Mom had called a week earlier to ask if she could send my daughter this gift. Now in her elder years, she is methodically going through the house sorting through her belongings, deciding what to do with the items accumulated over 80-some years of living. In the course of cleaning out her jewelry collection, she came across a golden whistle on a long golden chain. This is the gift she wanted to send to my 12-year-old daughter.
I remember that whistle well. Once upon a time, Mom had given me an identical one strung on a black silk cord. She had originally bought four of these whistles, one for herself, one for each of her three daughters. Always concerned with appearances and good taste, she chose the whistles because they looked like jewelry. If you didn’t look closely, you’d miss the slot on the surface where the air could pass through with its shrill song. You might think it was just a slender gold pendant worn to complement an outfit.
When the box arrived and my daughter opened it, I recalled my phone conversation with Mom. She had said, “It’s for when she goes somewhere. You know.”
She gave no further details. The implication was clear. What’s left unspoken is often more powerful than what is said. The unknown people you meet in unfamiliar places.
That whistle would have been useful for my mother on a day she went shopping in the early 1950s. While shuffling through blouses on a rack in a clothing store, she felt something tug at the back of her skirt. She turned around to see a man running away. Perhaps he was only after her purse.
My whistle would have been useful one October evening in 1989, but I didn’t have it yet. I had gone out for a walk at dusk to work off some steam from an argument. It was fall in the South, but the air was still heavy with humidity and the leaves had not yet begun to turn.
As I walked the broad main street, the sky slowly darkening, I sensed a presence trailing me across the boulevard. I glanced back to see a thin, ragged man keeping pace across the street and a few yards back — dark, dirty shirt, a fraying pair of shorts, muddy worn shoes, and a baseball cap on his head.
I continued walking at the same pace, thinking he would turn down a side street, or perhaps outstrip me in his own need to get somewhere. But he kept the same pace for several blocks, the same distance behind me, across the street.
To test his intentions, I picked up my pace slightly, hoping it was simply a coincidence that the man was walking in the same direction at the same clip.
He crossed to my side of the street and continued trailing me at the same pace.
I quickened my step again.
Now half a block directly behind me, he sped up too.
With growing panic, I turned a corner to a side street, mentally working out the blocks back to my apartment building, hoping to lose him in the neighborhood. I knew where I was. I hoped he didn’t. It was growing darker and my heart had begun to flutter, my breath coming shallower.
He turned the corner too.
Clear now that he meant harm, I sped up again, hoping to make it to the back entrance of the building before he caught up to me. I turned the next corner and tried to keep to the shadows of the old trees lining the street. Ahead I could see my apartment building, the fluorescent security light bright above the back door. Running now, I cut through the gravel parking lot, heading for that light.
I almost made it.
In the empty parking lot, just a few yards from the back door of the building, the man sprinted to catch up and grabbed my arms from behind, pinching them tightly together. I twisted and struggled against his grip. When I started to scream, he pulled a dirty rag from his pocket and shoved it in my mouth. Then he ripped the gold watch from my wrist, the watch I’d been given only a few weeks before. My screams had brought other residents from their apartments into the back doorway, and the man ran off into the blackness with my watch. I staggered into the building, and the landlord called the police, but we all knew the futility of a search for the thief.
In the box my mother sent, there wasn’t just a whistle. Along with the real chain, there was an invisible link from mother to daughter to granddaughter. The whistle and chain were golden, but the legacy is not. A clothing store in 1952. On a sidewalk in 1989. Even now, my elderly mother knows she needs to watch out for her granddaughter. Fathers and grandfathers also pass on objects for their sons’ protection, but they are likely weapons, not whistles.
When my daughter opened the box, she held up the chain and said with amazement, “Oh, a whistle!” I gazed at the innocent expression on her face, her hazel eyes not yet clouded by the pain of experience. I decided not to darken her delight with the shadow of the reason for the gift.
My mother sent my daughter a golden whistle. My spouse and I signed her up for tae kwondo.