The Road to Memory and Where It Leads

“…Memory doesn’t work directly…You might stub your toe one morning and your mind tumbles back to an old friend, who wrote poems, and introduced you one May to peonies. The buds secreted a sticky sweet juice that attracted ants. The ants crawled in and opened the big petals. The flowers couldn’t do it on their own, he said. With the sharp ache of your big toe, you remember everything about him. He died too young. You cry from the bottom of a dark well you didn’t know you had.

“You can’t will a memory. Sure, you can doggedly recall details, but the true moment when the details merge with feeling—when the scene is alive—cannot be artificially born. It’s like combing the ocean, calling up an abyss—you don’t know what you will receive.”

–Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

Choose a vivid sensory memory from childhood: a smell, a sound, or a taste that is emblematic of your childhood. Write about it holding the reins loosely. Don’t try to stick with a story. Just let the associations flow; let your writing wander. See where it takes you.

Comments

  1. Ron Conte says

    The scented air alerted me to what was cooking at the cannery down the road. There was always a particular smell revealing the season of the year. The sweet aroma now passing my way was of tomatoes, so ripe you could visualize them in the late summer sky. While hiding in a game of Hide and Seek in a neighbor’s backyard I was always comforted by the cannery smells. The cannery was home for many of us as the only local employer. Most of the women in my Italian section of town worked in the cannery. I can still see my mom and my grandmom dressed in the required white cotton dresses with matching aprons heading off to work at the cannery. As they reached the corner of the block, they would be joined by several other women all dressed in the same white outfits. There was laughing and small talk as the army of workers walked in unison the rest of the way as if these dedicated women were on a mission. That mission was to earn enough money to put food on the table for their families. But the cannery was more than that. It was the meeting place; It was the place my mom and dad met and fell in love. As I walk down the old neighborhood today, the Italians are gone, my childhood neighbors are either dead or have moved on. The cannery has been closed for thirty-one years. No remnants of that citadel remains. And, so too, gone are my parents. It all has just vanished, taken by the same winds that once brought comfort to my life.

    • Ilana says

      Ron, I found your piece very evocative. I could smell the tomatoes as you described them. I could see and hear the women in their white dresses. The whole scene came to life for me. As a result I was left with a sense of loss as the final sentences took away the world you had created for me. Thank you for sharing.

    • Debbie O says

      What a great last line “It has all just vanished, taken by the same winds that once brought comfort to my life” You created a true sense of the neighborhood and what it meant to lose it. Thank you for sharing this

  2. Andrea says

    They aren’t a popular cookie these days, but I still see them on occasion — the long, rectangular, pink and brown wafer cookies that were always hidden in my grandma’s bread box. They look a bit like stacked cardboard decorated with diamond shapes. You could take the top wafer off and lick the icing out of the middle. The cookie would then slowly melt on your tongue if you could resist biting it.

    My mom rarely bought packaged cookies and certainly never chocolate milk, but at Grandma’s house I could count on a rousing game of Boggle with a side of Quick and a handful of wafers. Grandma never let me win at Boggle. She kicked my butt every time. It didn’t matter that I was a kid. Wow, she knew so many words I’d never heard of…at least not until she helped me look them up in the dictionary. The same with Scrabble. We’d set up the Scrabble game on the counter bar area of the kitchen and perch on the bar stools just like when we played Boggle. Of course, with wafers and Quick nearby. I still have her Scrabble game and love the feel of the worn tiles and the muted colors of the old board.

    We spent a lot of time on those bar stools. She would French braid my long hair and tell me stories about how my mom didn’t like her hair braided. I couldn’t imagine not liking to have your hair braided. What was my mom thinking? I loved how the braid went all the way over the crown of my head, not like when I just braided the pony part. Balancing on the tall stools, I painted an oil painting of a red flower with her. We each had our own canvas and she showed me how to mix the paint and shade the colors. I felt like Picaso. I watched her meticulously cut out balsa wood patterns to make tiny pieces of furniture for the dollhouse my dad built for her. It’s my doll house now, but I have it packed away. She and I put the shingles on together with the staple gun. We both got blisters and had to treat them by taking some curative wafer cookies and chocolate milk.

