MOURNING DOVES AND FOREVER LOVES
It was the signal. The warning. The absolute communication tool of my world. And yet, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I knew how my mother came up with it. It had never failed to bring me home and make me aware of my limits and boundaries at home and in life. It was another way to know I was wanted . It was a whistle. The sound of a mourning dove recreated by the special way my mother put her hands together and blew into the flexed thumbs slightly apart over her cupped hands. She could make that sound loud enough to reach my hearing two and three blocks from home. “Cooah, coo, coo,coo. That low throaty moan of the dove.
My generation was a different time than today with all of its fears and monitoring. We could play outside the house until dark, and after about the age of six or seven I could go play up the street if accompanied by my sister three years older than me. Sometimes we could play later yet; chase fire flies (lightning bugs), play flashlight tag, and hide and seek late at night.
Pictured: Marguerite (standing) Future author Joyce Godwin Grubbs, On right. Future Pioneer Police Woman, Trula Ann Godwin (Tanner) (Foreground)
Learning that special sound took me all the way through my adolescent years. I had to master the technique and it was something I taught my children as they grew up and tried to whistle. I would brag about the “special” whistle I used and could teach them, always telling them the story of my mother’s signal to bring us home as was a meaningful experience for me.
Fast forward life to 1998. Mother’s health had failed to the point of knowing that her time on earth was coming to an end. Truly, she’d been “dying” for most of my adult years and had many close calls. My years of nursing taught me that there is an innate intelligence in people that lets them know when they are getting close to their passing. Often, the people who are more emotionally bonded to them seem to sense the impending change as well. Perhaps that explains how my sister and I ended up at mom’s at the same time one day. It had become rare for the three of us to be together as our schedules rarely meshed.
On this occasion my sister was doing her usual provocative talking and decided to discuss about ‘when she dies’. She went into elaborate discourse about wanting a Mexican funeral and celebration. She said in Mexico they go to the cemetery and have a big party on the grave and drink and dance. The Day of the Dead occurs on November 2, known as the Day of the Dead. In their belief system, there are three deaths when you die. First, the moment you cease to breath, have visual field and the heart stops. Second, when the body is placed into the grave and returned to “whence it came”. Third and last, is when the thought or memory of living people remembers you for the last time.
On The Day of the Dead, families have a reunion at the cemetery on the grave sites of those who have passed on. They bring baskets of food, bottles of tequila, and sometimes a mariachi band. In the homes there are altars to “lure” the souls back for a visit: incense is burned, foods are abundant and sometimes there is a basin of water and a towel for the soul to freshen up before eating. A pack of cigarettes to relax with after the meal may be left for the departed but expected soul.
The more my sister elaborated, the more my mother tried to act casual about it. Ignoring my sister’s persistent references about her belief in reincarnation was the way mother supported her own belief that reincarnation beliefs were blasphemous. Mother didn’t hold for one moment with the idea of contact after death. The lifelong competition between the two parties, my sister and mother, of trying to “get each other’s goats”, kept mother from showing how truly annoyed she was. I think she was trying to preserve the moment of my sister and I being together, with her, in her bedroom lying together on the bed, and all talking like we used too. It would be something she wouldn’t want to end.
The conversation did get to the point of my sister insisting we make ‘the pact’. We were to be sure and contact each other with some significant sign after death. It would have to be something that would identify us: be so particular to us that we would know it was from that person. We didn’t know for a certainty what, if any, methods were available. We heard people claim their deceased loved ones found ways: through flowers blooming in the winter, special music playing at special times, certain animals and birds appearing, etc.. Still, Mother didn’t really commit. She didn’t say anything negative about the plan , thus placating my sister. To Trula, mother’s silence indicated compliance with the plan.
The test of the pact would come sooner than we realized. Within that month, at the end of an exceptionally good weekend trip, mother returned home and had a major stroke. While plans were being made to bring her home from the hospital to all kinds of special home care, hospital bed, etc., she must have reasoned with God that she just wasn’t the kind to do that. She had not remained independent recovering from some really close calls, to end up an invalid. God took her home and arrangements were made to ‘let her go’.
