Sunday, September 8, 2013

Our joyful, if irritating, noise

There’s a sound coming from the playroom upstairs -- a lilting, tuneless little thread of noise that persists through the cacophony of hundreds (thousands?) of Legos being plundered.

“Ben’s having a good time up there,” I tell my husband, peeking into his garage workshop, coffee in hand. “Can you hear him?”

“No,” Jim replies, looking up from the cabinets he’s staining. “Is he humming?”


He chuckles. “You can’t fight genetics.”

Last week, the colleague and longtime friend who sits in the cubicle next to mine at work stood up and peered over the wall that separates us.

“Mary, are you humming?”

“I don’t know. Did you hear someone humming?”


“Then I definitely was.”

When I was a teenager, a friend of mine spent the night and, over bowls of cereal the next morning asked me, “What is that noise?”

“What noise?”

“That, like, buzzing sound. Is it a saw?”

“Oh, that’s my mom. She’s just humming.”

These are my people. We hum. And we would stop, but we don’t even know we’re doing it.

My grandfather – my mom’s father – emitted a nearly constant, gravelly buzz. He’s been dead 21 years, and I can still hear it. My older son, Ben’s big brother Jack, has added unconscious percussion to the humming, absent-mindedly smacking out an accompanying tune on his skinny teenage chest as he reads or watches television or does his homework.

Sometimes Jack comes to the breakfast table first thing in the morning with the full musical process already in motion. “Jack, baby,” I plead blearily. “It’s so early. Can we eat breakfast without all the noise?”

“What noise?”

Not one of us has a speck of musical talent, by the way. It’s not as if we’re providing some kind of entertainment or in any way improving the atmosphere. I mean, my mother sounds like a saw.

But I have learned the hard way to miss the humming when it stops.

The years my mother battled an aggressive cancer, no one hummed. The year my own health fell apart and my marriage endured a notably rough patch, there was no humming. When Jim lost his job, when we moved twice in one year, when Jack was sick and no one could figure out why, the air was still.

When we’re stressed, when we’re sad, when we’re scared, the humming stops.

But when we’re engrossed in work we enjoy, when we’re comfortable and happy and feeling at home in this world and in our lives, we hum. We hum all the time, and the people around us think we’re weird, and maybe they even think we’re annoying, but I guess that’s OK.

It could be worse, right? We could know how to whistle.

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