    She loved crossword puzzles and would alternate between crosswords and solitaire while I was off doing something else or before I’d gotten up in the morning. I would see her sitting at the counter with her brow furrowed and her cigarette in her hand. Her long brown hair would be piled on top of her head in an elegant, loose bun with only a few streaks of gray sneaking through. When I wear my hair like that, I look spookily like her even though she had a much slighter build than me.

    I would sit at the counter and watch her cook in the kitchen. When she opened the freezer I could peer right inside from where I waited. Sometimes she would have odd things in her freezer. For awhile there was a very pretty frozen song bird that she kept as a future model when she had some time to paint. I didn’t ask where she got it, but I imagine it was a car victim as I never saw her shoot a gun. She was an avid fisherman and once she caught an incredibly large cat fish. For some reason she kept his head in the freezer. You would almost pee your pants when you opened the freezer to see that huge, whiskered head peering out at you.

    Although you would never starve at Grandma’s she was never a particularly good cook. The occasional haze of kitchen smoke always reminded me of my mom’s story about catching her bathrobe on fire on the gas stove. Grandpa threw her on the ground and patted her out, but she ended up with a hand print scar on her butt. I wonder if she got wafer cookies and milk or if that was only a tradition for we grandchildren?

  3. Ilana says

    “I don’t want to lose this feeling!” I’m sure this was not the feeling the Bangles were singing about but the statement was true none the less. And I didn’t. Every time I hear that song, even in my mind, without the aid of a recording, I can smell the chlorine from the pool. I am transported back there and I can see the flags on the wall, the glassy blue surface of the water. I can see the beautiful orange costume the girl was wearing. I can feel the excitement fluttering in my stomach. I never wanted to lose that feeling. For two months that song ran through my head on a continual basis. Of course it did. My number practiced right after the boy/girl duet. I was always on deck waiting while they were in the pool. Their song played over and over again as the seniors I so admired perfected their routine.

    That was my freshman year in high school and my first year in the “Swan club”. I was a synchronized swimmer. I had never been a part of something before. Rarely had I dared to try out and when I did I had never been selected. This time, I had, though. This time I was a Junior Swan. That first precious year I was ignorant of the conflicts, the popularity contests and the jealousy over who was in which number; the ‘politics’ as we later called them. They were like the sewn tears in our costumes. You couldn’t see them from the stands, especially if you got caught up in the excitement of the performance. And boy was I ever caught up in it!

    We spent hours practicing. Before school we held ‘deck drills’ in the hallway outside the pool. We walked through the chorography fully clothed with the music playing on a tape deck someone had brought from home. After school we were in the pool, sometimes until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. We even came in on the weekends for ‘Saturday practice’. That is, except the Saturday of prom. That week we had our ‘in school field trip.’ I was excused from my afternoon classes on Friday to make up the practice time. If we weren’t in the pool we were running deck drills or waiting on deck for our turn in the water. If you weren’t busy with any of that then there was time for the more mundane. I used to sit in the locker room on a towel doing my homework. I’ll never forget noticing how my bright green costume had left stains on the white towel. I had already been in the pool. The chlorine must have reacted with the leotard that was never meant to be swimwear. Neither were the tights which clung to my legs uncomfortably, but that was all part of it. If my math book got a little wet so be it. I was a Junior Swan!

    “Glow Worms you’re on deck! Boy/girl duet we’re starting your music.” I ran out to watch them practice and get ready for my number. In the years that followed I learned of the meanness that competition for certain numbers bread. The coaches had their favorites and stress caused swimmers to go off on each other. “You were a beat late!” “No you were early!” “Your legs aren’t straight!” “Learn to hold your breath longer!” My junior year the meanest and most popular girl was furious because she had not been elected junior president of the club. She threatened to quit if she did not get the boy/girl duet and the solo her senior year. The boy/girl duet was an honor that was always given to a senior and the solo belonged to the senior president. She followed through on her threat and I was free of her.

    The back stabbing, the meanness and the gossip continued, in spite of her absence, but that wasn’t what I remembered. What I remembered was the anticipation of opening night, the bitter sweet cast party on closing night. I remember the chill that hit me when I got out of the water, the sweat dripping down my back from deck drilling fully clothed in the hot pool area. I remember the hunger pangs because when you’re swimming off and on for four hours at a time there is never enough food around. I remember the excitement of being a part of it all. I remember the thrill of the performance, the cold wet hugs from my team mates when I got something right.

