Monday, May 30, 2016

Song of a Whip-Poor-Will

by Kathy Fischer-Brown
Louis Agassiz Fuertes - Birds of New York 

I’ve never ceased being amazed at how a sound, a smell, or an image can set off a chain of memories. Often these are deep-seated, long forgotten memories tucked away among recollections from earliest childhood. Sure, there are photographs stored in boxes or old slides whose colors have faded that I’ll take out and once in a blue moon to share with family, or scan to preserve for the future. But every so often, something totally unexpected tickles a nerve, stimulating the mind to take a trip back in time.

Take the song of the Eastern whip-poor-will, for example. Too many years had passed since I last heard its distinctive call, making for a completely unexpected moment of nostalgia one late spring evening about a year ago. Well over sixty years, to be precise. 

I was a city kid. We lived in a one bedroom apartment in The Bronx—my mom, dad, two-year-old sister, and I. Some years earlier, my paternal grandfather had bought a property in Plattekill, NY, a picturesque spot in Ulster County on the Hudson River, with acres of land on which stood an old and sizeable stone and clapboard Dutch farmhouse. It was to have been Grandpa Ben’s retirement home, but a massive heart attack felled him at the age of 48, a month after my sister was born. Subsequently, the house, along with its abundance of trees and assorted wildlife reverted to my dad, his sister and my grandmother. I don’t remember much of my life before the summer after I turned three. But that summer was memorable.

As a toddler my world consisted of our small one bedroom apartment on University Avenue, where a grassy esplanade down the center of the street held groups of benches for sitting and shooting the breeze on sunny days in all seasons; a small playground with swings and seesaws, and a movie theater were within walking distance. Family and friends all lived close by. But starting some time after I turned two, we began spending our summers at the house in Plattekill. 

My sister and me (right) in the haystack, circa 1954
Even now I remember how much I loved the place, although I can’t really visualize much of it, and after a futile search for it online, I wonder if it’s still standing. There was a certain smell, of pine and cedar, the coolness in the shadows of wide elms and oaks, from one of which my father hung a tire on a rope from a hefty bough for us—and the many cousins who came from the city in an endless stream—to swing on.  We had a beagle, Taffy Lou, who, it seemed, had a litter of fat, fluffy puppies every summer—brown ones, black ones, spotted ones…. Her beau was a neighbor dog named Fido (no kidding), who came to visit alone or with his owner, a freckle-faced girl named Terry, who was about seven or eight. Down the country road was a dairy farm. I had a particular favorite among the cows; her name was Elsie (or at least that was what I called her).

On warm summer evenings, we’d sit outside in the newly mown grass on folding chairs with striped canvas slings and watch what seemed like hundreds of rabbits hopping along the edge of a copse of tall trees at the edge of the property. We had a small tractor that one of my older boy cousins liked to drive over the acres of tall grass, with me and his younger brother dangling our legs off the back platform. Afterwards, we’d rake up the cuttings and build a gigantic haystack, which provided hours of jumping and burrowing fun. Our next door neighbors behind a palisade fence were a family who owned the Freihoffer Baking Co. They had an apple orchard, and by summer’s end, there were more apples than they could shake a stick at. Around this time, the sweet cinnamon aroma of simmering apple sauce and apple pies in the oven filled the place. 

And, of course, there were whip-poor-wills. Every evening and well into the night, I'd stay awake listening. A kid from The Bronx never heard such a thing.
After my family sold the house following the summer of my fourth year (because we had outgrown the small apartment with the birth of yet another sister), we moved from The Bronx to Long Island. I remember being sad over not having the old house to summer in anymore. Even the thought of having grass and trees (and bugs) year-round was of little consolation. And for the next 12 years, I didn't hear a single whip-poor-will. Not even once. Then, after we moved again when I turned 16, this time to Connecticut, the whip-poor-will and its singular sound had faded from my consciousness.

My dad was glad of the moves. He owned a printing company in The Bronx and during those summers in Plattekill, he’d stay in the city and join us for weekends. I missed him, just as years later I’d wait up for him and worry on especially snowy nights while he made his onerous nightly commute home.

Which brings me back to that elusive bird. Sadly, its numbers are in decline, and as I mentioned, I hadn't heard one in over half a century. So, you could say, I was exuberant on that evening in early June last summer when its unmistakable warble broke the settling silence in the wooded area near my house. It was probably just passing through, for its call was unusually brief, and I haven’t heard it since. But in the moments following, I was transported back to a Friday night long ago, when, unable to stay awake long enough to greet my dad following his weekly commute, I fell asleep. The bird’s song was a sweet reminder of that night and of my dad, all of about 29 at the time, sitting at my bedside, gently waking his sleeping child with the song she had grown to love over a few short, unforgettable summers.


Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh's Daughter, Courting the DevilThe Partisan's Wife, and The Return of Tachlanad, her latest release, an epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her The Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of Kathy's books are available in a variety of e-book formats and in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, as well as a bookstore near you.

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