Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Smell of Memory

Sometimes things happen in a way that beg for them to be spoken of or written about, as was an experience I had the other day while walking up the stairwell at a complex where I was doing some painting. What happened is something that I have experienced before, each time having a greater or lesser degree of submersion into the past, and it all starts with a smell.

Yesterday I began reading Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life for the first time.  The beginning of the book has a sort of forward by the narrator where he discusses life. In that small intro our narrator mentions how a song or sight can illicit long forgotten childhood memories like a trigger to launch one directly into the past if only for a fleeting moment. This I know is true. I too know that any one of the five human senses can act as such a trigger. For me, the most potent of such triggers is smell. Always has been.

Have you ever smelled a perfume that brought you back to an earlier day? Perhaps it was one your Aunt wore when you were a child, perhaps a neighbor. Have you ever smelled the perfect mingling of food odors that made you feel like a youngster playing with toys as your mother cooked dinner? Have you ever smelled something indistinguishable, yet so alluring and mysterious that you could actually feel the brilliance and joy of youth?

I have. In fact, I did the other day and it started me on a thinking path, as these sort of things often do. Mostly I thought about how precious youth is and how quickly the experience is extinguished and all but forgotten, preserved in photographs and remembrances of monumental events. We don't know any better as we are always told to think about the future and college and a career and what we're going to be when we grow up, and before we know it, it's gone and will never come back except for when triggered by an old song, a once favorite TV show or perhaps a cryptic smell, something to unlock memories buried deep in our minds.

I smelled one such fragrance in the hallway of a milti-unit complex. I was instantly brought back to the little library at my elementary school, to the shark book I liked so much, to the Halloween books I found so fascinating. I was brought back not only to the memory of it, but the feeling of sheer joy and happiness that my childhood was willed with. Random fragments of memory invaded as if some chasm had been opened. It only happened for a moment and was gone, but it left me with a sense of melancholy that had me yearning for a Ray Bradbury story or two. The experience had me thinking about life in general, but more importantly, it had me thinking about the life of a child, any child.

There were two tragic stories in the news the other day. One was about a woman in court for child endangerment after leaving her children in the car on a hot day. While in court, it was found that she had left her children in the car. Another story local to San Diego was about a three-year-old left on a balcony for hours in arms reach of a knife. The mother claims the child's grandmother was supposed to be watching, while the grandmother says the mother often neglects the child to go out and party. Last year the same child was found abandoned on the streets of Chula Vista (I don't even like being on those streets and I'm a grown man!). He was supposed to have been being watched by his grandfather, but gramps was off somewhere shooting heroin. Now the child is in protective custody.

These children will not have beautiful flashes of memory conjured at a random tingling senses. Not the way I do at least. That parents make such egregious decisions breaks my heart, and it happens all over the world. This kind of parenting certainly makes a case for implementing a license to bear children, not that I want to venture into that kind of brave new world. It is sad, though. Childhood can be great whether poor or filthy rich and just as easily, in either condition, be just as bad if not worse than the examples above. What it hinders on are the parents. Right here I could say, "Go hug your children," but you should be doing that anyway. You shouldn't have to be reminded by some blog post.

Image result for memoryWhen I smell something or hear the right tune that brings me back to my wonderful childhood I get a little sad that I didn't better preserve my memories. I realize now that no one does. In youth we're too fresh at mind and eager to experience life to waste time even considering how important those formidable years are not only to our development, but our psyche in general. As it turns out, those memories have been preserved. In the taste of sorghum molasses over buttered biscuits, in the smell of some long forgotten perfume, in the melody of a golden oldie. You can't choose to visit these memories and when you do get the opportunity they might not even make sense, but they are there, waiting to be released, to elicit melancholy, sadness, happiness and longing all at once. Cherish those memories and cherish your children so they too can experience such flashes of memory.