This is a difficult time to write a column that I hope people turn to as a source of diversion and perhaps mild amusement. Even the spreading virus and ensuing lockdowns could be fodder for jokes about weight gain and quarantine beards and wine tours that took you from your kitchen to your bathroom to your living room. Creative types repurposed popular tunes and masterworks of art with coronavirus themes. (My favorite was “The Girl with the Purell Earring.”) I thought it was a tribute to the human spirit that in the face of a global pandemic, people found a way to laugh. Humor gets us through a lot. But there’s nothing entertaining about the current events of our nation, and I’ve been hard-pressed to find a topic of diversion.
Then I came across this quote by the writer Annie Dillard: “A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”
So I thought I’d start there, first focusing on what I love, which is a lot of things, then trying to identify that thing that I, uniquely, love. Chocolate and coffee are easy to cancel out, as they are items of universal adulation. Mountains and beaches, sunsets and waterfalls — they also garner widespread admiration, being the subject of everything from screensavers to dream vacations.
I am developing increasing appreciation for Mason jars, versatile little things that can be used as drinking vessels, rustic vases and storage containers and are handily equipped with imprinted lines that render them useful as a measuring utensils to boot, but they’re making a comeback, so I’m not alone there, either. In truth, I could focus purely on glass jars, since, like the crazy lady who collects feral cats, I’ve begun inexplicably surrounding myself with washed-out glass jars and finding things to fill them with. I get little bursts of satisfaction when I can transfer slivered almonds from their plastic bag to an empty jar of spaghetti sauce.
And then, suddenly, I thought of the whippoorwill.
I know I’m not the only one to be enchanted by the song of a whippoorwill, yet for me it is singular in that it is the song of my own memories. The very sound carries me back to my childhood and nestles me softly down onto the old couch on the front porch of my grandparents’ house in rural New Hampshire. It was there that I learned of this bird as a herald of the night and heard its call, a piercing sound that begins at the first dusky moment of twilight when the sky melts into mystical shades of bluish gray (shades which I’m sure Benjamin Moore has a found a way to can and number).
It was there that my Nono told my siblings and me a legend of a pair of star-crossed lovers who became separated, as lovers of legends are wont to become, and whose nightly calls to each other were immortalized in the whippoorwill’s repetitive trill.
It was there that I would sit as the evening deepened and cooled, by then just with my siblings and our Nana, because Nono always retired early. We would sit in the comfort of her presence, watching and listening, and use the time to rest and reflect on the day that just faded and how it was spent and the promise of not much more to come but sleep and rejuvenation and the prospect of rising again.
I think of the song as mine alone because it is the call of my wise and loving grandmother, as well as my own naive youth. And with it I remember the words I spoke at her funeral almost 20 years ago, when I struggled to describe her to the congregation. I admitted that my words were flat, like snapshots, and that to truly reveal the person that she was, I would have to take you with me, to her house on the hill, where you would feel serene just to be in her presence … the presence of a woman whose soul was as pure and clear as the call of a whippoorwill.
Perhaps that’s why I love that bird’s call, because in reminding me of her, it calls for me to be the same.