I can’t begin to explain the level of exhaustion I was in when the end came. I just felt overwhelmed by the amount of energy it took to pick out the casket, make phone calls to relatives and deal with the inevitable family politics which always goes along with the transition of family when someone passes. I only know that I was not in the mood for anything that wasn’t a necessity to be dealt with. I didn’t feel like I should have to “put up with anything” either. So when my sister’s call came early the morning after the visitation, I was anything but receptive.
I woke to the shrill ring of the phone. So tired was I, that it took some time to actually focus and realize this was the morning of mother’s funeral. Who would be calling so early knowing I needed rest ? Who else but my sister. She talked of the visitation last evening and pronounced in an almost giddy way, “Well, she did it”. She made contact last night”.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself she was in mourning too and we cope in different ways. She had always been so ‘magical minded’ and into the things of the supernatural, so I truly expected her to claim a contact, but not this soon. I was feeling irritated and in my most condescending way I said, “Oh really?”
She continued undeterred. “It was when I left the funeral home to go to my car. I rounded the back of the car to the driver’s side and there on an evergreen branch over my hood was a mourning dove. It just sat there staring at me. I couldn’t believe it just sat there at that hour of the night. It made that cooing sound. You know the one mother used to use when she wanted us to come home”.
My irritable nature just wouldn’t let me accept it. Even though I admit to a certain momentary chill at the mention of her whistle and the reference to calling us home. I mustered some compassion and said as politely as I could, “I am so glad she contacted you. I know it’s what you wanted.”
The police officer in her was not fooled. “Oh I know you don’t believe me but it’s true. It didn’t even fly off when I opened the door and got in. Just sat there staring at me and cooing. I could have touched it; it was that close. I just wanted you to know so when she makes contact with you you’ll tell me right away.”
Would I ever get through that day, I wondered? It was emotionally traumatic and now I had to deal with handling her and not discouraging her. “I promise if she contacts me you will be the first to know.”
I spent a little more time in the water-bed just isolating until I had to get up and face the day. I went over the recent events and mentally organized the itinerary of the next few days. After the funeral we would fly Mother’s body to our home state of Oklahoma for a second funeral for the family there. It would mean driving down about twelve hours then back. Ugh. I hated fast trips.
I knew my husband would be up sitting in his recliner by the picture window in the living room. I couldn’t wait to whine to him about my sister’s call and whine about how it could have waited, and how she would always have to put the supernatural “spin” on things. In other words, whine.
He heard me stirring and had a cup of coffee ready for me. He put it on the window sill at the opposite end of the picture window from where he sat. I was headed to the wing back chair so we could enjoy our front yard view together, and regroup.
The front yard was what “sold” me on the house. Huge trees, lots of shade with many birds, squirrels and rabbits to watch. My mother loved coming there and always sat in this same wing back chair and watched the birds and animals feed. She loved our yard as she had given up a big yard when they moved to their retirement housing in a specially equipped apartment above their chiropractic clinic. She especially loved the large feeding platform attached outside to the picture window ledge. All the sunflower seeds would spill over for the ground feeders and the area would teem with birds and squirrels fussing over the seed, and at night the inevitable visits from the raccoons and possums.
When I entered the room to be seated I was already muttering out loud about my sister being inconsiderate calling me so early . I had barely uttered the words “and you won’t believe what she says happened” when I was startled by something nearby on the picture window ledge. There, sitting quietly in the corner of the outside frame, was a lone mourning dove. When I entered the room it turned it’s head and looked at me slightly ruffling it’s feathers (an action usually reserved for winter when they are trying to manage their heat to combat the cold). “Look”, I exclaimed. “Look on the ledge”.
My husband turned and looked unaffected. “Yeah, it’s a Mourning dove”.
“I know” I replied sarcastically, “but that’s what I was going to tell you about.”
