I’m drinking coffee in the morning light when the mourning dove begins to call outside my window. The plaintive, slide-whistle melody rises and falls through the quiet house, a sound that reminds me, through to my bones, of my childhood.
My father’s parents lived in a midcentury modern house in Yellow Springs. They were formidable, though loving, figures to a little girl, fierce intellectuals whose dinner-table conversations often went straight over my head. My grandfather was a librarian at Antioch College and one of a collective body of editors who founded The Antioch Review, and my grandmother was a journalist and nonfiction writer who maintained an active membership in a local writer’s group.
My sister and I loved to spend rainy days lounging on the pullout sofa bed in my grandfather’s study, reading old Mad magazines that we found stashed on the bookshelves lining the narrow back hallway, or paging through a hardbound book with collected Wonder Woman comics and a foreword by Gloria Steinem. But when the weather was bright, we were usually shooed outside to play.
In summers, amid pungent Osage orange trees on one side of the drive and the cool shade of the pine trees at the end of the property, mourning doves sang, punctuating games of make-believe as we raced, shrieking across the lawn, or hunted for flower fairies in the garden. The song of the mourning doves was so familiar that it took me several years to wonder about it.
One day, I must have asked: “What bird is that?” My grandmother, or maybe it was my father, or my sister — I am not sure of the details of this memory — told me it was a mourning dove. I heard “morning dove,” and I turned my face eastward and smiled.
When as a teenager I first saw the words “mourning dove” in print, I felt physically dizzy for a moment as constructs shifted and realigned in my brain, imagery and associations spinning and falling properly into place like tumblers inside a lock. Mourning. That haunting lament. Of course.
My grandfather died in 1991. By that time, my grandmother had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car with her one summer in the mid-’80s as my grandfather drove us out to dinner. She was a lifelong smoker and slowly turned a silver lighter over and over in her hands, describing how she had bought it in Burma, where she and my grandfather lived in the late ’50s when he was the library adviser for the Social Science Library at the University of Rangoon.
I listened idly and watched the trees blur past the window. I focused back on her slowly, alarm bells ringing as she told the story a second time, then, moments after finishing, repeated it again.
Over the following years, I helplessly watched her brilliance fold into itself as she lost her memory and became lost in her memories, retreating into a past that ultimately blurred us into archetypal characters rather than people she knew. By the time we were visiting her in the care center, my father was recast: sometimes as himself or maybe one of his brothers, sometimes her father, sometimes her husband. My sister and I gradually became sweet young women she could not place at all; she was unfailingly polite but often baffled by our presence. By the time of her death in 1998 she had long been unable to recognize anyone or anything. Our grief then was an echo of the mourning we had been doing for years.
My husband had heard me talk so often of the house in Yellow Springs that one summer, while driving down Interstate 71 toward St. Louis, when our 19-year-old son was still a baby and our younger son was not yet born, we took a detour. We wound our way past fields and down small-town roads until we found it.
I was holding our little boy, and maybe that’s why we knocked and why they invited us in. Somehow the couple who lived there recognized my family name. One of them, maybe the woman, remembered hearing stories about my grandparents being the original owners and the three boys they raised into men. They welcomed us to walk around and see how things had changed.
I wasn’t prepared for the translucent sheet of memory hovering over unfamiliar furniture and carpet and curtains. We went out the back door into the sunshine. My grandmother’s beautiful garden behind the house was gone, reseeded into grass. There wasn’t even the ghost of a smell of my grandfather’s cigar. The yard didn’t seem nearly as expansive to my adult eyes. As we left, my foot struck an Osage orange, which rolled, uneven and erratic, off the edge of the driveway. I don’t remember if I heard any mourning doves.
These days, I find myself mourning anew as more family members have begun to battle Alzheimer’s. My own memories — of my grandparents, of the house in Yellow Springs, of the mourning doves and childhood games with my sister — are not, strictly speaking, reliable. I am beginning to live what I have long intellectually understood: the heart of a memory is not found in the precision of its details.
It seems to me that we are what we remember, and when my loved ones reminisce with me now, the same story told over and over again like my grandmother turning the lighter over and over in her hands, I am learning to let go of the desire to question the accuracy of the memories they recount. Instead, I sit with them, I watch their beloved faces and I listen as their voices rise and fall.