    The most wonderful of these came on my final closing night, senior year. My duet partner was a much stronger swimmer than me. The entire number had been choreographed to her level and I had to work so hard to get it right. We finally accepted that we could not synchronize the most difficult part of the routine. But something strange happened to me on closing night and changed that. It was the comical number and we got into the pool via “Butt Bombs”. That means that after thirty seconds of dancing on the diving boards we grabbed our ankles and fell into the water rear end first. When I hit the water I lost all my strength. I swam the entire number out of breath and exhausted. When the lights went out and I swam to the side, I did not have the strength to climb out of the pool. You weren’t supposed to be on deck when the lights were off unless you had to be but Cheryl broke the rules. She reached down and pulled me out of the water. “You did it!” She screamed excitedly. “You synchronized the legs!” It had happened because I was so tired. I usually raced through that section of the routine, convinced that Randi was ahead of me. That night I was too tired to care so I had just gone through the motions. My parents video taped Cheryl and me during intermission. She was jumping up and down and hugging me. You couldn’t hear on the tape what she was saying but I remember what she was so happy about.

    Last Thanksgiving I went back to my home town to visit family. I took my children to my high school and to that pool. It looks exactly the same. The flags and the blue water are there, but the Swans are not. The club disbanded so long ago that no one remembers it. Our coaches are long since retired and the man who let me into the pool looks at me perplexed. “Swans? Never heard of ‘em. I’m sorry ma’am.” I want to bring it all back. I want the lights, the excitement. I long to dip my hands into that blue water and find my Swans but I can’t. My daughters are chomping at the bit to go swimming and if I got that close to the pool they’d jump right in fully clothed. The Swans are gone, the dripping clinging costumes, the music, the excitement and the stress. I sigh and tell my husband I am ready to leave. It’s time to grow up. I’m a ma’am now. Just like the guy said. I’m a mother, a wife, a writer, an active member of a strong Jewish community. I have so many things I never had back then. And I have my memories; memories that come rushing back every time I hear, or even think of that song because “I don’t want to lose this feeling.”

    • Andrea Jones says

      What a great experience. I’ve never been much of a swimmer so am always so impressed with someone that is comfortable in the water. I love the detail in your story and right now I’m humming along with the Bangles!

      • Ilana says

        Thanks, Andrea. Nice to know I’m not the only one who still loves their music. :) Am I dating myself? Too late I’ve already shared my birth date.

  4. Ilana says

    “I don’t want to lose this feeling!” I’m sure this was not the feeling the Bangles were singing about but the statement was true none the less. And I didn’t. Every time I hear that song, even in my mind, without the aid of a recording, I can smell the chlorine from the pool. I am transported back there and I can see the flags on the wall, the glassy blue surface of the water. I can see the beautiful orange costume the girl was wearing. I can feel the excitement fluttering in my stomach. I never wanted to lose that feeling. For two months that song ran through my head on a continual basis. Of course it did. My number practiced right after the boy/girl duet. I was always on deck waiting while they were in the pool. Their song played over and over again as the seniors I so admired perfected their routine.

    That was my freshman year in high school and my first year in the “Swan club”. I was a synchronized swimmer. I had never been a part of something before. Rarely had I dared to try out and when I did I had never been selected. This time, I had, though. This time I was a Junior Swan. That first precious year I was ignorant of the conflicts, the popularity contests and the jealousy over who was in which number; the ‘politics’ as we later called them. They were like the sewn tears in our costumes. You couldn’t see them from the stands, especially if you got caught up in the excitement of the performance. And boy was I ever caught up in it!

