Nate remembered one thing vividly about his first day there—it was quiet, too quiet for a teenager. Go a mile in any direction and there was hustle and bustle, but not here. Here the quiet was loud and that was unnerving. It was more than just the silence though. There was something else. Nate just wasn’t sure what it was. It might have been the gate, or the fence, or the fact that most of the neighbors were octogenarians. He couldn’t put his finger on why. He just knew he hated this new place. He, however, also knew he didn’t have a choice—he hadn’t been consulted. This was his new home, and the neighbors were who they were, so he decided to make the best of it.
Nate soon discovered that an advantage of the never ending quiet was it intensifies one’s ability to see. Yes, everyday noise crowds out so much sound. Important conversations are missed, but so, too, are gestures and expressions. When it’s quiet, you not only hear more—you see more. Before long, Nate had grown to embrace the quiet all around him. It was perfect for eavesdropping, and oh how he loved to eavesdrop and observe.
The couple on the left were the Engleson’s, Jerry and Joanne. They had been married for 67 years and had a steady stream of visitors—three children, seven grandchildren and even five uncontrollable great-grandchildren. Jerry and Joanne’s oldest child Shawn was the most frequent visitor. Shawn suffered from a degenerative back condition, as he seemed to bend more than the willows that lined the streets. He also wept more. Nate would find himself getting frustrated by this tortured soul, his voice often muffled by tears. As a result, Shawn was a poor source of gossip.
Sharon and Susan, Jerry and Joanne’s daughters, were much more informative. Nate was able to learn the history of the whole Engleson clan by quietly letting these two women talk. Jerry had worked most of his life for the Campbell Soup company, and Joanne, an elementary school teacher in her younger days, had stayed home to raise the children.
Nate despised the Engelson’s great-grandchildren. They were hooligans in short pants. Invariably, while their parents were visiting with Grandma and Poppy, the little monsters would run around and tear up the grass. Nate had never really been concerned about grass, but he knew how important it was to his mom and dad. His parents would manicure it and weed it almost daily. Nate didn’t care about grass, but he loved his parents. They cared, so he did, too.
The only other child in the neighborhood was right across the way. Her name was Tess, but Nate always referred to her as Contessa. She must have been a contessa because there was a never-ending parade of friends who came to visit her. Most of her callers had eminently forgettable names, but not her boyfriend—her boyfriend’s name was Thatcher. Nate thought that was the coolest name. Nate assumed Thatcher was her boyfriend because he always brought her flowers.
When Thatcher came by with a group of friends, they would all sit around and tell stories and laugh or sometimes cry. However, when Thatcher came by himself, he would sing to Tess. He sang songs of love and beauty and forever. Nate never had a girlfriend himself, but when he would dream of what it would be like, he always imagined he would love her like Thatcher loved Tess.
Nate’s neighbor on the right was Corporal Kevin Halston. Corporal Halston was 91 years old, and must not have had any family, at least none who visited. Nate only knew the few things he had heard from his mom and dad. Corporal Halston had served in the Korean war and, according to Nate’s dad, had received a Purple Heart. Even when Nate first arrived, he felt honored to have such a man as a neighbor. His parents must have felt the same way, as over time they began to expand their weeding operation. They didn’t make a big deal, and they never talked about it, but Nate was sure that, just like him, they were grateful for Corporal Halston’s service.
There was a row of hedges in between Nate and the neighbors to the rear. The blockade limited Nate’s eavesdropping to the Bobbsey twins. They weren’t actually twins or even related, but they were both named Bob. There was Bob Granzow, a retired auto worker. His friends from the plant often brought beer and got drunk telling old lies. Bob no longer drank, but his friends would always bring Bob a beer nonetheless, even if it sat unconsumed. Nate loved to compare the friends who came to visit Bob Granzow with the ones who visited Tess. Friends were friends no matter how old or how young, and what held them together was always the shared stories. Nate was glad he got to listen to them all.
The other Bob was actually a Roberta, but her family always called her Bob. She was 42 and like Nate, and Tess really didn’t feel like she belonged in the neighborhood. She had two children, a boy and a girl. Nate didn’t know their names, but they called Bob mom. Her ex-husband visited a few times, but he didn’t seem to like her much, and for some reason that made Nate sad.
The best part about the new place was how it changed Nate’s relationship with his parents. Nate had been a little bit of a rebel, and like most teenagers, he had found it very hard to really talk to his parents. But now they talked almost every day. His mom loved to tell him stories about her life. Nothing was too mundane.
“I went to the store for milk. I poured out the old milk—it was expired. I went for a walk today just to think.”
Nate loved to hear his mother’s stories; in fact, he looked forward to them. His mom would also talk about important things like love and loss. Hatred and forgiveness. Grief and joy. Sometimes it’s hard for a mom and her teenage son to see eye to eye, but Nate’s mom had never given up on him. Now, Nate understood her love and was thankful for their increasingly strong connection.
His dad, on the other hand, mainly talked about sports. There was a bond built between Nate and his dad that centered around baseball and football and hockey. Nate’s dad could talk endlessly about their favorite teams. There may be more important things in the world, but to a teenage boy and his dad, sports often filled the void. It was a father’s way to say I love you and I like you and even I’m proud of you while using none of those words.
In the beginning, Nate didn’t like his new home, yet over time, he grew to love it. The quiet that was loud now swaddled him like a comforting blanket, and his neighbors and their families brought Nate great joy.
A teenager's mind is often cluttered with things that seem to matter but don’t. They lose sleep over someone whose name they won't remember in a few years. They stress over acne and friends and family and school. Nate had been just such a teenager before he moved here, and now he felt as if he never wanted to leave. That’s what made today so jarring, Today Nate’s dad talked about his new job. Nate’s mom cried as his dad explained that they would have to move. They would have to leave Nate behind.
Nate felt the pain in his dad’s voice and in his mom’s tears. He wanted to let his parents know it was ok, and that he understood.
“We’ve talked to the Engleson’s, Nate,” his dad said, his voice cracking. “They have agreed to look after your grass. They even have offered to look after Corporal Halston as well. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Nate watched as his mom broke into tears and as his dad held her tight to comfort her. When she finally composed herself, she made a promise to her son. “We’ll be back as often as we can. Just think of all the stories I’ll be able to tell you.”
Nate wanted to hold his mom and tell her he was going to be alright, that he was happy.
“I think he’s ok,” she said, turning to Nate’s dad. “I just have a feeling he’s at peace here.”
No other words were spoken that day. For what seemed like forever, the three of them communicated in the silence. Then, just as she always had done, Nate’s mom bent down and placed flowers in front of her son’s headstone, being careful to touch his name as she did. Nate smiled as he watched them walk away, somehow knowing they were also going to be ok.
When they were finally out of sight, he did as he always did.
He sat quietly and listened.