When my mom could still remember the stories she used to share, one that she told with equal amounts of delight and scorn was about her predilection for whistling. Mom can indeed whistle — in all sorts of ways I have never mastered. She can do easy melodic whistling, but she can also do that rather manly blast that requires a tightly-drawn lower lip and the tongue curled up — the type of whistle a football coach might use to bring his players to attention from halfway across the field.
Mom always attributed these skills to her Irish and Welsh background, claiming that her ancestors were all great whistlers.
Her favorite whistling story was when she was a teenager at her Catholic high school and was happily whistling in the stairwell, enjoying the amplified sound the enclosed space produced, when a nun abruptly entered and scolded her, “Miss Brophy! Would Mary have whistled?” I’m sure my mother was polite and respectful in the moment, but the punchline of her story was always “I certainly hope that Mary whistled.” This whistling story also reaffirmed my mother’s disdain for the nuns. To say that mom didn’t like the nuns is an understatement. “The nuns” were central to my mother’s decision to send my brother and me to public schools for our entire education, “So that you didn’t have to go through what I did.” She had been educated exclusively in Catholic schools, even college.
Mom’s great musicality and humor have remained intact even as she has lost memory, which has faded along with her tight grasp on language, and even her knowledge of who I am. As the documentary “Alive Inside” and Oliver Sacks’s writing on music and the brain have shown, dementia patients hold on to music as an essential idiom even when other modes of communication slip away. I play accordion for my mom almost every day, and when I am learning new songs, she sits patiently by — as she always did when I was learning to play piano as a child — and waits for me to master the song. She smiles and claps when I hit the right notes, still able to recognize musical correctness even though most of her verbal capacity is now gone. It is both fascinating and moving to witness. I still have my mother very much with me in the context of music. Even though she can’t remember lyrics, she sings and hums, harmonizes and embellishes tunes. Lawrence Welk is a regular and welcomed part of our lives (even though my mother made fun of the show when my grandmother would watch it). We sing along and we sometimes dance together in the living room.
Mom still whistles. A lot. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I can hear her in her room, in bed, whistling. She sometimes wakes me up, and depending on my mood, I will either shout from my room, “Stop whistling!!” or I will go into her room and say, calmly, “Mom, could you please stop whistling? It’s three o’clock in the morning.” “Oh. Okay, honey,” she’ll respond with her usual sweetness. And then, more often than not, I’ll hear her start up again once she has forgotten I was there.