Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Listen to the Mockingbird

When I remember my grandfather now, it seems he was a pretty somber fellow…maybe even a bit grim. Members of the family would sometimes confide to me that he had never gotten over my father’s death, and I did know that he had banished all of the musical instruments to the attic. “There won’t be any more music in this house,” he said. Often, I would prowl around up there where a fiddle, a banjo and a guitar stood quietly in a corner, like chastened children.

But sometimes, on summer nights, when we sat on the porch and listened to the rain crows on Painter Knob, my grandfather would smile and hum a bit of some old song.

“Can I sleep in your barn tonight, mister?
It is cold lying out on the ground.
The cold north wind is a-blowing,
And I have no place to lie down.”

Then, he would get up and retrieve his old tuning fork from the mantle above the fireplace, strike it against his kneecap or the heel of his hand and intone:

“Doo, doo, doo. Meee, mee, meee!”

Then, he was off on a singing bender. He loved old quartet pieces that allowed him to sing several parts.

“Come to the church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dell!”
“Listen to the mockingbird!
Oh, listen to the mockingbird!
The mockingbird is singing o’er her grave.”

My grandmother would look at me and smile, but she was also a little nervous. When my grandfather had sudden bursts of good will, he did peculiar things. Like the night he went to visit his friend, Walter Potts.

My grandfather had known Walter all of his life. Both men had been born in Cowee in Macon County, and now, oddly enough, they were neighbors. When we sat on our porch on summer nights, we could see a kerosene lamp on the front porch of the Potts house where Walter and his wife, Sara sat, rocking in the darkness.

As best as I can remember, the events of the “Walter Potts Night” began with laughter. My grandfather had been staring for some time at the Potts house, and had even talked a bit about Walter. My grandfather recalled numerous pranks he had played on Walter when the two boys worked in a sawmill. It seemed that Walter was such a good-natured soul, my grandfather couldn’t resist tormenting him.

Then, my grandfather grew quiet for a while. Eventually, he gave a little chuckle, and then he laughed outright. Suddenly, he rose and went in the house. In a moment, he said, “Come and help me, Agnes.” My grandmother looked at me and shook her head. “Hold onto your hat,” she said and went into the house. When I attempted to follow, my grandfather said, “Gar-Nell, you stay outside.” And, so I did.

There was a lot of loud, incoherent talking from my grandparent’s bedroom. My grandmother seemed to be objecting to something and frequently said, “Arthur, you can’t do that!” but my grandfather’s laughter drowned her out.

When my grandfather emerged, I had trouble recognizing him. He had on my grandmother’s “going to town” dress. His cheeks were rouged and he had on lipstick. His eyebrows had been darkened, his eyelashes were laden with mascara and a string of dime-store pearls hung around his neck. His head was wrapped in a huge kerchief. He smirked and batted his eyes at me.

“You stay here, Gar-Nell.”

I didn’t say anything, but I had no intention missing this! He was carrying his big Rayovac flashlight and as soon as he was out of sight, I ran for the pasture above our house – a pasture that ended just above the Potts house.
When I crawled up under a big rhododendron bush above the front porch of the Potts House, my grandfather was already there, standing in the moonlit road below the porch. He had a little lace handkerchief and he dabbed his eyes as he talked in a high falsetto.

“Walter, don’t you remember me?” Grandpa did a pretty good imitation of weeping. “Oh, Walter, how could you forget?”

Walter and Sara were standing on the porch, their mouths agape as my grandfather dabbed his eyes and said, “Come down here and talk to me.”

“You got me confused with someone else,” said Walter.

“I’ve rode the bus all the way from Waycross, and I’m not leaving until you talk to me.”

“Do you know that woman, Walter?” said Sara.

“No, I don’t. Never seen her.”

“How come she knows your name and where you live?”

“We need to talk about … Willie,” said my grandfather. “You remember Willie, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t. Listen, you crazy woman, you better get out of here, if you know what’s good for you.” I noticed that Sara had vanished from the porch. When she reappeared in the yard, she was picking up green walnuts from the big black walnut tree by the spring. Then, she wound up and threw one, and it hit my grandfather in the side of the head.

“Ka-thunk!” That had to hurt. “Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk!” I don’t think that Sara missed more than once or twice. My grandfather was in full retreat and Sara was
in pursuit. He finally broke into a hobbling run, dropping his flashlight and leaving one of my grandmother’s “sensible shoes” in the road in a litter of smooched walnuts. Sara followed for a short distance and then stood in the middle of the road with her hands on her hips. She yelled some colorful insults that included “Hussy” and “Jezabel,” before she returned to the porch.

“When was you ever in Waycross?” she asked Walter.

“Never,” said Walter. Sara went in the house and slammed the door. Eventually, Walter followed her, still proclaiming his innocence.

When I got back to our porch, my grandmother was dabbing iodine on grandpa’s face. He was banged up pretty good, and he did have some pretty good bruises the next day; but that night, even with a black eye and some loose teeth, he was laughing.

“What if she had shot you?” said my grandmother.
“But she didn’t,” chuckled my grandfather.
“When you start this foolishness, you get carried away.”
Late into the night, I could still hear him imitating Walter’s
“I think you got me confused with somebody else,” and laughing.

Walter brought grandpa’s flashlight and my grandmother’s shoe back the next day, placing them on the porch and shaking his head.
“I knowed it was you all the time,” he told Grandpa.
“Did, huh?”
“Why shore! Thought I’d go along with it, though, just to see how far you’d go.” He left shaking his head.

Grandpa winked at me, and said, “Like hell he did!”

The visit to Walter Potts took place over sixty years ago, but recently, I told a psychologist/friend about it and he said, “Your grandfather was a manic depressive.” He went on to explain that this mental ailment was characterized by abrupt shifts in mood: from depression to a kind of manic glee. I have to admit it sounded like my grandfather. I also asked the friend if manic-depressives were dangerous. He shook his head. He said that in actual fact they were common. “Other than those occasional shifts in mood, I imagine your grandfather was a good father and a reasonably stable fellow.” Then, he smiled and said, “Studies indicate that mild mania and depression is a common trait of creative people … actors, writers and storytellers.”
Storytellers, huh?”
“Oh, yes.”
“Well, thanks for the free diagnosis,” I said. I left him sitting there. He could pay for his own coffee.

I’ve been trying to think if I have ever behaved in a manner that could be called “manic.”
…….Naw, I don’t think so.


  1. That was a great prank, even if it earned a belated diagnosis. That kind of thing happens when one listens to the mockingbirds.

  2. So, you think there is a form of dementia that is
    induced by singing mockingbirds! Maybe this is a
    southern version of the nightingales in English and
    Greek poetry. Is it nightingales that sing on the tomb of Orpheus?