Power of Memory

I wonder if this has ever happened to any of you.  The first time it happened was a year or more after my grandma died.  I was just hanging around my home doing whatever, and I grabbed the phone thinking, “I have to call Grandma.  It’s been so long since I…”  I broke down right there and sobbed.  The urge to give her a call came upon me naturally and spontaneously just as it had most of my life.  And the sudden, rude realization of something I obviously already knew, that I would never be able to do that again, was as fresh and raw as if she had just passed. 

By now she’s been gone over twenty years, but I can still hear her saying, “This is costing you money.  We better hang up.” (This was in the days where long distance cost as much as going beyond your allotted data does today.)  I can also hear how tickled she sounded when I told her it was worth all they were charging and more.  And we’d keep chatting. 

Another time, I opened my overstocked linen closet and a quilt stored on the top shelf fell out of the closet and out of the bag in which it was stored.  Grandma’s quilt.  It fell against me, and as I caught it, the smell of her house was still there in its fibers.  My son walked into that hallway to discover his mother holding the quilt, sniffing it, and crying like a baby.  He didn’t understand back then the power of a sensory memory like the smell of something loved and familiar. 

There are triggers that can transport you to another time, another place.  At times it is somewhere you can go again.  It might involve your spouse or your child who are still living right there with you.  Or it could convey you to a time you can revisit those who have left you.  Maybe it is a smell – bacon on a Sunday morning, the beach, a special meal that only she made, his aftershave.  It could be “our song” or maybe just the number one hit from the summer when you were sixteen and in love with summer life and friends.  Maybe it’s a thunderstorm, a movie, a phrase, a picture…  It is the quilt that I now see everyday but that still pulls those strings some days.  It might be the miniature Raggedy Ann and Andy that Grandma sent when I was in college because she loved them and knew I would too. These are the special things that allow us to go home for just a moment to a time, a place, and the people who populate our past and our memories.

Not all of my sensory memories are of lost loved ones.  Not all leave me crying.  In fact, those that I wrote about above stand out because they did.  Most memories, even of loved ones who have passed, involve loving times, fun experiences, laughter, and wisdom.   Not all of my most powerful memories are not of people.  Some times I find myself transported by an object, a picture, a quote, or a book to a place where the answers to my questions have been sitting and waiting for me to rediscover them.  If you are a reader, there are times that the characters become friends, part of your family, part of you.

I know that some people relate to this kind of memory.  Sensory memory of experiences we’ve had continue to wash over us.  Pat Conroy has a beautiful passage in his novel Beach Music where the main character has taken his daughter back to his childhood home.  He goes up to the room where he had spent many hours during his childhood and the sensory memory of the books he read in his early years flood him:

Then I turned my attention to the paperback books and it seemed that not a single one had been moved from its place.  This room had long served as a retreat from the disharmony and sadness of the first floor, and it was here I had fallen in love with these books and authors in a way that only lifelong readers know and understand.  A good movie had never once affected me in the same life-changing way a good book could.  Books had the power to alter my view of the world forever.  A great movie could change my perceptions for a day.

I have always kept these books in alphabetical order from Agee to Zola, and I had read for the way words sounded, not for the ideas they espoused

“Hello, Holden Caulfield,” I said, taking the book from its shelf.  “Meet you at the Waldorf under the clock.  Say hey to Phoebe.  You’re a prince, Holden.  A real goddamn prince.”

Taking out Look Homeward, Angel, I read the magnificent first page and remembered when I had been a sixteen-year-old boy and those same words had set me ablaze with the sheer inhuman beauty of the language as a cry for mercy, incantation, and a great river roaring through the darkness.

“Hello, Eugene.  Hello, Ben Gant,” I said quietly, for I knew these characters as well as I knew anyone in the world.  Literature was where the world made sense for me. 

“Greetings, Jane Eyre.  Hello, David Copperfield.  Jake, the fishing is good in Spain.  Beware of Osmond, Isabel Archer.  Be careful, Natasha.  Fight Well, Prince André.  The snows, Ethan From.  The green light, Gatsby.  Be careful of the large boys, Piggy.  I do give a damn, Miss Scarlett, The woods of Brian are moving, Lady Macbeth.”

My reverie was broken by Leah’s voice.  “Who are you talking to, Daddy?”

“My books,” I said.  “They’re all still here, Leah.  I’m going to pack them up and take them back to Rome for you.”  (Beach Music, p. 389)

Like my sensory memories of people and places of my life, I have lines and characters who call to me to remember when we met and what they taught me.  I could have a conversation with them just as Pat Conroy did.  I think some of them should know each other.

“Hey, Boo.  Thanks for looking out for Scout.  You’re a better man than the whole lot of them, Atticus.” 

“Celie, you will be seen and loved.  You should meet this kid Auggie Pullman.” 

“Hide the book, Montag.  Watch out for the dog Teacake.  Hey, Esperanza, are those bums in the attic I hear?  Junior, I love books like you do – not so much the basketball.” 

“Dang, Novalee, you are a force to be reckoned with.  If you ever get out to Tucson, look up my friend Taylor and her daughter Turtle.  They are a lot like you.”   

And then I think of More Schwartz and his words to Mitch Albom as they visit on their twelfth Tuesday.  Morrie talks about where he will buried, and he asks if Mitch will come and talk to him, tell him his problems.  Come on Tuesdays he tells Mitch because we are “Tuesday people.”  When Mitch responds that it won’t be the same, Morrie says that he will listen more.  But I think that in a way, the people who mattered and populated our lives – both the real and the fictional – continue to speak to us through our memory of them.  As Morrie Schwartz said, “Death ends a life, not a relationship. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.” 

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Who are the people – real and fictional – who continue to speak to you?

Meet the ones I “talked to” above by reading the books below.  These are just of few of the books that I think will speak to you and maybe speak about me.






Beach Music by Pat Conroy

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

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