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The sounds that save us

Human voices, phonograph records, even chirping — sounds help tie us together and carry us through.

laura king for the boston globe

It is said that Mark Twain tacked up handwritten notes on the trees outside his beloved wife’s bedroom window as she lay ailing inside the house. The short missives were his tender requests to the birds to be quiet so his wife could rest peacefully. Whether the birds in fact read Mark Twain’s personal pleas was not documented. In any event, the great author’s wife slipped away. With all due respect to Samuel Clemens, I say bring on the birds for as long as you can.

As a generation of our family bows out, my husband and I keep putting up feeders in our yearning to hear the birds’ songs. Recently we hung one outside my 92-year-old mother’s window at the senior residence where she now lives an increasingly silent life.

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When we visit, we play “Singin’ in the Rain” on our phones and retell quirky conversations from a long-ago kitchen with a linoleum floor. Even with my mother’s loss of hearing, the music makes her smile, and I am aware more than ever that it is sounds, whether heard or remembered, that help carry us all through.

My mother had a friend who fled Germany with her new husband in 1939. She was convinced that music saved them from losing their minds. That first year in America, when she and her husband had wild dance parties in their two-room apartment, they and their friends cranked up phonograph records of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman as their baby girl slept on a mattress of towels in the bathtub.

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When World War II ended and my father-in-law’s ship landed at long last in New York, he called home from a pay phone to tell his family in South Carolina that he was safe. The call proceeded from operator to operator, each with a more familiar drawl. He told me that the sound of those women’s voices made him really believe the war was over.

Years ago, I had a student, Louise, whose mother had been a “doughnut girl” in France during World War I, baking sweets for our troops at the front. When Louise was a child, she once got a firm talking-to from her mother, because their neighbor called to say that Louise had been extremely rude. She had said, “Hi, Mrs. Charworth,” instead of “Hello, Mrs. Charworth,” like a proper young lady. My student wrote those words when she was 88, but she could remember the tone of her mother’s voice and the thrill of saying “hi” to a grown-up for the first time.

I can still hear the cadence of my first husband’s voice. On our first date, he said, “Do you want to get children?” in his staccato Dutch accent, and I had to inform him that the correct expression was “have a baby.” Although he is gone now, I often summon the rhythm of his laughter and the chatter of the older children in the orphanage where, in fact, we did adopt a child, rather than have one, as my husband would say, the “regular way.”

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And when our son was young and could not sleep, he would stand in my bedroom doorway and announce, “I want to do weather.” He climbed onto my lap and deftly logged on to check the weather in Ghana, where his classmate Belvis had recently moved from; in Iceland, where another kindergartner had been born; and in Lithuania, his own homeland. The sounds of the different languages announcing the weather helped calm him in the dark.

It is not my place to question Mark Twain’s judgment on anything. But outside my mother’s window, as the finches dart to the feeder, singing their song, I will not make a request, written or otherwise, asking that they quiet down.

Patty Dann’s most recent book is “The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories Into Memoir.” Send comments to connections@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter@BostonGlobeMag.

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