The other day my 75-year-old father came for a visit. We went to pick up my daughter Gwyn from elementary school and then to a café where he treated her to a hot chocolate.
Gwyn sits in her chair, swinging her legs as she gulps greedily from the cup she holds in both hands. There’s something so satisfying about feeding a child, especially when it’s something sweet: the lips parting, juicy chewing, and smacking of lips, it’s all so primal and sensual and my body responds with an aching, bursting fullness. (Bubbling pot, overripe plum, hot water bottle.) I’m thinking it must be hard-wired in a mother’s brain to enjoy watching the child eat, or maybe all parents feel this, because if it wasn’t so pleasurable, more babies would die of starvation, right? But even though my father is right there next to me, watching Gwyn glug her cocoa, I don’t wonder aloud because really, watching her is much easier than looking at my father.
I steal a peek. He’s wearing a bright orange fleece pullover that looks a size too large since he’s lost weight and he seems almost as happy about his cocoa as Gwyn is and I remember how, after trick-or-treating when I was 5 or 6 years old, the same age Gwyn is now, he’d confiscate the chocolate from my candy bag and pretend he was making sure it wasn’t poison. He’d chuckle guiltily while he chewed and hid the wrappers deep in his pocket. He’d always loved chocolate but for some reason, he rarely let himself eat it. These days he is always fasting, avoiding dairy, going gluten-free, or doing some dietary cleanse so I know he’s not supposed to indulge in sugar or caffeine and if his wife saw him drinking cocoa, he’d chuckle guiltily and joke that it was my idea.
Because I always encourage him to treat my kids to chocolate. Since we don’t see each other very often, it’s something for us to do together, and because I’m hoping to encourage a Pavlovian response: when he sees my daughters, he might feel happy because he associates their faces with chocolate, and when my girls see him, they might feel comforted and indulged, even though they see him very rarely and don’t have much of a relationship with him.
Yes, this is probably how eating disorders begin. Nevertheless, I blithely use a napkin to dab the ring of chocolate around her mouth with my napkin and say, “Guess what your grandpa has in his pocket?”
“Is it chocolate?”
“No, it’s not chocolate.”
Her eyes sparkle with interest. She loves a secret. “What?”
“He has a little square cloth called a handkerchief.”
“What’s it for?”
“For blowing his nose.” I give dad a wink. “That means he carries his boogers around in his pocket.”
She grins wide and shakes her head, no. The idea that this old man might be someone who knows something about boogers is too good to be true. “No he doesn’t.”
We both look at him, waiting.
“I’d never do that.” He smiles primly, feigning affront, making a show of fumbling in his pockets, then his expression changes as his fingers close around something. “Oh! No, there’s no boogers in here but there is something for you, Annie.” (He still calls me “Annie.”) He pulls it out and hands it to me, not chocolate or a handkerchief but a wooden cylinder about four inches long. He says, “It belonged to my father. Your grandfather.”
“What is it?”
“A crow-call.” I still don’t understand. “You use it to call crows.”
My father and I have always lived close but we’ve never been close. After my parents divorced when I was 6, he remarried and started a new family. I’d sometimes visit on weekends but don’t remember spending much time with him.
Really, my father and I are familiar strangers: I can hear his voice if I close my eyes, I can predict exactly what he’ll say, I know what he smells like and have memorized the contents of his pockets (handkerchief, nail clipper, pen) but still, I don’t really understand. Over the years he has expressed his approval or disapproval about me and my choices but we’ve never gotten any deeper than that. He knows what I am, but not who. Maybe it’s a generational thing or maybe it has something to do with gender, I don’t know. I used to hold a grudge but it got old and heavy and I had to put it down so I could pick up other things, like family, writing, job, and trying to make friends with the crows in my neighborhood.
“How did you know?” I grip the warm wood tight in my hand, searching his face for an explanation. “How could you know I would want one of these?”
“I read your story about the crows.” (Chocolate, handkerchief, white rabbit.)
Awareness flutters down from the ceiling and settles on my shoulders. I have been writing for all these years but my father showed no interest. It’s nothing personal, I told myself, he just doesn’t read fiction and he’s not computer-savvy. So what happened? How did this 75-year-old man suddenly turn on a computer, find me, and read what I have written?
Gwyn grabs the crow-call from my hand, holds it to her lips, and blows. The café is filled with a horrible, creaking screech that hurts our ears. We all laugh and something stunned and wild flaps inside me, a childish, hopeless hope.
That night after dinner, everyone takes a turn with the crow call. Gwyn goes first, demonstrating her expertise. We cover our ears.