With his usual selective hearing he went on as though he hadn’t heard me. “They don’t usually come up on the window or that feeding platform. They’re ground feeders”.
“I know” I repeated more irritated than I intended, “I am trying to tell you about why I got this early morning call from your sister in law”. I went on to tell him about her call and how she had been all excited about “her sign” from mother. I groaned and moaned about how this was going to be a ‘pain in the butt’ as she wouldn’t drop it.
All the time I was complaining, the mourning dove was watching the yard, occasionally tipping it’s head side to side and cocking it in a questioning manner when it turned to look at me. I finally had to acknowledge it was odd that this morning, of all mornings, after years of feeding the birds, for the first time ever, a Mourning dove chose to sit on the ledge right in front of where mom used to sit in this chair and watch the yard. The dove wasn’t eating, just sitting and watching the yard. It was a little intimidating.
I talked with my husband about the significance of the Mourning dove in the childhood of my sister and I and how that hand blown whistle brought us home and let us know we were to come no matter what we were doing. He reminded me that he had heard that story so many times in past years and he could hardly believe I wouldn’t know that. We talked about the “pact” of recent time with mom and we girls, sitting on her bed talking about sending signs.
My no nonsense husband smiled knowing how that would have gone over with my conservative mom like a lead balloon. But then he added, “Well, you know this bird thing is odd. And it definitely would be something you girls would connect to your mom”.
The anger at him mocking me and ‘siding with my sister’ as I interpreted it, caused me to bolt from the room and sulk the whole time I got ready to leave for the funeral.
Following the funeral we had some down time. Family was already departing at various times for our home state of Oklahoma, and the service that would take place there. I decided I would drive my father down in his car as he was tired and like his usual ‘energizer bunny self’, he was pushing the envelope and not sleeping. It was as though he was in fast forward mode to get through this.
Dad wasn’t ready when I arrived so I went next door to sit with the neighbors on their porch and give them contact information about reaching us while we were gone. As we talked I noticed a lone Mourning dove wandering in the parking lot by our cars. I was just about to say something when the neighbor man spoke up.
“Look at that. There’s one of those Mourning doves just walking in circles in your dad’s parking lot. You don’t usually see just one, like that. They travel in pairs all the time”.
“That’s because they mate for life” his wife contributed.
I began to relay to them the happenings concerning the doves since mother’s passing. Knowing they were of the same no nonsense persuasion like my parents when it came to religion, I wasn’t able to gauge how they would react so I presented it in a very matter-of-factly way. They listened intently then contributed that the American Indians believe that the spirits come back as birds and sometimes animals after death. They didn’t really know if they believed it though.
When my dad finally came out to load the car the neighbor called to him and pointed out the dove still wandering around the lot and our cars. My dad rolled his eyes, shook his head and said, “these girls”. (You have to realize if my sister did anything they considered wrong, it was never just her it was “the girls”.)
With a twelve hour drive ahead, it was inevitable that the discussion would eventually happen regarding the doves. We processed it together and I sensed it was a calm discussion because he wanted to savor the possibility. But, eventually he lapsed into his rendering of many scriptures from the Bible that would make this totally unpalatable to him and explain why ‘it could never happen’. Though the emphatic exclusion of any possibility would normally have whetted my appetite to argue the point, I let it drop out of reverence for his mourning and feeling now was a time to bond, not argue.
The day of the funeral was stunning. The kind of day I’d always said I wanted for my own funeral. Perfect blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds which floated like small islands of cotton candy and housed, I am sure, many angels peeking down to watch the proceedings. No humidity, no wind, just calm and beautiful. It was good to be back in Oklahoma.
At the cemetery we gathered under the tent for the last words before the interment. The pastor had been coaxed by my father on what to say since many of us would be a captive audience to hear at least one more time the words and beliefs of my parents and to have the chance to ‘get it right’ before we died. The task was made easier by the fact the presiding pastor was a family relative who was also of the same strict faith of my parents.
