The sounds of a lifetime

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

It’s said that the most potent memory jogger is scent. The whiff of cut grass was one of my favorites — used to make me feel like a kid. A waft of Old Spice always made me think of my husband.

Now, I can barely get a whiff. As my years have piled up, my sniffer has lost all interest in Memory Lane. I really miss a lot of smells now, only knowing this when someone says, “Oh, what a lovely smell!” Or “Whew! Can you smell that hog confinement?” There are advantages.

I have learned that the sense of hearing that rewards me the sounds of life is a good substitute. Just this morning I heard the drone of a prop plane overhead and stopped in my tracks to follow it across the sky, just like I did as a kid in my backyard on South Oak. Was it my dad’s friend Doug? Was it a TWA from Des Moines on its way to someplace I’d like to go? Anyplace…I was interested in anyplace. There’s such a nostalgic tug when I hear it now that I know I’m really getting old. It’s right up there with the sound of a push mower. Beats a gas mower any day because it’s talking to me in the language of summer and I never have to close the window against its clickety-clack rhythm.

Music, of course, takes me places often. “How Much Is that Doggy in the Window” and I’m 6, singing along with my sisters to Mom’s piano playing as we perform for our grandparents. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and I’m in the kitchen of my first apartment with my new husband waiting for me to feed him the only thing I know how to make — beanie weanies. He asks me if I might have any other recipes in my repertoire. I respond that I thought he liked it. It is our first fight.

The sound of sawing and hammering fills me with a sense of prosperity. It took me a long time to figure this one out but I think I hit on it: At about 8 years old I’m the Kool-Aid entrepreneur of the south end of town and I’m raking in the coins as the carpenters file past for a tall cold one. They actually flip nickels into my dish and my Kool-Aid costs only two cents a glass. They don’t want change. My pockets sag with loot. Rich, I’m rich. I really love the sound of hammer and saw.

The familiar music on National Public Radio introducing the next segment — Morning Edition, Fresh Air, All Things Considered, Prairie Home Companion (“…hear that old piano, from down the avenuuuu….”) — they all bring me home, make me feel okay, the world is spinning along in an orderly fashion and even if the news they’re imparting is not okay, I am because that old familiar tune has become part of my psyche over the years.

Birdsong is a mighty lure as well as a mighty memory jogger. My very favorite is the chickadee, who I learned as a child was pronouncing my sister’s name every time he sang: “Dee Dee, Dee Dee.” I of course always wanted my own bird.

Cell phone ringtones are a sign of our fondness for certain sounds — a real telephone bell like the kind we grew up with, the same sound coming out of all our phones whether they were a rectangular box on the wall or the square black desk phone in the niche in the hall. In a meeting I attended not too long ago, a fellow’s phone let out a startling cock-a-doodle-do. Scared half of us and made the other half laugh. Some folks pick a different ring for each family member, I suppose the ring having something to do with that personality. I like that.

My neighbor has a Prius automobile. It’s battery operated and makes no noise at all, just glides past like it’s on a downhill slope with the motor turned off. I both like the idea and am disconcerted by it. Looking up to see it beside me in the alley as I weed the backyard, having not heard it approach, takes some getting used to.

I’ve lost my sense of smell, and my eyes are not what they once were; I sincerely hope my sense of hearing remains. The remembered sounds of my life are a comfort as are the new sounds — a great grandchild saying Gramma Collie for the first time; hip hop, which I love for the beat (I usually can’t understand the words, which I understand is a blessing). Memory is not the most accurate recording device, but the sounds of it suit me fine.

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