THE other day my friend Elle was standing at the top of her stairs in the North Vancouver neighbourhood of Deep Cove, trying to call her teenaged son in the basement. Instead of hollering his name, she whistled.
It wasn’t the sharp tweet of an athletic coach. It was a beckoning whistle, with three syllables – if that’s what you call them in whistling. It was the kind of whistle you might use if you were Huck Finn on a raft at night, trying to signal Tom Sawyer on the Mississippi riverbank.
“What are you doing?” I asked, laughing, although I’ve always suspected that intrepid Elle has a little of the Huck Finn in her.
“It’s our family whistle,” she said. “Don’t you have one?”
“I didn’t even know they existed,” I replied.
“When we want to catch each other’s attention in a crowd, we use the family whistle,” she said. “One time I used it when we were in Whistler, and a woman stopped me and said ‘Are you from Deep Cove?’ I said, ‘Yes, why?’ She said, ‘That’s the Deep Cove whistle! Everybody who lived in Deep Cove in the ’70s knows that whistle.’”
Elle had only moved to Deep Cove a few years before, so her family’s use of this array of notes was sheer coincidence.
I was astonished by this story. “How did you even come up with the idea of a family whistle?”
“My husband’s family is Czech. I guess lots of people there have family whistles,” Elle said. She proceeded to use her own family’s whistle a few more times that day, just to make me laugh.
Is my family the only one that doesn’t have its own whistle? It seems like such a good idea. Wikipedia says the shepherds in Spain’s Canary Islands once whistled to communicate over long distances. Oaxaca, Mexico’s Mazateco Indians also sent messages that way. No word on whether these tactics were only used professionally, or also at home. Maybe it depended whether crackers were on the menu.
When asked, two Facebook friends revealed that their parents used a distinctive whistle to assemble their scattered clan. They’ve continued the tradition with their children and dogs. A third FB pal noted that in The Sound of Music, Captain von Trapp summons his seven children using different toots on a boatswain’s call. (Maria disapproves.)
Googling “family whistles” unearths various stories. One BBC listener, for example, contributed a tale to its Radio 4 Home Truths show about a father who trained sheepdogs using whistles. By osmosis, his kids learned these sheepdog commands, but when their dad began using them as a handy way to control his children in public, they were mortified. They retaliated by refusing to come, insisting on polite verbal invitations instead.
Another story, on a website called lovelarken.com, tells of a dying parrot doing her owner’s family whistle.
You can also find a video featuring an earnest father who says his entire brood is outfitted with manmade whistles while camping, hiking, at parades, and even in playgrounds, which seems to be carrying things too far. I picture an alarmed family of six blasting the eardrums out of everybody in the area because Sissy scraped her knee. Surely the gentler whistle formed by the unaided human mouth is preferable.
A more convincing endorsement of Elle’s family practice appears in the preface of a book called The Family Whistle: A Holocaust Memoir of Loss and Survival, by the late Simon Eichel with Lee S. Kessler. Eichel, who, in his later years, lived in Westchester County, New York, wrote that he and his wife used his childhood whistle to find each other while shopping at the supermarket. It had been used first by his older brother, Salo, when Simon was just a baby in Poland.
As a young man, Salo would sometimes return to their family’s apartment building after its iron gate was locked for the night. Rather than waking up the landlord by shouting, he would “whistle up a short, happy melody for a signal,” wrote his younger brother, and his sister or mother would go downstairs and open the gate. The tune Salo chose was a German song he’d learned at Boy Scouts, whose title, appropriately, translated to “Hear what’s coming in.”
Eichel’s parents and siblings adopted the tune themselves and, he wrote, they could even tell from a distance which of them was whistling it. Perhaps for a Holocaust survivor, reusing this shard of melody that had brought his Polish family together in happier times always held some small comfort.
The New York Times’ death notice for Eichel, who passed away in 2008, said the message he left for his survivors in his book was “Value your family. Never lose hope.” A family whistle seems like a daily reminder of both those things.
Though my children are now fledglings, rarely within earshot, I might propose the notion of a family whistle myself. I picture us in New York this summer, scattered about the Staten Island Ferry, and some random traveller saying to me, “Hey! Are you from my neighbourhood? You just used our whistle!”