    We spent hours practicing. Before school we held ‘deck drills’ in the hallway outside the pool. We walked through the chorography fully clothed with the music playing on a tape deck someone had brought from home. After school we were in the pool, sometimes until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. We even came in on the weekends for ‘Saturday practice’. That is, except the Saturday of prom. That week we had our ‘in school field trip.’ I was excused from my afternoon classes on Friday to make up the practice time. If we weren’t in the pool we were running deck drills or waiting on deck for our turn in the water. If you weren’t busy with any of that then there was time for the more mundane. I used to sit in the locker room on a towel doing my homework. I’ll never forget noticing how my bright green costume had left stains on the white towel. I had already been in the pool. The chlorine must have reacted with the leotard that was never meant to be swimwear. Neither were the tights which clung to my legs uncomfortably, but that was all part of it. If my math book got a little wet so be it. I was a Junior Swan!

    “Glow Worms you’re on deck! Boy/girl duet we’re starting your music.” I ran out to watch them practice and get ready for my number. In the years that followed I learned of the meanness that competition for certain numbers bread. The coaches had their favorites and stress caused swimmers to go off on each other. “You were a beat late!” “No you were early!” “Your legs aren’t straight!” “Learn to hold your breath longer!” My junior year the meanest and most popular girl was furious because she had not been elected junior president of the club. She threatened to quit if she did not get the boy/girl duet and the solo her senior year. The boy/girl duet was an honor that was always given to a senior and the solo belonged to the senior president. She followed through on her threat and I was free of her.

    The back stabbing, the meanness and the gossip continued, in spite of her absence, but that wasn’t what I remembered. What I remembered was the anticipation of opening night, the bitter sweet cast party on closing night. I remember the chill that hit me when I got out of the water, the sweat dripping down my back from deck drilling fully clothed in the hot pool area. I remember the hunger pangs because when you’re swimming off and on for four hours at a time there is never enough food around. I remember the excitement of being a part of it all. I remember the thrill of the performance, the cold wet hugs from my team mates when I got something right.

    The most wonderful of these came on my final closing night, senior year. My duet partner was a much stronger swimmer than me. The entire number had been choreographed to her level and I had to work so hard to get it right. We finally accepted that we could not synchronize the most difficult part of the routine. But something strange happened to me on closing night and changed that. It was the comical number and we got into the pool via “Butt Bombs”. That means that after thirty seconds of dancing on the diving boards we grabbed our ankles and fell into the water rear end first. When I hit the water I lost all my strength. I swam the entire number out of breath and exhausted. When the lights went out and I swam to the side, I did not have the strength to climb out of the pool. You weren’t supposed to be on deck when the lights were off unless you had to be but Cheryl broke the rules. She reached down and pulled me out of the water. “You did it!” She screamed excitedly. “You synchronized the legs!” It had happened because I was so tired. I usually raced through that section of the routine, convinced that Randi was ahead of me. That night I was too tired to care so I had just gone through the motions. My parents video taped Cheryl and me during intermission. She was jumping up and down and hugging me. You couldn’t hear on the tape what she was saying but I remember what she was so happy about.

    Last Thanksgiving I went back to my home town to visit family. I took my children to my high school and to that pool. It looks exactly the same. The flags and the blue water are there, but the Swans are not. The club disbanded so long ago that no one remembers it. Our coaches are long since retired and the man who let me into the pool looks at me perplexed. “Swans? Never heard of ‘em. I’m sorry ma’am.” I want to bring it all back. I want the lights, the excitement. I long to dip my hands into that blue water and find my Swans but I can’t. My daughters are chomping at the bit to go swimming and if I got that close to the pool they’d jump right in fully clothed. The Swans are gone, the dripping clinging costumes, the music, the excitement and the stress. I sigh and tell my husband I am ready to leave. It’s time to grow up. I’m a ma’am now. Just like the guy said. I’m a mother, a wife, a writer, an active member of a strong Jewish community. I have so many things I never had back then. And I have my memories; memories that come rushing back every time I hear, or even think of that song because “I don’t want to lose this feeling.”

    • Debbie O says

      I so enjoyed this glimpse into an special time of your life. You conveyed so well how much it meant to you. Amazing that the pool is still there and look so much the same. Thank you.

    • Debbie O says

      Ilana – I was just revisiting all the posts again before I start the work week. I realized that you also started and ended your story with the song. It was woven into all of it so seamlessly that I missed that the first time I read it. It must be interesting to also have parts of this memory on videotape – makes it real.

  5. Debbie O says

    For me, the strongest sensory memory is a smell – the smell of horse.

