By Lauren Apfel
When I was seven or eight years old, my voice was constantly hoarse. I remember being at summer camp one year, around that time, how it was a known feature of me, a watermark, the same way I had thick brown hair and dressed like a boy. Lauren with the raspy voice, which was made so, I am told, by the sheer volume at which I spoke. By how excited I got. By the fact that I couldn’t control my temper and was still, even in middle childhood, prone to tantrums.
When my second son was born my mother called it comeuppance. He emerged from the womb purple and howling and hasn’t quite quieted down since. Leo is lovely, I don’t say this lightly, he is the warmest and most caring of my four children. But, my god, Leo is loud. And Leo is emotional. He’s a lot like me as a kid.
I spend a good deal of time shushing him, though, shushing all of my children actually—in the car, in the backyard, in the supermarket—and then wondering why I’m doing it. For whose benefit. Wondering whether I was shushed to the same degree—and thinking I probably wasn’t, that my mom was either immune to my volume or simply let me be—and what’s happened to me since those days I was able to express myself with just the intensity I wanted, just the intensity I needed.
My sister and I have been talking about this a lot recently, how I’ve been changing, or changing back rather, since my husband moved out a few months ago. She asked me when it was that I stopped being so loud in the first place, at what point in my life. I’ve been a quieter person for some time now, it’s true. But what she really meant was: when did you stop being so emotional?
What struck me most about her question is that it drew a line between my volume and my ability to comfortably convey my feelings. And also that I could answer it precisely, a pin dropped on a weather-worn map, and the answer spoke to both the country I chose to live in and the man I chose to marry.
I moved to the UK almost twenty years ago. Many of the stereotypes about it are accurate. The queueing and the high tea and, yes, the reserve. The polite, measured conversations we all have about the weather; the low, well-calibrated tones in which we attempt to have them. No complaining, no drawing attention to oneself, especially not in public. Fine, fine, everybody is fine. My husband is English, he was raised on a steady diet of quietness and fineness.
When we first lived together, he would balk at how loud I became, how animated, when I talked to my mother or sister on the phone. He used to say he needed to put at least two doors between us for the sake of his sanity. So too when I returned from visits with my Jewish family in America, he would comment on how much louder I was, fundamentally, at least in that small window of time before I could settle back into the acoustical expectations of my new environment. Of course I was louder, I thought, my volume had been readjusted to its original settings.
The way I spoke around him was the pretension, after all. The learned practice of cultural acclimation. We make compromises in our relationships, don’t we, the ones we have with places as much as the ones we have with people?
My children are often being told they are too loud. By me, by their father, by their English grandparents. My in-laws look pained, literally—I can see the creased consternation on their faces—amidst the clamor. “Where is your volume button, Leo?” his grandmother asked on a recent visit. “I don’t think he was born with one,” I replied—but then promptly proceeded to instruct him to be quieter. For her. All he was doing was telling a story, his voice rising in step with his excitement, exactly as mine does.
As loud as I can be, I still crave periods of silence. The noise my kids make can be very intrusive to me as well. I don’t want them to be loud all the time. I want them to be able to respect other people’s preferences and sensitivities, to be able to modulate themselves accordingly. But I am also realizing, maybe too late, that a lifetime of modulation comes with loss. That making yourself quieter for other people is sometimes tantamount to making yourself smaller. That compromises are important, but compromising overly can be damaging to one’s sense of self.
Kids are supposed to be loud, aren’t they? They are supposed to be emotive, to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have yet to construct the elaborate system of filters and defense mechanisms we tend to as adults. That are, don’t get me wrong, necessary for peaceful coexistence, but that are meant to come later in life, when their appropriate use can be adequately gauged. And still, even as grown ups, we don’t always agree on that use, on where exuberance is indeed appropriate. Case in point: my dinner table is noisy and bright with laughter; my children’s father’s is not.
Leo had a shirt when he was younger, it had a picture of a volume icon on it, the lines at full pelt. It suited him perfectly. Maybe loudness is in his genes, is coded in all of my children’s DNA, despite the fact they will play out their childhoods in a country that doesn’t do so well with living loud. It will be a balancing act for them, no doubt, as much as it will be for me now that we won’t be under the same roof together all of the time. But there are also things to look forward to. I will be able to talk again in my own home as loudly as I want. To get back in touch with the little girl with the raspy voice I once was. In the end, hopefully, I will be able to reclaim that uninhibited intensity of expression I had as a child—and lost somewhere along the way.
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