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.