When My Mother Whistles, Happiness Follows

Jan 22, 2023
An older dark haired woman is washing dishes with her middle aged daughter. They are both smiling and appear happy.

“A mother’s happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future but reflected also in the past in the guise of fond memories.” — Honore de Balzac

When Charley Pride started singing about San Anton, my husband reached over and turned up the radio. He tapped the beat out on the steering wheel as he began singing along.

A few seconds later, I could hear my mother join in from the backseat, easily recalling the words from a song five decades old.

I closed my eyes and listened. I let my heart fill with the sound. You cannot plan moments like that. They can never be replicated. It was the next best thing to hearing her whistle.

A difficult life

Like has never been easy for my mother. Her childhood memories are filled with the constant conflict between her parents and the struggle to make ends meet.

From a very early age, she took on part-time jobs to pay for her clothes and shoes and whatever special things she needed.

As happened with many women of her generation, they tended to replicate their childhood in their own adult lives beginning with marriage.

And so it was with my mother. She married young, a man very different yet the same as her father.

I loved my father dearly. But even so, he was not much of a provider for the family. The bottle called to him more often than not.

Mom always had to work to help support the family. I can remember times when she wondered where she would get the $50 to pay the monthly rent.

And then she would whistle

Somewhere between the arguing and the silent treatment, my parents would find a temporary contentedness. During those moments my mother would whistle.

She whistled when she did the dishes, when she cooked dinner, or when she hung the laundry out to dry.

Whistling became a signal of comfort and momentary security to my brother, sister, and me. When mother whistled there would be no angry words. No asking me to “tell your dad” whatever it was she wanted to say but wouldn’t.

Mom’s one indulgence

Mom spent little time or money on herself. She had no hobbies and no interests outside the home. Her family was her life.

Her one outlet was music. She loved to listen and sing along with her favorite country music artists. When she could indulge in something, it was a record album from Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, or Tammy Wynette.

They sang her story, put her life to music.

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Today my mother is nearing eighty-three. Life didn’t get any easier for my mom after I left home. Even though I tried to help when I could, she seemed to be her own worst enemy when it came to finding happiness and security.

Her second nine months with me

When she was in her mid-seventies, I asked her to come live with me and my husband in central Montana.

At the time she was still working. And she insisted on working when she arrived.

I was skeptical about her finding a job, especially at her age. But Mom was determined and made it happen. She worked evenings as a housekeeper in a small, local hospital.

It was hard on her, I could tell. She slept late in the mornings and did little between the time she woke up and the time she left for work. She had no friends in Montana and relied entirely on me for companionship.

But I also worked full-time, had my husband and friends, and outside interests. It became a constant guilt trip for me each time I left her sitting home alone.

In the nine months my mother was with us, I don’t recall hearing her whistle. Not once.

In fact, it had been so long since I heard her whistle I forgot about her “happy” habit.

Perhaps if I had remembered I would have realized her discontent.

Instead, I thought her grumpiness and constant fatigue were part of aging and vowed to my own daughters to never become that way myself.

The long harsh Montana winter didn’t help our living situation. By late spring, my mother decided to move back to Washington to live with my sister and her family.

Her return to Washington

I was disappointed by her decision, although to be honest, somewhat relieved as well.

I worried the morning she loaded up her car with as many belongings as she could squeeze in and set off on the thirteen-hour drive to my sister’s home.

Alone on the road at age seventy-five.

I spent very little time with my mother for the next seven years. Our visits were one or two hours long about twice a year. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to have more time with her, but the situation was what it was.

I talked with her frequently. Each phone call was a lesson in frustration and confusion. She seemed comfortable and optimistic one moment and terribly bored and unhappy the next.

One thing became apparent during our calls and visits. With no hobbies, no interests, and few friends, aging had become a lonely affair for my mother.

She told me many times how much she missed having a job.

At first, I couldn’t understand why. My mother worked all of her life starting as a child picking berries in the summer until her mid-seventies cleaning hospital rooms at night.

She deserved to retire.

But a job gave my mother a purpose, provided a social life, and made her feel less dependent on others. Things she needed from me when we lived in Montana. And now she was expecting them from my sister.

