Remembrance of Things Past
By: Vernon (Trey) Keeve III
For as long as I could remember, I heard a bird call I couldn’t identify outside my childhood bedroom window, somewhere among the oaks and tulip trees. I once thought it was the hoot of an owl, because that’s what it sounded like to ears that weren’t yet equipped with the knowledge of bird calls—a gentle repetition of WHOO with a vibrato so gentle that only something with wings could have created it.
I heard it again in Charlottesville, Virginia in the spring of 2006 before and after my grandmother passed away. I typed “Birds that sound like owls” into a search engine, and quickly learned it was the call, the reminder, of a mourning dove.
In my early 20s, I often heard it outside my mother’s house—reminding me of the home that she and I had lost in the divorce. My father had changed the locks on the house we all once shared. I still have things there, preserved and untouched, unlike the rest of the house that my father started remodeling shortly after the divorce was finalized. When I heard it then, it reminded me of loneliness, and how I wished my grandmother were alive to hold her daughter through the dissolution of a marriage my mother once believed was her saving grace. Reminded me that my father was in a four-bedroom house alone. Reminded me that the vision I had once had for the future of my parents was just a dream—and that nothing was going to be the same again. No more family drives through magnolias trees in Williamsburg. No more father/son drives into the wiry pines of the tidal freshwater deltas of the Chesapeake Bay for blue crabs and croakers. No new memories of all of us growing older together.
I thought I left the repetition of WHOOs in Virginia when I moved to California, because I hadn’t heard it for years, and Eastern trees didn’t follow me to the land of palm trees and coastal redwoods. But when I returned to California after my father was buried among the red and jack pines of his boyhood home, I moved out of shared housing and into a studio apartment by Lake Merritt in Oakland. Drifting and shifting through sadness, anger, regret. Grieving. And that’s when I heard the sound again—in a tree around my apartment building—probably from a mourning dove perched in a coast live oak or California Bay laurel. Reminding me of the sound I had heard in my bedroom next to the one my parents once slept in together. Next to a bedroom my father stopped sleeping in the more he drifted into depression, into dementia, towards death. I heard it almost every morning during my last two years in Oakland.
The last time I went home to Virginia, when I took my partner of five years to meet my mother, sisters, nieces and nephews, the only bird I heard was a mourning dove. I heard it in the Okame Cherry tree outside my mother’s home. I heard it every time I entered and exited the front door. Heard it outside my hotel window. Heard it as I hugged everyone goodbye before getting in my car.
Recently, I saw a mourning dove resting on a power line outside my window here in New York, the first time I ever saw one performing its aria dressed in the copper of a setting sun. Reminding me of my childhood home, a place I will always mourn. Reminding me of my grandmother. Reminding me of my father, a man I once envisioned living into old age surrounded by books and legal pads. Reminding me to grieve. Reminding me to remember. Reminding me to cherish my mother while she’s still here and singing in church on Sundays.
Vernon (Trey) Keeve III, who grew up in Fredericksburg, VA, is a doctoral candidate in the Teaching of English Program at Teachers College, Columbia University where they are researching the cultivation of safe, trauma-informed writing spaces. Trey finds hope in disrupting the power dynamics of classrooms and creating learning spaces where student voices are given more agency in establishing the trajectory of erudition. Their book Southern Migrant Mixtape was the recipient of the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award in 2019. Trey can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.