Love Letter 2: An ode to the simple pleasure of sound

Love, I increasingly realize, is an active pursuit. While the chance exists that she will rap her fingers across your door, I find her a bit old fashioned – she needs, sometimes, to be pursued.

Though it may seem an arduous task, it’s actually simpler than it sounds. Love, it turns out, is often quite literally right in front of your nose – all you have to do, more often than not, is simply tune into your senses to get a whiff of it.

Helping the matter is the fact that our senses are usually very willing dance partners. I find that it is usually best to accept their polite invitations and let them lead. By following their steps – whether in the tango of touch across a long-haired cat or the samba of smell through an alpine forest – you can often discover something that is both remarkable and simple at the same time.

Although any of the five would serve as a very capable wingman in your pursuit of love, I would like to pay homage to our sense of hearing and the ability that sounds have to invoke memories. Specifically, I wish to profess my love for the sounds produced by someone doing the dishes.

Yes, dishes. The peck from a kiss of two ceramic plates drifting in from the kitchen – an “oh, pardon me,” politely voiced in perfect ceramicese – always sends me to a place of serenity. It is an anthem of shelter – modal notes delivered by the Miles Davis Quintet of domestic duties. Glass, Silverware, Plastic, Ceramics and the Faucet: The Sketches of the Great Plains.

Those sounds take me to a time and place where I am vertical – across a carpeted floor or sofa – concerned only with digestion. Basking in a television set like I am posing for Norman Rockwell, I find myself indulging in the after-dinner menus of the three national networks that existed in those simpler times. In from an adjacent kitchen, waft those sounds of dishes: an operatic aria extolling the triumphs of satiation and the sustenance of one’s soul.

In the present, each item plunged into the sink acts like a valve on a cornet – a finger pressing me further away; carrying me off on lullaby-laced sails to an old, forgotten land. Summoned back, I find myself on a different sofa – one adjacent not to a kitchen, but to a chair. The psychiatrist sitting in it – real or imagined – asks me where I’ve gone. The silence that had filled the air is broken with this response: “A place where I was safe. A place where I felt loved.”

Those sounds, it turns out, where a soothing sax solo of a soup that fed a young boy who had been starving to be seen and longing to be served. It was, after all, the rarest of occasions – those instances in my youth where someone would make me food. As a child, it was only me and my mother and I found myself longing for her attention and love.  

I can still clearly recall those cold New England winters – when the sun would get off work early and my mother would not. Her return from the office would occur well after all light had left the earth. By then, it was nearly impossible to distinguish approaching cars from the sole marker of their twin headlights. We had a small apartment on a relatively busy street in those days and I would press my face against the cold single-pain glass of the living room window to watch the sea of cars that slid like sleights across paved roads often still wet with slush from a recent snowfall.

Turning off all the lights in the living room, I’d peer off into the distance – through the leafless branches of trees – trying to glean if one of those approaching set of yellow eyes might be those guiding her return. Anxious for her arrival, I’d pass the time by playing an invented game where I’d make a no-stake wager with myself as to whether my mother would be among the next X number of cars to pass.

“She’ll be in the next 10 cars,” I’d bet. When that number would arrive without her, I’d go double-or-nothing with myself. Ten would become twenty and, eventually, thirty. A game with no actual stakes somehow transformed into one where I’d always lose.

In a time before halogen, I became adept at recognizing the subtle differences in headlight shapes and heights. My heart would pound with excitement when the indicator of an approaching car would alight, signaling a possible turn into our shared driveway. While it would often result in crushing disappointment from the large number of cars that were merely turning into an adjacent street, there was also a great excitement that seemed surpassed only by Christmas morning when it would, in fact, be her.

Seeking to hide my desperate anticipation, I’d quickly turn on the television and lay down on the couch while waiting for her to enter. The excruciating interval between the moment when she’d walk through the door, was met with an unhealthy indulgence in a wide range of fantasies. More often than not, though, my dream was quite simple. In it, she was late because she was at the supermarket; and, at any moment, would come walking through the door with bags of groceries that she’d use to make us dinner. We’d sit at the table – just like I’d seen on television and at my friends’ houses – and we would eat together. She’d see me and smile ask me about my day.

The dreams of childhood, however, are soon drowned in the shadow of reality. With each evening ending in disappointment, I eventually dismissed those dreams of having dinner with my mom as childish fantasy. Each evening ended the same: She’d walk through the door, audibly and physically communicate her frustration at the fact of my existence, and walk past me, into her room, where her boyfriend would be waiting for her naked in bed. Most nights I’d get either a handful of money to order something or be directed to make use of what I could find in the kitchen cupboards. On the best nights, she’d come home with some takeout, which I’d eat alone in front of the television.

Still, there were one or two Sundays every month where my mother would make us a home cooked meal. These were grand events in my adolescence – my mother spending an entire afternoon reproducing one of the specialties that her own mother used to cook: fried chicken from scratch (she could never get the gravy right); Sloppy Joes, slow-cooked and perfectly spiced; or spaghetti Bolognese (engineered during those post-War years when my grandfather was stationed at a military base in Livorno, Italy). While I can still recall the sounds from the kitchen that accompanied the meal’s preparation – the chopping of vegetables, the sizzling of deep fried batter, or the hissing of the pressure cooker – it was those that marked its conclusion that made me the happiest. For in those sounds produced by my mother doing dishes, I found myself finally feeling as though someone in the world might actually care about me. They were a soundtrack to a form of love that seemed so foreign; church bells marking ringing out a sense of security in a world that seemed devoid of such a luxury.

That is what the sounds of dishes being done meant to me and that is what they still invoke today. And so, for that, I am grateful.