Children's Footsteps Still Echo In the Silence

Lone in our house, I listen to the echoes of children. For close to 30 years, my life was tuned to the Swiss school day. There was always a child coming or going, a child home for lunch, a child home from class. Now for the first time the house is empty. I walk on tiptoe.

I hear early echoes from when we arrived and tried to make room for everyone - father, mother, and five young children. Large families were not the rule in Switzerland, and housing was hard to find. We found a small house with lots of windows, and moved the beds around until we found a corner for everyone.

The front door opened and closed heavily as the children followed one another to school. I worked against the clock preparing for the long lunch break. Then I began to listen for their bicycles. The oak door swung back and forth - one thud after the other. It stays shut this morning. I open the hall window to let in some sun. Shadows play on the stairs. They keep me company.

Other early echoes linger from when we made more room for No. 6, who came from Vietnam. We turned the garage into a playroom and the wine cellar into a bedroom. We bought bunk beds and gave the small bedroom to our new son. The walls of the little room rang from his wartime nightmares.

We were eight then, and some of the Swiss habits of discipline were helping. The children didn't bump into one another, they didn't push, they didn't shove. Even on the staircase, they stayed in line. The stairs were wooden. Listening to the steps, I could tell which child it was, going up, coming down.

They took turns playing the piano. Six practice periods every day. Bach, Mozart, Schumann - Schumann, Mozart, Bach. The sounds came from the cellar, where we put the upright piano. There were also a few flutes and guitars, but the piano remained everyone's favorite. There was an extra piano stool for playing duets.

I hear sounds of birthday parties: musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey, potato races, all those American games organized each year for their Swiss schoolmates. And the sounds of Christmas, when we decorated the tree in the middle of the front hall and the children's excitement ran up and down the staircases. We listened to Christmas carols over and over, until we'd hear sleigh bells in the snow outside.

Soon came the noise of mopeds in the driveway, Beatles records, and teenage voices filling the house. I remember the first "boom," or dance party, in the cellar for our oldest son's 15th birthday. The booms gradually moved upstairs to the living room. The furniture was moved out; sometimes so were the parents.

The house grew noisy, the sounds collided. Doors banged shut and banged shut again. There were arguments - when to say no, when to say yes - curfews respected, curfews broken. Rooms cleaned, rooms in rampant disorder. Homework done, homework not done, never done. Promises. I longed for quiet.

One by one they started to move on. When the oldest boy left for university, the voices in the house shifted. The next two were girls. The sounds were feminine. We sat in the kitchen and talked about literature and love. The were slumber parties, mattresses on the floor. The telephone rang and rang and rang.

After the two older girls went to university, it was the turn of their younger brother, No. 4. He played jazz on the piano and brought in his musician friends with a set of drums and a base fiddle. Late at night they played Risk and Monopoly on the Ping-Pong table. There were sounds of dice and muffled voices, and then we'd hear his buddies leave, just below our bedroom window.

THEN again, the sounds were muted as the youngest daughter studied in the mornings at home for her baccalaureate exams while dancing at the conservatory in the afternoons. Quiet was kept, and I sat at my desk, catching my breath and writing. In the evenings there was a boyfriend and softer music, back to the Beatles. Dream time.

Soon she left as well, for a dance school in Paris. Only our youngest remained at home. He moved into the bedroom in the cellar. The sounds crescendoed with raucous "house music." He made loudspeakers; the wooden boxes stood more than three feet high, and the sound bounced off the walls. The lights blinked on and off as the playroom became a disco. His friends came, their mopeds were souped-up and raced down our driveway, brakes screeched to a halt in front of the old oak door.

And now he too, our youngest, has left. The house is empty. There is silence. I tiptoe from room to room, touching forgotten books, dusting left-behind trophies, looking at photographs. It's like an accordion contracting, getting ready to open still wider. My writing desk looks out the window into the trees.

Our oldest children are married; we have grandchildren. They come to visit. I recently pulled down the carton of toys from the attic. My first grandson rolls the little blue and yellow cars up and down the front hall. My second grandson plays with the wooden blocks, the ones his father played with. The sounds condense on the windows.

Will the echoes be the same?

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