I never heard my great-grandparents speak a civil word to each another. At least not during my fourteen years with both of them, before my great-grandfather died of cancer. In fact, I hardly ever saw them in the same room. Great-grandpa’s kingdom, the living room. His brown leather recliner served as a throne, the perpetually lit Camel a scepter, the never-ending cans of Old Milwaukee a royal elixir. Enveloped in a cloud of smoke, his private cocoon, he glowered and flipped through the TV channels, muttering to himself about a mysterious subject, known only to him.
Great-grandma, on the other hand, reigned over a sunlit, warm paradise—the kitchen, full of childhood delights. Scribble pads for doodling and my adolescent attempts to write the next great American novel, plants to water and nurture, dogs to pet and play with, and a breadbox full of cookies. I spent many happy hours in that kitchen, being a quiet, obedient child. As Great-gram’s namesake, I didn’t want to bring shame upon her by acting like an unruly heathen.
The primary mode of communication between the two kingdoms: shouting. Shouting usually laced with lots of cursing from the living room, lots of eye rolling from the kitchen. Great-gram had always worn a hearing aid, as long as I’d been alive. And I was convinced that she’d had the hearing aid since time began, such a part of her it was. A mechanical, external organ in a crocheted pouch she kept tucked in her bra. Granted, we all had to shout for Great-gram to hear us. But this seemed to both frustrate and anger my great-grandfather. After the first shout, I learned to plug my ears before the second, curse-riddled yell followed. The yelling not only hurt my ears—it also seemed to me that a child shouldn’t be subjected to such obscenities. A strange notion, because curse words were my family’s primary vocabulary.
So, while Great-grandpa invaded our serene kingdom with his pillaging words, Great-gram would calmly reach into her shirt, take the hearing aid from her bra, and turn it off. Peace and silence restored to the kingdom, she resumed sipping her hot tea and solving her crossword puzzles.
How I envied her that luxury, of being able to literally shut the world off. My house was loud. Between the television in the living room, the police scanner, and at least one radio on at all times, I found little solace from the constant din. When I was home alone, usually right after school, I had my first mission: walk from room to room, turn everything off, and sigh with pleasure into the silence. I could read a book without shoving cotton in my ears, sleep without a pillow over my head. That is, until someone came home and followed my path, turning everything back on.
No one else seemed affected by the noise, something I never understood. Over the years, I did learn to tune it out. So well that I could even sit at the kitchen table and do my homework in the midst of the chaos. The only sounds that would periodically break through the barrier of my hearing fortitude were commercial jingles, which explains why, to this day, I can sing a full repertoire of marketing ditties from the 80s and 90s.
Now, sitting here in my own home, I relish the stillness. The low hum of the refrigerator and the light clicking of the keyboard the only sounds I hear. I know this can’t last forever. One day there might be a dog, a child—something to disturb the peace. But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy this habitat my husband and I have created together, a placid island floating in the midst of suburbia.