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Column: Pondering the power of a sound

When I was young, in the days before first grade when afternoons loomed long and my mother took naps every day because her blood pressure medicine controlled her, I would lie on my stomach in the sun in front of the sliding door and watch the shadows slip across the wicker chest and onto the black and green tartan carpet. By the time the shadows reached the piano bench I knew my mouth would wake up soon and I would no longer be alone.

It was quiet there on our dirt road on Orcas Island, Wash., almost silent but for the distant lapping of the waves upon the shore. Our road petered out into an abandoned apple orchard, and the few neighbors we had took out their Cadillacs judiciously and drove with the dignity of their age. There were no stray dogs to liven things up or lost tourists, or mothers taking walks with babies.   

Sometimes on those long mornings, in order to feel less alone, I’d turn on our little black and white TV, but the only shows on television were soap operas and all that shouting and kissing got a little boring. Mom didn’t know I had the TV on because I kept it quiet. Somehow I knew that those were not shows she’d want me to be watching.

Sometimes I’d drag my Fisher Price village or barn, castle or four-roomed yellow house down to the living room, or I’d build orphanages out of Lego for the Fisher Price people. I played with puzzles or I listened to my read-along records, or I played with Barbies. Anything to fill the silence.

And then, when I began to think I ought to start stomping on the deck — accidentally — so that Mom would wake up, I’d hear an airplane taking off from the airport a couple of miles along the shore, and I’d think about my dad. I’d wonder if he was the pilot responsible for those lonely sounds and I’d hope that he’d come home on the ferry in time for dinner.

Never mind that you didn’t need a ferry to get home from the Orcas Island Airport. Never mind that Dad flew helicopters, not tiny, fixed-wing planes; never mind that he was down in Oregon and wouldn’t be home for another week. My brain didn’t yet understand such math.

Years and miles away from those shadow-filled afternoons, I was out on my deck in southern Minnesota. An airplane passed overhead, so high I could not see it slipping through the clouds. But I could hear it. I heard the long, slow, drone as it crossed my little piece of airspace, sounding so much like those planes so many years ago, and in that moment I was transported back to Orcas, straight to the loneliness of those shadowy mornings. Though I was surrounded by my three kids, my husband, and our two egotistical cats, I felt instantly and totally alone.

I sat there, seeing myself, circa 1974, lying on the carpet watching shadows stretch across the room, and I realized, as I never had before, why it is that airplanes make me lonesome.

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is