“That doesn’t sound like a crow at all,” says my oldest daughter, Kenyon. “That just sounds annoying.” She takes the crow-call, makes a hilariously annoying sound, and passes it to John, who manages a call that sounds somewhat like a crow, if the crow was cawing with a pinched beak into a tin can.
“What was your grandfather like?” Kenyon wants to know.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “He died before I was born.”
Gwyn’s brow furrows. Death always makes her anxious. “That’s so sad.” She crawls into John’s lap and pulls his arms around her. “Why did he have to die?”
I hadn’t thought much about it. My father had rarely talked about his father and if he did, it was only to relate some dry fact. I have only vague impressions of a man who worked as a small-town dentist although he only wanted to play the saxophone. I think he ended up drinking himself unconscious. (Horn, bottle, breath.) When I press my lips to the wood of the crow-call, for a second I think about how my grandfather’s lips had been there, as had my father’s when he was a kid, and when I blow, the noise I make sounds exactly like a wounded duck.
When I was a kid, Star Trek was my favorite show on television. We didn’t have a t.v. at my mom’s house but at dad’s, they had one in the guest room and during visitations, I’d spend all day in front of that screen. I think I could watch Star Trek reruns twice a day–in the afternoon on an obscure channel and in the early evening on one of the major networks. I especially loved the episodes where Captain Kirk, Spock, and the gang all beam down to a new planet with their phasers and translators because you never knew what you’d find but these two devices had you covered.
In Star Trek, the translator allows communication with extraterrestrial beings and through it, every species speaks plain English, although sometimes with a British accent–I think magic and telepathy are involved but in order to maintain the fantasy, it’s better not to think about it too long–and if a creature says something threatening, one blast from a phaser will disappear it: *poof.* Problem solved. I’d pretend a flashlight was my translator and play Star Trek for hours, interviewing houseplants and interrogating the cat.
Unlike a translator, a crow-call has no magic or technology—it’s just a piece of wood you blow into like a kazoo. A reedy piece inside the mouthpiece vibrates, turning your noise into something that can sound crow-like with practice although you’ll still have no idea what the noise you’re making means. It mimics the sound but does not speak the language so instead of communicating, you’re just making a noise. A dumb, familiar noise. (Telephone ring, knock on the door, howl in the distance.)
And this fact worries me somewhat. This crow-call is not a toy, it’s a trick, a tool invented to lure crows close so you can shoot them, presumably for fun since nobody wants to eat crow. Cursory research online tells me that this crow-call, which is made of dark wood and has two bands of red paint, was probably made in the 1940s, so my dad must have been about 10 when he went hunting crows with his father. At the cafe he’d mumbled something about it under his breath, perhaps afraid of how that tidbit would go over with the six-year-old and me, and I didn’t explain that I remember what it’s like to be a kid at the whim of adults who are either off living their lives, doing what they always do or, in brief, bright moments that hang like framed photographs in an impressionable mind, allow the child to tag along and participate vicariously in the parent’s fixed attention. I wonder if my grandfather carried a flask in his breast pocket. I wonder if they chatted or if they walked silently and what my father felt if and when he pulled the trigger.
After dinner, I take the crow-call and a cup of tea outside and sit on the front steps. We live in a small city, a place many crows call home. My block is the territory of a mated pair and their offspring, some of whom stick around for several years to help raise the next year’s hatchlings before venturing off to find homes and mates of their own. My crows like to hang out in the tall cottonwood tree across the street from my house and if they see me, they’ll fly to the telephone wire and wait for me to throw them some food. Sometimes, when I haven’t run into them for days, they’ll find my bedroom window in the morning and caw straight at it. Their caws find me as a finger might, poking me in the same spot over and over until I throw on a robe, go outside, and feed them something.
But this evening, they’re nowhere to be seen. I consider the crow-call in my hand and take a sip of tea, speculating what would happen if I blew it. How would my noise be interpreted—as a cry for help, an angry threat, or perhaps just a garbled bit of nonsense? The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that if they hear it, they’ll come, for whatever reason, and I wonder how they’d feel about being summoned for no good cause. I remember Aesop’s story about the lonely Boy Who Cried Wolf. Nobody wants to be that boy. The entire purpose of the story is to make sure you don’t want to be that boy. There’s something so nervy about making a squawk like that, about calling things to you, summoning them from whatever they’re doing to attend to you, a test to see if they’ll come. That takes chutzpah.
Now that I think about it, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the crows. I haven’t seen them in the cottonwood tree for at least a week and the other morning when I left a hardboiled egg at the foot of the telephone pole, it was still there when I got home that night. I’m trying to remember which month it is when crows get even more skittish than usual, when you’re lucky to catch a glimpse of them with a twig in their beaks, flying off to some secret spot where they’re building a nest to lay their eggs in, and I’m thinking maybe it might be a good idea to blow the thing to remind them that I’m here with food.
