The Small Sounds of the Past
Syndicated from, May 20, 2024

4 minute read


[The following is an excerpt from Christian McEwen’s In Praise of Listening (October 2023, Bauhan Publishing).]

Alice Cozzolino is an extraordinary cook; one might almost call her a “food whisperer.” For most of her life, she has thought of herself as “one who feeds.” It is a skill that reaches back to very early childhood. 

When Alice was a girl, she and her mother would make pasta e fagiole every week. The night before, the two of them would sit together in the kitchen sorting beans. Her mother would pour them out across the table, the pea beans and the lentils and the navy beans, all mixed up together, making one pile for Alice and another for herself. Then, taking 10 or 12 at a time, they would “shush and drop” them into shiny metal bowls. The aim was to separate out the little bits of stone or grit, the less-than-ideal specimens. Her mother wanted each bean to be perfect. 

“Shush and drop, shush and drop, shush and drop,” Alice murmurs. Even now, the sound carries her back in time, back to herself at five and six years old. “More than anything in the world,” she says, “that sound transports me.”

Many of us turn to images to spark our memories: the childhood drawings, still stuck to the belly of the old refrigerator; the family album crammed with faded photographs. But sounds, too, can be powerfully evocative. 

Eleanor Adams was born in Connecticut in 1916 and spent her childhood summers on an island called Deer Isle. Deep into her 90s, she remembered the sound of every local truck, each with its characteristic engine. She liked to wake up very early—in what, for her, was “the middle of the night”—to listen to the milkman in his horse-drawn wagon: the clatter of hoofs striking the metalled road, the clink of the glass bottles set down on the stoop.  

Children watch and listen, notice, pay attention. They lie on the worn rug in front of the fire and hear the click of a needle against the pocked top of the thimble, the soft intake of someone’s breath. Nothing is too modest or humdrum to be enjoyed. Mariel Kinsey grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries. She remembered the tall stand of grasses behind the family compound, “sort of like corn,” she said, and how the children liked to play there, “rustling through.” She described, too, a neighbor called Mrs. Hauskke, who used to hand out slices of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. Kinsey was six or seven at the time and still recalled how it felt to bite into one of those slices. “White bread slathered with butter and sugar. And the crunching sound of the sugar! Isn’t that something!”

In an increasingly noisy and intrusive world, such memories can act as catalysts, reminding us to attend to our own present-day impressions or “listen inwards” to what our bodies have to say. It is as if in summoning such long lost sounds, we were able to reconstitute the ground underfoot and the sky overhead, the very foundations of our human being. 

“Remember to love your sense of hearing,” advises the composer W.A. Mathieu, “love the echo of the world calling us awake inside our skulls.”

Brainstorm early memories of sound, making no distinction between “important” and “unimportant,” human and non-human. Write up a rich, inclusive, disorderly list, and encourage your students to do the same. 

a dog yapping, someone laughing

the sound of a hammer, its uneven beat

lying on the rug between the sofa and the chair, listening to the far-off voices of the grownups

listening to the whoof! of a horse as it exhales

People can write a list poem if they choose, along the lines of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, or they can pick two or three items to describe more fully, perhaps focusing on long-lost memories or favorite sounds. My friend Meg Fisher wasn’t sure, at first, that she had anything to tell. Most of her childhood memories were visual ones. But then she recalled the silver bell on her tricycle. “I can really distinctly remember the sound that metal bell made. Tring-tring! It made that nice satisfying little tring! every time you pressed it.” Suddenly she could see the twisted handle of the bell and feel her thumb on it, see the handlebar to which it was attached, and the way that handlebar connected to the trike’s front wheel. The white cement of the sidewalk, the rather rough, parched lawn—all those details were released by her clear memory of the bell. 

“They had been locked away, inaccessible, until the sound freed them.”


For more inspiration, join this weekend's Awakin Call with Christian McEwen. RSVP and details here.



  1. Alice Cozzolino, interviewed by Christian McEwen, November 9th, 2014.
  2. Eleanor Adams, interviewed by Christian McEwen, July 26th, 2014.
  3. Mariel Kinsey, interviewed by Christian McEwen, July 1st, 2014.“Remember to love your sense of hearing…” W.A. Mathieu, The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991), p.4.
  4. Joe Brainard: I Remember, edited by Ron Padgett (Granary Books, 2001).
  5. Meg Fisher, interviewed by Christian McEwen, January 27th, 2020.

Christian McEwen is a freelance writer and workshop leader originally from the U.K. She is the author of several books, including World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, now in its eighth printing. She edited Jo’s Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure; Sparks from the Anvil: the Smith College Poetry Interviews; and, with Mark Statman, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing. Christian has enjoyed residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Mesa Refuge, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest book, In Praise of Listening, was published in October 2023.