The Call of the Mourning Dove

Marilyn A. Kinsella

     The street I live on is called Pleasant Ridge, and that's what it is - a beautiful, pleasant ridge of trees.  Often I take walks along Pleasant Ridge.  One day my son Brian came along.  It was mid-morning, but the sun was just peeking over the ridge of trees making a lacy patchwork of dappled light on the street.  A mist was rising from the creek.  Out of the chorus of birds I heard one plaintiff, far-away call - the long, low, sorrowful call of the mourning dove.

     I stopped in mid-step and listened.  Again, I heard its cry. As I listened, it brought back a memory of my Grandpa Joe.  He could cup his hands together and make a whistling sound that rivaled the mourning dove.  That reminded me that he had other signals as well. They were our own special codes known only to each other. We called them our whistles, squizzles and knock-knocks.

      He used the whistle when he needed help.  In our backyard, which we laughingly called our "back forty", there were apple trees that Grandpa had planted when he first moved to Fairview.  Now, the trees were all knotted and gnarly, but they still yielded fruit - if those wormy, bruised, bumpy apples could still be called fruit. But. my Grandpa was of German stock that followed the “waste not/ want not” philosophy.  So, he picked any apple that looked like it might have some good in it and placed it in his wooden basket.  After four or five baskets were filled, he needed help bringing them to the back of our house. That's when he cupped his hands together and whistled.  Whether I was on Dogwood Lane or the end of North Road, I could hear that call.  I jumped on my blue Schwinn bike and pedaled on home.  I rushed to the backyard where I took hold of the metal handles on my side of the basket and together we lugged the apples to the back porch.

     Then the ceremony began.  First, Grandpa donned his white apron.  Or, at least, it used to be white.  Over the years it acquired a certain patina from harvests past. It was a fruity-beige color with apple, pear, and grape stains.  He slipped the apron over his head and front-tied the strings around his wide girth.  Next, he got his favorite paring knife out of the drawer.  He found the knife sharpener and began sharpening the edge of that knife.  That knife had a little sliver of metal left.  It had been used and sharpened many times over the years.  Then Grandpa took two huge metal bowls and placed them on the table.  One was filled with peeled apples and the other with salted water and quartered apples.  Next to him was a grocery sack for the  peelings and bad spots.

      Grandpa held an apple and with the hand of an artisan, and he began to peel.  To this day I don't know how he did it.  But, somehow he never broke the peel.  He artfully peeled around, up, and over every bump, bruise, and worm hole.  Sometimes we played games with those peels. He waited till he had two or three peelings and then he  gave them to me.  I tossed them in the air, and we watched them land on the linoleum floor.  Then, I tried to see letters.  After we deciphered two or three letters, Grandpa said that those were the initials of the man I was going to marry.

     Sometimes he gave the knife to me and asked if I wanted to try carving and peeling.  I held the apple like my grandpa, looked it over once or twice, took hold of the paring knife, and began to peel.  But, before I got halfway down, the peel would break and by the time I finished, it was a pathetic jumble of broken peels.  Then Grandpa laughed, because he told  me that the number of times the peels  broke, was the number of children I would have.  Thank goodness some of those old-timey, folklore sayings don't come true or I would have had a whole roomful of babies.

     Finally, all the apples were peeled and quartered... minus a few for the cooks.  Grandpa spent the next couple of hours cooking. The aroma of baking apples and cinnamon filled the house.  Now, those apples may not have been any prizes, but my Grandpa's apple-pan-dowdy? That was a blue ribbon variety.

     The knock-knocks happened on stormy nights. I hated storms, especially at night. We had huge elm trees that died, but their skeletal arms reached menacingly over the roof of our house. I was convinced they acted as the perfect conductors for any and all electricity that a storm could muster.

     When I was real small, I jumped into Grandpa’s bed and hid under the covers. After all, his bedroom was right next to mine. In fact, the only thing that separated my bed from his was the wall. But, as I got older, even I had to agree that it seemed a tad childish; so I stuck it out in my own bed.

     Often times, I could hear the thunder miles away before it ever reached our home. Grandpa Joe taught me how to figure out how close a storm was. You just counted how many times you could say “Mississippi” between the flash of light and the clap of thunder. So, if I saw a flash of blue light, I started counting. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.” Boom. The storm was three miles away. I restarted counting  again and again until “One” and Boom! The storm was overhead! I resisted running into Grandpa’s room.  I didn’t want to be a baby.

      Then I heard the knock-knock. It’s the universal call and response. “Knock, knock-knock, knock, knock!”  I answered, “Knock, knock.” Grandpa was saying, “Are you okay over there?” And I was answering, “I’m fine.” The strange thing was, I was fine, because after that, the storm always subsided.

     The squeezles happened when we absolutely could not make a sound. They were three simple hand squeezes and that always meant, “I love you.” Then, the other gave four squeezles back. That meant, “I love you too.”

     Every week night Grandpa waited for his ride to one of his many meetings. I can still see him sitting there in his gray, wrinkled suit and his black, walnut cane positioned in front of him. He always had some meeting or the other to attend – St. Vincent De Paul, Men’s Club, Alphabet Club, Knights of Columbus. For a man in his 70’s, he loved his nights out with the guys.

     The trouble was, at some point, the family had to take away Grandpa’s car keys. It’s one of the hardest decisions a family has to make. Grandpa wasn’t such a great driver, even when he was younger. As he got older, he had a couple of near misses, and it was time. That didn’t stop my Grandpa! He had friends who were younger than he that picked him up every night.

     As he waited, he always dug into his pocket and took out his rosary to get a couple of decades in while he waited. If Grandpa wasn’t going to waste not/want not apples, he certainly wasn’t going to waste not/want not his time. Grandpa’s rosary was unlike anything I have ever seen. It was huge with big ebony beads and a silver cross. He usually got a faraway look in his eyes as he mumbled the “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.”

     One time, I tiptoed past him to get to the front door. He must have heard me open it, because he came out of his trance, and stared at me with tears welling in his eyes. “What’s the matter, Grandpa?” I asked.

     “Oh, nothing. I was just praying and thinking about your grandma.”

     “But, Grandma died a long time ago. Why are you praying for her now?”

     “Cause, we all need a prayer. Whether we are up in heaven or down here on Earth. We can always use a prayer. You’ll remember that, won’t you?”

     Instead of answering him, I put my hand on top of his hand that was holding onto the crook of his walnut cane. I gave it three squeezes and he knew what that meant so he gave me four back. We just smiled, as the car honked outside signally that it was time for Grandpa to go.

     When Brian and I were taking that walk that morning, I stopped because, you see, that mourning dove called with three low whistles, and I knew what that meant. Since there was no one else around, but Brian and me, I looked up to the sky and said, “And God bless you too, Grandpa Joe.” Brian just looked up at me with a big question mark on his face. I looked at him and smiled and said, “Brian, did I ever tell you the story of your Great-grandpa Joe?"

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