorwill
    outside my bedroom window. Should I be superstitious?

  4. Administrator

    Mary — No, you shouldn’t be superstitious!! Plenty of bird watchers have seen plenty of whippoorwills without anyone in their families dying. In spite of what I say in the last sentence above, it’s just a story. In fact, I’m planning on going on a birding trip this spring here in New Bedford so I can see some whippoorwills.

    You see, whippoorwills are close relatives to Common Nighthawks, and nighthawks are one of my favorite birds. (I wrote about nighthawks on this blog last May — Link .) We don’t get nighthawks here in New Bedford, but we sure do get whippoorwills. If I can’t see nighthawks, I’m going to see their close relatives instead. And I don’t expect anyone in my family to die.

    By the way, my thoughts are with you, and with your son and husband. May they both come home safe and sound.

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