Memory persists; ones we cherish, other occasions we wish we could relive, and others still we’d just as soon forget. Depending on our general emotional state, a soft, warm glow surrounds our thoughts of life events, or a haze of sadness and regret. We have the present, we anticipate the future, and memory is a time machine.
Sense is the key to turn when engaging memory. Smell and sight spark memory. Other senses have their place, but these two have an immediacy that envelops us.
Photos stimulate recollection. While I don’t remember much about my first day of grade school at St. Adalberts in Gilman, Minnesota, I do remember the picture my mother took of me walking down a dirt road, wearing a shiny brown jacket and a baseball cap.
Other iconic photos have emotional tags. A young president’s wife stands next to Lyndon Johnson as he takes the oath of office. Joe Namath’s pass against the Oilers in 1966. The twin towers of New York City spew smoke into a crystal blue sky.
Smells are potent gateways too. Just ask my kids about the “delightful” tater tot casserole I prepared for Wednesday night meals. You won’t get many takers for that! Or the smell of lutefisk after midnight mass on Christmas. Polish sausage and scrambled eggs were a better option.
Then there are other aromas. The perfumes of youth adrift on the air in a crowded mall transport us to a time and place when we were fresh and untrammeled by life experience. Scents out of fashion randomly encountered again, help us recall the gentle pressure of a head on a shoulder and the brush of a first kiss.
If one cultivates memory as a gift to be explored from the perspective of age and experience, the things we initially learned are deepened. The events remain the same, but our take on their significance changes.
Sometimes revisiting old haunts keeps those places fresh. It may not help in remembering the third thing you were supposed to get at the grocery store, but it provides a sense of continuity and support.
I have lived in and remodeled three homes. Sometimes I walk through them in the middle of the night, when sleep is hard to come by, and recall how they looked and what I did to refashion them to suit our needs. When I think about my thinking, the amount of detail in those memories is stunning. Sometimes I wonder if there is much left between my ears and then I find out there is. Even here, sense is the key. Seeing, smelling and touching have locked those experiences away in the strongbox of recollection.
Memory is selective. Seen in the rear view mirror of time passed, we choose those elements from experience that are benign or comforting, ignoring aspects of life that are inconvenient or aversive. But memory persists. We time travel.