I elected not to sit under the tent at the interment with the other immediate family as I had an uncle who did not handle funerals well. My mother’s oldest brother, Uncle Jack, had been estranged for most of the years of his twenties and thirties yet eventually returning to the fold without altering his “habits” which had offended the more religious members. Naturally I wanted him to feel my support. I walked to the edge of the gathering and put my arms around his waist and laid my head on his chest. With the blinding light of the beautiful day I had to close my light-sensitive eyes and just focus on the words of the pastor. The bountiful sunlight beat down and I began to feel overheated. At last it was over and I went back to the car.
At the family luncheon which followed I began to recoup after large amounts of iced tea. My sister brought up the doves and I decided to just let her present it and offered no input. Later, in the retelling of the event to my husband, he said I should have brought up the one at the burial. Confused, I asked him what he meant.
“The one in the evergreen tree by the tent.”
A little unsure, I said I hadn’t seen one as I was with my uncle and had my eyes closed. He said it just sat on an evergreen branch and watched the service.
With the pomp and circumstances over, my husband and I made our way back home to Iowa. My dad took his car and remained with his family in Oklahoma for a few days. My husband and I decided to break up our return trip by visiting friends on the way back. The couple knew my parents and Carol had worked in their office for them at one point. Being able to stay the night was a relief and we arrived at bedtime exhausted and went directly to bed.
Early the next morning I wandered downstairs in pursuit of the wonderful smells that were wafting up to our guest bedroom. The old Victorian house reflected the warm hospitality I knew would be awaiting me. The house decor was done in beautiful colors with welcoming flowers, wildlife figures, and bright morning sunshine flowed through the dining room bay window with its inviting bench seating.
I was caught up in the moment and in a attitude of blessed relief when I suddenly was catapulted into reality by my hostess loud salutation.
“Hey Baby, come here, I want you to see the new bird feeder Dave made me. It’s really got ’em flocking in. And if you want to see something unusual, I’ve been watching this Mourning dove run back and forth to the feeder, then up towards this window, then back again. And it’s just one. Usually there is always a pair but I haven’t seen another one.”
It was like instant replay, like someone messing with my mind. I had intended to tell her about ‘mother-the Mourning dove’ signs, but now I hesitated. She laughed at the sight in the yard and continued.
“Look how that dove keeps looking up here in the window like it expects something. Maybe it thinks there’s more food coming or I should serve it.”.
I inched toward the window and truly the bird was looking toward the big windows and appeared to be waiting for something. For me? Who knew? I suddenly found myself launching into a detailed account of the “bird incidents” since mother’s passing. I figured that being my friend would make Carol totally sympathetic to my mood and needs concerning the whole issue. Her laughter soon dispelled any expectations I had.
“Well it seems to me that your sister got her sign, your dad got his, your husband got his at the burial and now I’m getting mine. This is really cool. “ She turned to the window and called out my mother’s name. “Enjoy yourself, Marguerite. David made the new feeding area, so I hope you stick around and enjoy it.”
She continued to chatter incessantly about the signs, the doves, and what she herself would send as a sign when she died. She found it funny it was Mother that was the first to go, and ended up being the one to send the signs, considering her aversion to the concept.
My husband and I returned home and time passed. Almost a year later I drove this same crazy friend of mine, Carol, to her hometown in Ohio when I went to my new grandson Jeff’s baptism. My youngest daughter Shannon had become pregnant just as mother died, thus never got to tell her. We assured Shannon with all the ‘esp’ my mother had, but denied, she undoubtedly knew about the baby without being formally told. Now the baby was here and I was going to the baptism in Ohio and would take my good friend Carol who had not been back there in twenty years or more.
Driving eight and a half hours isn’t bad unless you travel with a friend who knows every line of every song on the radio and sings it out loud and slightly off key. By the time we reached our motel at almost nine p.m. and I was about to lose it. We had held off eating supper so that we could unpack at the motel, eat in a leisurely fashion, then go to bed and be rested in the morning for the ceremony. I also thought we might run into some of the family at the same motel, as we had reserved a block of rooms.