Finally, she came to visit

My sister was feeling the strain of living with mom in their tiny apartment. I wanted to provide some relief, to support my sister and my mother.

The only thing I could think of doing was to convince my mom to come for a visit.

A few days break would be good for both of them.

I had been trying to get Mom to visit since returning to Washington, three years ago. Until recently, her excuses for not coming were many. Except for this time.

This time she was ready. My sister was ready. And I was hopeful.

Secretly, I prayed a speck of joy would take seed. I thought my mom had forgotten how to be happy.

And her happiness was important to me, more important than I realized.

All she needed was an opportunity for a fresh perspective, to get out of the small apartment she had been cramped up in for months, away from the chaos that permeated my sister’s home.

A week of work, whistling, and memories

Her first morning here, my mother woke up early and took coffee out on the deck. It was a soft, sunny morning and she commented on how peaceful it was.

Later that day, Mom said she wanted to cook dinner. She sliced and diced and clapped pots and pans around like it was her own kitchen.

Then she began to whistle. The song was familiar although I couldn’t recall the name or the words.

I did remember barefeet on linoleum floors, the powdery smell of “To A Wild Rose,” kisses on the top of my head, and the feel of love and family.

I’m not sure mom even realized she was whistling. I didn’t mention it. I was afraid she would stop and I wanted to make the moment last as long as possible.

image by Maria Sbytova on Shutterstock

The next afternoon as I set a basket of clean laundry on the table. My mother quickly picked it up and began folding the laundry.

“I like doing the dishes and folding laundry,” she said when I protested. “You have a weird mother.” And then she laughed.

Reframing my perspectives

By the fourth day of her visit, Mom was cooking and whistling regularly. She kept herself busy with puzzles and crosswords.

We played Scrabble every night after dinner and I saw a side of my mother I thought was gone. Her sense of humor.

Near the end of one of our Scrabble games, Mom was stuck with the letter “z.” Suddenly she said, “Oh, I got it.” She laid down the letters “s,” “e,” “z.”

When I asked her what that was supposed to spell, she said, “sex!” I just looked at her and said, “It’s been a while hasn’t it, Mom?”

We laughed about her crazy spelling for the rest of the week.

The day before she left, my mother asked to go through the old trunk I was storing for her. She began pulling out her high school albums, cards, letters, and pictures from her early days with my father.

Each item had a story, fun stories, silly stories, happy stories.

Why did I not remember these things? Had I not heard the stories before?

Did I choose only to remember the painful moments in my mother’s life? Was I not listening when she told me about something wonderful?

It came to me that maybe my perspective on her life was off-kilter. I believed my mother had never been happy or she was only happy when she was miserable.

Her happiness, my happiness

I always feel sad and guilty when I listen to my mother’s criticism of my (long departed) father or her grumblings about my sister and her messy kids or the constant errands she must run.

Now I realize the things she complains about aren’t really complaints.

Folding laundry for my nephew while she babysits her great-grandsons or walking to the park with her great-granddaughter are satisfying moments for my mother.

Being with my sister’s family is similar to having a job. Being needed, performing even the simplest tasks, gives my mother a sense of purpose. Things like grocery shopping or picking up the mail keep her busy.

They also give her a little something to protest about it, bragging rights in a strange sort of way. What a relief to acknowledge this.

Whistling is not the only way she communicates her contentedness. Just the most obvious.

And maybe she is whistling at home with my sister. I just don’t know it. I don’t spend enough time with her there. But I should.

I should also have her visit more often. Let her cook and fold laundry, and spell words incorrectly when we play Scrabble. For as long as she is able.

When I was a child, my mother delighted in my every smile and giggle.

Our roles have reversed. Her smiles and laughter are a joy and comfort to me.

I will do what I can to make her feel loved and needed.

Her whistling will let me know when I have it right. Both of us will be much happier for it.

Feel a bit guilty for not taking better care of yourself?

Wish you had more time for it?

The Self-Care Mini-Workbook will help you discover what you are doing or could be doing to enhance your self-care practices? Give it a try for free!

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