This world’s a noisy place. In all things, from advertising blaring at us from the television, radio and Internet to technology which beeps, chirps and dings at us from our pockets and purses … from city sounds that honk and bang incessantly to our own personal conversations that often are not as private as they should be … in all of this, it is LOUD that reigns supreme. As we race back and forth, this cacophony of chaos so often distracts us from actual life and, in fact, becomes our actual life.
There is joy in the loud times. What’s more comforting than the laughter of your family around the kitchen table, all those years of knowing each other and still somehow loving in spite of that? Or the cheers of friends as you watch a football game, the autumn wind brisk and clean just beyond the windows … or better yet, in a stadium full of strangers wearing the same colors you are and becoming an instant family as your team charges the field? How about an outdoor concert, music and cheers rising up to the stars? Noise can indeed be intoxicating.

As a child, my neighborhood was seldom quiet. Someone was almost always mowing their yard. The ice cream truck jingled its way slowly around the block while children scrambled from front porches, eager with their quarters and high-pitched laughter. My two best friends and I chattered, cartwheeled and caterwauled our way down Hall Avenue, with anything but quiet on our minds. Even the summer heat itself seemed to crackle and sigh its way through the hours. High school was achieved at long last, and cartwheels gave way to clarinet practice and color guard drills in the front yard, much to my neighbors’ disapproval. Cars full of teenagers arrived and departed. The noise carried on, and behind it all was the never-ending train whistle as it passed through our town.

As a young woman heading off to college, I was unprepared for the absolute volume that accompanies growth. The new voices in your head all but shout when you learn the universe only begins where your skin ends and expands infinitely. Navigating that universe is a noisy process. Philosophies collide in classrooms where debates and discussions rage on. Parties erupt in dorm rooms and carry on through all hours of the day and night. And, if you’re lucky and work hard, there are cheers of celebration when you mark academic milestones in a stadium filled with other lucky and hard-working, newly liberated young adults. And, without me hearing it, the train whistle blew.

I only blinked a few times, and there was a new family at my table, my own family, and there’s nothing louder than that brand new baby. Along with the precious little clothes and the sweet smiles, babies come equipped with their own brand of volume … and lots of it. Add another child or two, and you have your own special kind of symphony. It goes with you everywhere: the grocery store, where just about everybody in town has gathered to evaluate your parenting skills; church, where most assuredly someone will not be on their best behavior; nap time, bath time, mealtime, all the time; and Christmas morning, when the joy cannot be contained and quiet is far, far away. Even on that holiday morning, the train bellowed through, and the whistle blew.

All of this, all of life, is a noisy business. But, it is in the quiet that we truly hear. When the volume is muted, we listen with our hearts and hear the truest sounds … the ones that have been there all along.

Look back at that dinner table and my laughing family. Take away the noise, and what you will hear is my mother sighing with contentment because we, all of us, are safe and sitting there with her. You’ll hear my brother call my sister by her nickname; the name no one else could use, because that’s a sacred right we bestow only on siblings. You’ll hear the clock ticking on the wall, marking down the moments we would share in that house.

Observe the school memories, stripped of their pomp and circumstance, and you’ll hear Susan and I promise to be best friends forever and mean it with all our hearts. You’ll hear Dr. Hannah tell me that writing might be something I should focus on, and a delicate dream took wing for me. And on a dark day, you can hear the quiet crying as an entire school lined up to pay our respects and say our goodbyes to three of our own who were taken heartbreakingly close to graduation by a driver too drunk to notice the devastation he’d created. The earth was practically silent as we absorbed that shock.
There’s nothing like the quiet of midnight when you’re waiting for your child to return home, knowing that surely they’re safe but not being convinced until you hear the front door softly swing open. How many nights did I, and millions of others in the ongoing vigil of parenthood, breathe a barely audible sigh of relief and chuckle to myself for worrying in the first place when any one of my children stepped safely back across our threshold?

And then there is the quietest memory of all. I can see my sister standing at the foot of her boys’ beds while they slept. It was moving day for me. I was leaving my home and journeying forth to the future. The sky was still dark, and the room was silent except for the slow rhythmic breathing of my nephews. My sister turned to me … my sister who felt deeply but rarely allowed herself to let those feelings form words … and said, “There’s nothing you can’t do. You’re the strongest one of us all, and I am so proud of you.” I still hear those words at times when I need them most. They’ve carried me through when nothing else would, long after she hasn’t been here to say anything at all.

Just today, I found myself in a line of cars at a railroad crossing … waiting, impatience building, thoughts of schedules falling behind … and then I heard it: A train whistle. I sat and listened to that low and mournful sound, and I remembered what my grandmother used to say, “You should always listen when the whistle blows, Wendy Lynne. Things are happening that you don’t want to miss.”

Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting the release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.

Editor’s Note: This is one of the first columns that Wendy Hodge wrote for the Observer, just over four years ago.