Diabetics should never push the envelope by not eating on time because as the blood level drops and the insulin rises you tend to get really crabby. At the point we registered at the hotel I was so crabby I could have taken Carol’s eyeballs out and stuffed them up her nose if she sang one more verse of one more song. All I wanted to do was get unpacked, eat, and go to sleep. The last 100 miles had been rainy, foggy and dismal and like being entombed with the mother of all off key singers.
I registered us quickly being sure they accommodated us with the handicap room Carol would need. We were sharing a room on the ground floor and that accommodated both of us. I told her to remain in the car until I could unload the first load and get the door open. True to form she was already out of the car when I got back with the key and was leading the way using her cane and dragging items with her.
“Hey look up there” she called.” There’s your mom”.
I looked up to the balcony across the courtyard beyond the fenced-in swimming pool thinking Carol had seen my daughter up there, and in her tired state, had said mom instead of daughter. Seeing no one I asked her where to look. She directed my gaze with a hand gesture and a loud, “There”.
Looking in the direction of her pointed finger I saw a lone Mourning dove sitting on the evergreen branch just outside the swimming pool fence.
“There, on the branch. I can’t believe it’s out this hour of the night and sitting in the cold rain”. Carol started laughing, “Guess she came to see Jeff and for the party too”.
My humor had failed me and I grumpily yelled at her to get over to the room and get the door open. I had more trips to make back and forth to the car, in the rain. I was tired, hungry, and low blood sugar was plunging me toward insulin reaction. Carol was laughing and enjoying my discomfort. I deposited her in the room and went back for more.
The dove remained, not moving. In and out , three trips and with each deposit in the room, Carol would laugh and ask me if ‘mom was still there?’ I answered in a truly foul way and stomped in and out dramatically.
The fourth trip to the car for the last of the items I looked warily at the dove. It remained still on the branch and just watched me. I loaded myself with everything so I wouldn’t have to make another trip and wouldn’t have to pass that dove again. I turned to go back in and suddenly either my low sugar reached a level of surrender, or my need to reconnect with my mom overwhelmed me.
“Mom, if that’s your sign, or you, or however this works, thanks for coming. I really needed it and I am sure in time to come ,it will mean a lot to the family knowing you were here”.
I continued on into the room and left the last of the items. Then, making an excuse I’d forgotten something, I went back out to see if the dove was still there. It was not. Having been acknowledged it had felt free to leave. Or at least that was how I chose to interpret it.
In the intervening years after my mother’s death and before my sister’s death, my sister spoke of odd appearances of a mourning dove, always alone, in various locations and always in my sister’s ‘time of need’. One appeared on the window ledge of her eighth story apartment in the downtown city area, and it would peck on her window. The visits always coincided with times of need or distress in her life so she always believed firmly it was mother’s way of signaling her that she was near and aware.
I guess for me, mother provided a more permanent and daily reminder. I visited a ‘runaway’ place, that is a popular ‘tourist boutique’ sort of place. I have gone there for years when I just needed a break from stress. I eat lunch in one of the special tea rooms or deli places, wander in and out of small boutiques with hand crafted or imported items, and visit the artist outlets and galleries.
One gallery in particular has a really unique selection. I decided to go in there on one of those particularly melancholy days. He was busy on the phone so I wandered, looking at the framed pieces, and then I wandered in where he sat working on a new painting.
He had a new painting spread before him that was about two thirds finished and I looked forward to the time I’d be able to see it for sale in the pricey shops of the area. I’d always feel it was special as I’d seen in ‘creation’ form. It also reminded me of childhood days and gave me a moment of nostalgia.
I could tell he was finishing his call so I wandered over to a cabinet with several unframed prints enclosed in plastic covers. Looking through them I was suddenly arrested by the sight of a painting of a Mourning dove on the tip of a lone branch. It was sitting with ruffled feathers looking back at the viewer just like the morning I had seen “mine” on the ledge of my picture window. I just stood staring and thinking about that day and how it had seemed so odd and special at the time.
