The Sound of Silence

On New Year’s Day at about 2 p.m., my wife, Sharon, and I were sitting in our living room. She was reading a Robert Galbraith (a/k/a J.K. Rowling) mystery and I was working on the Times’ crossword puzzle (surprisingly difficult for a Tuesday though I did complete it). We also were joined by one of my daughters, who was working on her computer at our dining room table.

And then I heard it.

So I sighed as I turned to my wife and daughter and said: “Hear that? Can you hear it? Do you hear that silence?” And we all did. What we heard was real and palpable — soft as a lullaby, clear as the young Joan Baez’s soprano voice. Simon & Garfunkel were right; there really is a sound of silence.

You see, my Toronto family — daughter, son-in-law, and three always adorable, usually delightful, and often rambunctious grandchildren — had the week off from work and school. So, after a few days in Connecticut horseback riding, swimming in an indoor pool, playing ninepins bowling, eating pizza for breakfast (ONLY on vacation, ONLY!!), and finding other family adventures, they spent a long weekend visiting with us in Teaneck, together with my other daughters and son-in-law.

It was a fun-filled few days, with long and boisterous Shabbat meals, a family hike, lots of book reading by the older ones and book reading to the youngest, game playing, going snow tubing (for the younger set — Sharon and I took a pass), picture taking, learning Torah, and the kids staying up way past bedtime (it was Savta’s and Grandpa’s house after all) but getting up early nonetheless and trying, usually unsuccessfully, to be quiet and let others sleep. And as you (and perhaps Justice Kagan) might imagine, the weekend was topped off with a traditional, loud Chinese take-out dinner.

The next morning, after packing, davening, breakfast, hugs and kisses and then more hugs and kisses, Toronto piled into their minivan (what else?) for the long ride home, fortified with lots of treats (remember, Savta’s and Grandpa’s house) to help pass the seemingly endless hours of driving. Hand waves, laughter, blown kisses, shouts of goodbye and drive carefully, some more hugs and kisses (can never be too many when grandkids are concerned), and as always in the age of iPhone, some more picture taking, accompanied the car as it backed out of the driveway, turned toward Route 4, and disappeared.

And then — silence.

I’m certainly not the only grandparent who’s commented on his grandchildren’s visits by saying “It’s wonderful when they arrive, it’s wonderful when they’re here, and it’s wonderful when they leave.” And it truly is, as long as you know that the cycle soon will begin again either at your home or theirs — arriving, staying, leaving, and all of it wonderful.

(There’s one caveat regarding leaving. It would be ideally wonderful if they were leaving for Englewood or the Upper West Side or Far Rockaway. Or even Boston. As I’ve often said, Toronto would be perfect if we could just move it to Boston.)

I remember the first time I went skiing in college. We were a bunch of guys and gals, most of us completely inept on the slopes. But it was a lovely clear winter day and we had loads of fun, skiing and falling (more falling than skiing), and a bit of socializing in the lodge (or maybe more than a bit). But I’ll never forget that when we got back to my (read, my parents’) car and I took off my shoes to drive, it was pure heaven. Wonderful arriving, wonderful skiing, and wonderful taking off the big clunky old type ski boots and driving home in socks.

But that’s not always real life.

Sometimes it’s not always so wonderful. This past year, my wife and I joined a gym that we actually use, though not as much as we should. I almost wrote though not as much as we like, but that wouldn’t be true because we don’t really like it. While we know it’s important and good for us, we don’t really look forward to going, and doing the exercises and using the machines isn’t our definition of fun. Wonderful? Well, I guess if you’re a masochist and like pain perhaps, but we’re not, so no, not really wonderful at all arriving or being there.

But when the treadmill walking and bike spinning are over, I rest for a few minutes, take a nice long hot shower, put on clean clothes, and by the time I’m out of the locker room I’m feeling pretty good. Wonderful would be an overstatement, but pretty good is, well, pretty good.

Yet even that’s not always real life. Sometimes there’s not only no wonderful, there’s not even a dollop of pretty good. We’re at an age where we hear too often of friends, family, and acquaintances who have medical issues that can’t be fixed. Sometimes they’re life changing, other times life threatening or ending, but it’s not wonderful and it’s not pretty good — it’s just plain lousy (and you can substitute the adjective of your choice, which probably would be my choice if this weren’t a family newspaper).

We don’t have control. We can’t make it better, so we just muddle through as best we can, searching for a wonderful memory or two for a moment of balance.

So I guess real life is a conglomeration of all of these; the completely wonderful, the partially wonderful, the mixture of crummy and pretty good, and the undiluted lousy. The trick is to recognize and appreciate those special times when everything falls into place just right; when it’s wonderful arriving, wonderful being there, and even wonderful leaving. When I can sing along with Louis Armstrong and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and think to myself what a wonderful world.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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