My thoughts are interrupted by Gwyn’s voice rising to a plaintive pitch: I want to go for a bike ride, I wanna go for a ride, I wanna go, go, go…. She’s been cooped up all day, first at school, then entertaining a grandfather, and then playing alone while I cooked dinner, and at this point she’s spinning like a wheel without traction, hanging on the doorknob and kicking the shoes in front of the door, and even though all I want to do is sit here quietly with my tea, I tell her I’ll take her around the block.
“Just once, though. One loop and then I’ll draw you a bath.”
Her little legs pump the pedals joyfully and I walk-jog behind, turning left at the boarded-up windows of the place on the corner where the store used to be, up past the cyclone fence where the pitt bull paces back and forth, left again and again, me panting behind as she navigates safely past the thorny, overgrown rose bush that catches on my thigh and past the recycling cans blocking the sidewalk, I’m exhausted by the time I turn the last corner and find her waiting for me in front of our house, begging to go around just one more time, please, please mama, only one more, but I’m kicking off my shoes and stalking into the bathroom where I yank open the shower curtain, twist the taps of the tub, pull off her clothes, and plop her into the tub.
She calls for me once or twice more before she finally finds a toy to play with. I’m lying on the sofa but I’m not relaxed at all; I’m pissed off, wound tight, and bent out of shape. When I was young my father taught me not to whine, or rather refused to hear me when I did, and when he didn’t like my tone of voice he’d simply disappear himself –*poof!*–problem solved. Eventually I learned to keep my wants and needs to myself. But who could blame him because really, there’s nothing more annoying than a whiner. Like squeaky chalk, a screaming brake, or a telephone incessantly ringing, it’s a painfully rude interruption that’s impossible to ignore and when she calls me a third time, I yell I’ll come in a minute! and even my own voice annoys my ears. In my selfish desire to be left alone, I, a grown woman, have resorted to whining.
But why whine? Because you’re hungry, cold, or tired. Because you feel frustrated, powerless, and unheard, like a baby who requires someone else’s help to get their needs met. Kids whine because they need something they can’t explain, something huge and amorphous like independence or love or time or togetherness. They’re trying to be in a conversation and relationship with you, but you’re not available so they whine because even your annoyance is preferable to being completely cut off or ignored. They whine because your translator is not working, you have not understood their words, so they need to ratchet up the squeaky wheel sound to convey, if not the meaning, then at least the emotion of their desire.
When you take separate things and put them together (in a day, in a neighborhood, in a story, in a pocket, in parenthesis), don’t they beg for a reason to explain their proximity? When things are grouped there is an assumption of relationship, a grasping for connection, a magnetic, gravitational urge to join and become a family (closeness breeds attempt). The whine, the crow-call, and the translator. Horn, bottle, breath. My daughter, my father, and myself. But are these things connected? Do they belong together or is their association merely circumstantial? Maybe that’s why I put these things together: because I’m trying to connect.
Kids don’t whine to just anyone, after all: they only whine to people they love. Gwyn is standing next to me in a puddle of water, wearing nothing but a pout, and I have two equally strong reactions: 1. send her back to the tub or 2. get a towel, wrap her up, and hold her in my lap, which I do, and when I tuck her into bed I and promise that I’ll take her around the block again in the morning.
The next day is Saturday. She’s getting so good on her bike, she hardly needs me. Down at the corner, we stop for a moment to chat with the neighbor who’s tending the spindly corn they planted along the side of their apartment building. On the next street, the pitt bull is rolling sensuously in a sunny patch of dirt and on the next, we negotiate both the rose bush and the recycling bins without a snag.
When I puff around the corner onto our street, Gwyn is there looking up at a lone crow clinging to the telephone wire. This ruffled-looking crow is making quite a racket, spewing a long mewling, bleating stream of croaks, a sound I’d recognize anywhere. It’s exactly the sound of the crow-call my father gave me. It’s precisely the sound of a whine.
“That crow is whining,” I tell her.
“Don’t whine, crow!” She yells. “It’s annoying!”
“He must be a baby,” I say.
“Aw. He’s so cute.”
“What do you think he’s crying for?”
“He must be lonely.”
We stand there for a long time, listening.
Thanks to Rosemarie Sokol Chang, Ph.D. for her studies and her fabulously-entitled talk, Whining is the Sincerest Form of Flattery.
A kid named Hunter chases baby crow sounds with his video camera. The first 20 seconds of this clip is all you need to experience the ecstatic joy of hearing baby crows (which you can hear in the distance).
This is what a baby crow’s whining sounds like.