The artist approached me and seeing the print in my hand he said, “You know that’s got a special story with it.” I turned to look at him directly. “Yeah, it’s not the kind I usually do, but about a year ago I was sitting right at that window and painting. This dove landed on a branch and sat there just watching. Then it began tapping on the window. This went on for a few days and the pecking on the window continued and I just had to paint it. People thought I was nuts because it wouldn’t be a good seller, and they didn’t like the way I painted it with its feathers all ruffled up like it was cold. But I felt like I should paint it like it was. As soon as I finished it, it left and never came back.”
Speechless doesn’t begin to address how I reacted. I did finally relate the stories to him and he really felt “connected” to the string of events. Some would say he just wanted to make a sale, but believe me, he didn’t have to sell me. It was an instant connection when I saw it. Today it hangs in my living room to remind me of my mom and the mysteries of life and death.
The most recent “visit” was this last week. My dad had been asked to go to Brazil to fill in for a doctor who’s Visa wouldn’t arrive in time. At the age of 81 my dad still travels the world doing mission trips and teaching chiropractic. This substitution meant, however, that he would not be here to celebrate Father’s Day in the traditional sense. I asked him to come by for a meal the Wednesday before he left. After a little ‘over eating’ we went out into the back yard to watch our two greyhounds entertain us. After our greyhounds had run rampant for a while,they went inside with my husband.
Dad and I were alone in the yard. Perfect weather, bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds, not unlike the day mom was buried. I handed him a colorful gift bag with his father’s day gifts inside. He grumbled as usual; “didn’t need to” , “what’s this stuff?”, and I ignored it as usual. The first thing he pulled out of the bag I gave him, were papers rolled up and tied with a simple lavender ribbon. He unrolled it and began to read the ‘Legacy Story’ I had written for him called “Birdie, Birdie in the Sky; Will You Marry Me?”. It was the story of how he met mother and their courtship.
His reading of the story went on for some time and it was during this time we heard the sound. The signal. The ‘cooah, coo, coo, coo’. Sitting in the highest branch of one of the tallest trees in the yard was a lone mourning dove. She sat there repeating her familiar sounds as Dad read the story and while he opened his other gifts.
He submitted to a picture of himself by the garden in his new father’s day hat and shirt: “Property of my family-24/7 – 365.” It seemed a poignant moment as we noted the dove had sat through the entire gift giving then suddenly was gone.
Sure, we can read things in to and out of anything. As I have had more encounters, heard more “bird” stories, had “signals” from my sister since her passing, I have come more to the point of believing you call it as you see it. Religious discussions aside, I am sure that if these are points of contact from beyond, they are loving gestures to remind us that it is because we are loved and they want us to know they await our coming. And I for one would never profess to know how God set this world up or the world that waits for us, but I do know it would be done in a loving and thoughtful manner with our welfare and good intent in mind.
When I have had a special moment with a Mourning dove, I choose to believe it is because it is a ‘sign’ of my Mother’s forever love, not my mother. It is also a legacy I hope to experience with more family members when I go.
Since mother’s death we have made many “sanctuaries” in our yard and trees for the birds, and in particular the Mourning Doves following the state of Iowa changing its laws and allowing a “season for Mourning Dove hunting.” We have been rewarded with a huge influx of many birds but the Mourning Doves have truly ‘moved in’.
In closing let me just say that I don’t struggle with whether or not there is life after death. There is. However, like many I waffle about contact, although folks point out to me that with all the wonderful, otherwise unexplained things I have experienced, I am a “hard headed pessimist” if I don’t believe. In truth, while the Mourning doves are compelling, the “unexplained, unexpected, random finds of 3 shiny dimes at odd places, odd times, and again, associated with my mother are the most unbelievable for me, but most reassuring. But that is a God Wink story for another time.