    From the beginning I was horse crazy. Some of my first childhood pictures are of a chubby toddler on the back of a pony. I have pre-kindergarten memories of standing on the curb of a parade waiting anxiously for my first site of the mounted riders oblivious to the bands, floats and clowns. At three years old I started riding “lessons” on a pony at a nearby stable.

    My favorite number has always been ten because my father promised me that by ten he would get me horse probably thinking the interest would fade along with the discarded dolls my mother kept trying to coax me to play with. He was wrong. But he not only kept his word, he beat the deadline by three years.

    Christmas morning on a the farm in south Georgia. We had just moved back to the south from the suburbs of Los Angeles six months ago. I was seven. In the early dawn light the four of us children had gathered and dragged our sleeping parents from their beds with no idea they had been up late into the night arranging our Christmas morning surprise. As I opened the inordinately small box labeled to me from Santa Claus, I tried to hide my disappointment. There was no way this little container could hold what I had dreamed of, hoped for.

    I carefully unwrapped the paper, as we had been taught to do so that it could be used again. Waste not, want not – my mother’s oft spoken creed. Inside there was a small statue of a horse, a palomino. I had collected horse statues for most of my seven years, so my first thought was that it was just another Christmas, with just another plastic or ceramic or wood horse. Then a card, initially overlooked, fluttered to the floor.

    I picked it up and read, “If you think I am cute, wait until you meet my big brother in the barn.” I sucked in a breath and in a flash I was across the family room, through the kitchen and out the back door. No shoes, no coat, in my pajamas I streaked across the yard between the house and barn in record time. Probably the fastest I have ever run in my entire life!

    It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the murky darkness of the barn at dawn. I then I saw him. Sixteen hands high, majestic, tall and REAL! A real horse!! By now my father, mother and rest of my siblings had caught up. I was ready to saddle up and ride right then but my mother’s common sense prevailed and instead I put on the boots she had brought along. I had to be content with sliding into the stall and shyly stroking his enormous chest and legs. My head barely reached the bottom of his belly!

    Dad, sensing my uncertainty, stepped in and lifted me to eye level. He had a white blaze on his nose that ended at the top of his forehead in an off balance star. I buried my face in his massive neck and flowing mane – and breathed in. That smell – musty, distinctive, sweat, dust – horse!! That is the moment I finally understood he was real and he was my horse. Laughter mixed with tears as I turned to give my Dad a big hug, too.

    Dad’s smile was at least as big as mine. “So glad you like him honey. Any idea of what you want to name him?” “Of course,” I replied, turning back to look at his face. “His name is Star.”

    =====================================================================================

    A few months ago I arranged to go horseback riding at public stable north along highway one. I had booked a three hour ride and was delighted beyond words when, upon arrival, the trail guide told me that I was the only rider that morning but we were still going out – just the two of us. Having alerted the stables ahead of time about my being overweight, she had picked out a black, sturdy Tennessee Walker standing about sixteen hands tall. A big horse! He had a funny, lopsided white star squarely between his eyes with the unimaginative name of Clyde. Clyde? Really?

    It was the most delightful morning walking slowly along the trail as the guide pointed out local herbs and flowers. We were accompanied by a hawk that circled lazily above, calling out to his mate. There were lots of deer, as you might expect that time of day, along the way.

    So I was totally caught off-guard when Clyde suddenly started, springing directly sideways about three feet in an instant. For a moment I hung weightless in space, then gravity took hold and I found myself dangling clumsily half in and half out of the saddle. Using all of the strength in my legs I pushed myself up and forward throwing my arms around Clyde’s neck all the while cooing and calming him with my voice.

    In that moment, wrapped precariously around his neck, my face buried in his mane; I was seven years old again. In that instant, the strength of his neck and body flooded into me providing a sense of reassurance and comfort I realized I had been lacking for many, many years. More than just reconnecting with a life long passion long neglected, I was transported back to a time of innocence when there were guardians who lovingly watched over me. A time before I was alone.

    As I gradually won the battle with gravity and pulled my heavy body back upright into the saddle, I realized my face was wet with tears. And my senses full of the smell, the smell of horse.

