Quiet Listening / The Last Guest

“I am sentimental,” she said. “I could dissect a koala but not its baby. I like the words damozel, eglantine, elegant. I love when you kiss my elongated white hand.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

My father grew up in the slums of Boston in the 1940’s. When he was seven, my grandmother kicked my grandfather out, on account of too much drinking. The necessity that followed developed a compulsive and near infinite work ethic in my father. When I was a teenager, he explained to me that even though he had escaped poverty long ago, in his mind he was still running from it, and he could not bear to stop running.

My grandmother was Mary Simon (maiden name), from Lebanon. She died shortly before I was born, and as you might guess I was given her name. No one has ever told me what my Greek grandfather’s name was.

Part of my father’s workaholism was to ensure that I grew up very differently. My childhood was set in a stately 1840s house in New Hampshire’s second largest city (population: 80k). It was a colonial style with two masses, connected in a T-shape, and redesigned in the early 1900s so that a butler could traverse everywhere needed while remaining unseen by the owners. The maze of unused passages (and several unused rooms—we certainly had no butler) accumulated junk, or to my child mind, strange treasures. Boxes of surplus clothes and jewelry. Old audio recording equipment with large reels of tape and incomprehensibly many buttons. Spare dentistry tools, stacks of books, entire chemistry sets with ancient glass vials, their paper fading, stopped with corks.

The greatest treasures were the spaces themselves. Hiding from the world was a delight. What could be more comfortable than an unused room in an unused wing of the house? Here I could be secluded, and listen to the world. More than anything about my childhood I remember this particular quiet, which still feels crystal clear despite its remoteness in time.

But it cannot be only connected to the physical place, or be a physical quiet. There was something else there too. Over years, that Quiet receded, and now the world feels very loud. Somehow I feel that the Quiet remains somewhere, hidden out of sight only for now, and I will find it again some day.

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There is a tale: Once a king was holding a winter banquet. Wind and clouds stirred, and one guest had yet to arrive, so the king decided to join the servants and wait for him by the gate. When the guest finally rode in, the king also spotted an old man struggling through the snow. He sent his servants, inviting the stranger to stay the night. The stranger was delighted, and all together they returned to the castle.

Inside, the king asked the old man if he had any occupation. The man replied that he played the harp and told stories. The king proposed that he entertain the company with such things, and in doing so would be invited to dine as an honored guest.

The man agreed, and so he sang ancient songs for the guests, in a language not quite understandable, and spoke and told stories. He told the story of an old god who long ago meekly entered the world, scarcely surviving his difficult birth. When the baby met his first sleep, the fates crept up to see him. They whispered many things among themselves, and as they looked at him one declared that the baby would not live longer than the wax that burns by his cradle. But his mother, who was delirious enough to hear the fates but awake enough to understand, snuffed the candle as soon as the spirits left the room, so the little god would not perish with it. The king doubted this story, but the man insisted it was true, and pulled a misshapen wax clump from his sack, swearing it was the very candle. The amused king demanded he light it, and how could a guest refuse the king?

The night air was seasoned with roasted meats, wine, smoke, laughter, music, and noble gossip. As the moon climbed, the old man mumbled that it was late, and he was getting tired. After a time, the partygoers noticed he was missing. They searched every room, the stables, and the gardens, but found no trace of the old man.

Shortly after, a servant came running in to the great hall. A few steps outside the castle walls, the guards had found a body, lifeless in the snow.

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The top image is a photograph from Boston’s south end, circa late 1930’s. It was taken by (I think) Leslie Jones, who has over 40,000 photographs archived at the Boston Public Library.