The most immediate thing that comes to mind is the ice cream truck that was round. Red poles went up at intervals holding the cylindrical metal roof shaped, cut and colored like a tent top. Complete with little spire and flag shaped as if flapping in the wind. The body itself was painted with large diamonds of many colors from top to bottom to resemble a toy drum perhaps. A man sat in the middle of the circle of coolers, the entire counter of them silver and cold to the touch of our small hands as we stood on tip-toe to peer in wonder. And as he drove down the street the drum of coolers went round him continually revolving with the forward motion into our neighborhood and away as we stared, ice cream cones dripping, at the spectacle of it. That was the first house I remember, the one the three middle ones came home to after they were born. And, also in the summer would come the dark-skinned man on a bicycle that held a large white box in front of the handlebars. From that box he would pull out hot tamales, genuine Mexican tamales, the kind wrapped in corn husks. I do not recall the price of them only the warmth and smell that made my mouth water and felt steamy in my hand under their shield of wax paper.
The next house was large with an alley that ran the length of the blocks. And at the back of each yard on that alley was an ash pit built of cinder blocks. Many were in partial shape, only three-sided or in some way tumbled down. Others, like ours, had all four sides and tall enough to hide us young enough in height, but old enough to find ways to climb in and out, safely or not. We played in all of them until they became so full of what was meant for the dump we knew better than to mess with what they held, or were threatened to stay out…or else. The best part of the ash pits, though, the absolute best part was when it came time for their emptying. We would hear the hooves on the alley concrete from two blocks down in sporadic bursts and then the steady clack-clacking across a street and into our alley. Two horses, brown and tall brought a wagon taller still. A small man at the reins was all I recall, but surely there were others to jump down at each stop to pull and dig and throw what each home no longer wanted into the cavern between the wagon’s deep sides.
There were also the long leather, black gloves mom wore to High Mass on Sundays. My memory of them close up and clearly felt on the finger tip of my left hand’s second finger. How often did I stroke the spot between the knuckles of her first and second fingers to soothe myself as the Latin words flowed round us – Mea culpa; mea culpa; mea maxima culpa. – until the swell of the organ with its large, round pipes reaching for the high ceiling behind and above our pew would bring my head up?
It is hard to believe because as old as I am, I am not that old, but milk was still delivered even at the first Cincinnati house we lived in until I was halfway through high school. A square silver insulated metal box with a hinged lid sat next to the front door. And in it would come glass bottles of pure white milk with plastic caps that pulled off. Red lettering on top advertised the brand. If we ran out early, or maybe after home delivery stopped, we would be sent to the UDF with a wire metal carrier holding four empty bottles. The sound of the empty glass clinking against the wire carrier in time with the steps of whoever’s turn it was to carry them has a spot in my memory. The shallower sound of full bottles thudding against the same wire is also there.
There are other things heard then that I no longer hear. One because my hearing changed leaving me always with the noise of water on in the house that is surprisingly similar to the childhood sound I miss on quiet summer nights. The pulse of the city. A low hum of life: people, cars, buildings, homes and factories, streets and trees, wind and feet, bells tolling and dogs barking, shouts, laughter and cries. All massed together into one continuous drone. I sometimes lay awake on nights now when the windows are open and stop my thoughts to listen, just as I did as a child laying at the foot of my bed catching the breezes at the window. Then I could hear it, identify it as separate from the sound of the cicadas in the yard and moth at the screen. Now it is gone and on those nights I lament the losing it while cherishing the knowing it was there then, and may be there still, though lost to my ears.
The other when we lived in the southwestern most tip of Indiana in a city that pushed out from a point shaped by the Ohio River flowing wide and strong around it. On still nights then too the deep bass of a boat’s warning horn would come as a haunting wind, sad, long and lonely. I do not know if they came up through the street gutters that eventually flowed there, or simply over the town on a windless night. I only know that when I asked of them I was told it was a riverboat. The wail of a foghorn carries the same tone and feeling. When I have been around them a part of me lights up and I am once again a child catching fireflies on a dark summer’s night, bare feet running in cool clover.
There are other sounds from then. The sound of mom as I wake. She was an early riser her humming as she puttered among the flowers under my bedroom window nudging me from my last dreams. Or her playing the parlor grand piano, Chopin or, her favorite, Schubert, reaching up the stairs and into our rooms as the light began parting the curtains at the windows. Her early morning choices were always classical; only later in the day would Scott Joplin jump from the keys. And on sad days Laura’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago would weave through the house. There might be a glass of wine then.
There is also the sound of her cough. She always coughed. Likely from the cigarettes she smoked. It came as a slight interruption, quietly and every little bit. It was our homing device when we were with her, though had left her side. In a store, too small to see above the racks if we had lost her any one of us knew to just stop, wait and listen. Soon it came, that little noise of her cough and we would know exactly which way to turn, which aisle to choose to find our way back.
Oh yes, the sound of dad’s left foot pressing the floor button of the car that brought the bright lights up, or turned them down. That is a sound no longer heard; never heard by anyone born in the last thirty years or more. The long dark drives to visit grandparents. On the two lane roads back then it was a six hour trip. We would leave after dad got home from work, all five of us piling into either the back seat or far back of the station wagon. Mom and dad up front, dad always driving. Not long after leaving, soon in to Kentucky, we would stop along the road for dinner. The usual cacophony of us quarreling, ordering, spilling drinks, dad cussing, someone crying and the waitress scrambling got us through our meals and back out to the trip. In a short bit we would be asleep or nearly so, in that half-awake space of complete ease. And softening it further the murmur of conversation from the front seat, the low songs from the radio, and the click, quiet, then click-click of dad’s foot dimming the lights, turning them bright again.