    • Ilana says

      How beautiful, Debbie. I too rode horseback as a child. It was something special I did with my father. So reading your piece I could smell that wonderful mix of odors. You took me back to my own childhood. Thank you for the journey. I especially liked your taking us back to the beginning. How you felt like you were 7 years old again. I missed you last week. So glad you posted this week.

      • Debbie O says

        How kind of you to miss me! I don’t read the what others have posted until I write my own – so I finally had to admit last week I wasn’t going to write to give myself permission to visit the site. It is always the highlight of my day. You are not only a talented writer but also a kind reviewer! Glad to be “back”.

    • Andrea says

      I love your writing and the story is so relatable for me too. When my dear grandmother died, and yes she was a character :), I spent most of the night in my bathrobe, in the barn, wrapped around my Appaloosas neck.

  6. Eugenia says

    Hello. This is my first post on this website.
    At this time I like to frame my experiences, observations and stories my friends tell me into short-short stories. Sketches. This one I wrote in response to this prompt. Great practice!

    “Smell.

    “Thank you,” said Anna accepting elaborately wrapped bouquet of autumn blooms. Stiff see-through paper crunched as she pressed it to her breast in that movie star gesture when she would bow to a room full with admirers showing her deep appreciation. Len blushed and raised his hand showing her a bottle of wine with the red bow on its neck. Anna nodded in approval. She expected the flowers and wine. Her first affair should begin exactly like this. Anna buried her face to smell the flowers, but in truth, she didn’t want Len to see that she was grinning.
    “These hot-house roses have no scent. You know, some people have allergies,” Len explained. A couple of small beads of sweat quivered on his forehead. Len’s breath quickened, and his hand trembling with excitement, embraced Anna’s waist. “But they looked so exquisite. Like you.” He raised his chin and looked at Anna.
    Anna didn’t feel guilty at all. In truth, she felt elated, even a bit angry that Len seemed too timid. After ten long years with Alex, Anna was finally ready, and she had only three hours to spare.
    “Where to?” she asked, looking around for a cafe or a restaurant.
    “Let’s have a meal after,” said Len.
    “After what?” Anna chuckled looking into the bouquet.
    He blushed even more, but didn’t respond. He tightened his embrace and led her to the St. Francis Hotel, one of the best hotels in the city.
    “I dreamed about you for so long. Ten years. Exactly ten years ago I saw you for the first time…” he said, his voice breaking, and when they reached the entrance, he stopped, holding the heavy door open. “It was my birthday. And you were with him.” Len looked so pitiful, so hopeful and so afraid of her refusal, that Anna closed her eyes for a minute, enjoying her power over him.
    “My husband?” she turned her head to Len and raised her eyebrows.
    “That day I envied him so much.”
    “And you were with Nina, your wife,” said Anna. They would need to learn to mention their spouses’s names without getting upset or ashamed.
    Len nodded, and still gripping the door handle, lowered his head to her face,and kissed Anna for the first time. The kiss was long, intense, and strange.
    Anna waited for the kiss to end, and pulled back.
    “It’s not going to work,” she cleared her throat, took a big gulp of air, turned around and walked down the stairs toward the Union Square. Warm summer breeze wrapped Anna’s skirt around her hips, and rustled the cellophane of her bouquet now lowered to her leg. Alex, her husband, a man with a weak smile, small moist hands demanding her body every Sunday, and the needy nature, has always smelled to her like… nothing. As if he didn’t have his own scent. And Len’s smell was wrong too. It was musky and overly strong. It filled her lungs, and scratched her throat making it hard to breath.”

    • Debbie O says

      Eugenia – welcome to this great place to share our writing! Wow – you do very well with dialogue integrated into your stories. I was caught up in what you wrote and surprised by the ending. Thanks for joining in on this topic.

      • Eugenia says

        HI Debbie,
        Thank you very much for your comment. I read your posts and the posts of others before joining, and can say this group will be a challenge :-)
        you are so honest and such great writers.
        I hope to learn a lot from you and Laura.
        Warm regards,
        E

    • Ilana says

      Eugenia- I read your stories out of order. Somehow I missed this one. I love the beautiful pictures you draw with your words. You use everything; color, smells, feelings, even your cadence to, draw your readers in. I am drawn in! Thank you for joining us. I look forward to your future posts.

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