Triggering memories

It is surprising and delightful the way that certain sounds or smells trigger memories for me. One of the wonderful things about having been around for so many years is that I have a lot of really great memories. I don’t think I could have predicted how valuable memories would be for me when I was younger. At 25 years of age, for example, I was focused on the new things that I was doing. I wasn’t inclined to look back or to think of my memories, other than the short term memory tasks that are required for a successful education.

These days, however, I realize that much of my identity is shaped by the experiences that I have had and the memories that are a part of who I am. I draw upon my memories in my writing and my preaching and in my everyday living. I make decisions that are based on things that I learned many years ago. It is more than simply possessing memories, though that is the language we use. We stay, “I have these memories.” But the truth is that we are the memories that make up our character.

Yesterday evening, I walked into our house where Susan had been baking apple bread and making chicken noodle soup. The aromas were inviting and warm and evoked host of memories. I instantly remembered a story my parents delighted in telling over and over. When they were newly wed, my mother would cook chicken and dumplings for my father. He would taste them, enjoy them and then comment, “These are really good, but not quite like the dumplings my mother made.” My mother, seeking to please her husband, tried recipe after recipe, variation after variation. Each received the same comment. Finally, several years later, she sat with her mother-in-law and asked her for the recipe for dumplings so that she could finally make dumplings for her husband that were like his mother’s. My grandmother looked at my mom with a surprised expression and said, “I don’t have a recipe for dumplings. I never make dumplings!” From that time on, whenever she made chicken noodle soup my dad would say, “Where are the dumplings?” and they would laugh and one or the other or both of them would tell the story again.

The aroma in our house was more than a pleasant sensation. It evoked a story that I know I have told my family many times - a memory that is ingrained in my identity so deeply that it is likely that my children tell the story from time to time.

Another example of how smell or sound can trigger memory came later in the night. I woke from my sleep in the middle of the night and lay quietly in bed. Soon I heard the sound of coyotes singing in the distance. They were quite a ways away and I had to strain just a little bit to make sure that I was really hearing them instead of just confusing some other other sound. There definitely were coyotes yipping and calling out.

That sound instantly transports me back four decades to a camping trip we took into the mountains when I was a young adult. We took our back packs and hiked about seven miles up into a high plateau with several mountain lakes. It was late summer and the weather was excellent. We didn’t own a proper backpacking tent in those days, but knew how to rig a shelter from a couple of plastic tarps. We spread out our sleeping bags and after making a supper over an open campfires we lay under the stars looking up at the majestic spread of the heavens, properly tired from having walked up hill for a good stretch. Just as I started to drift off to sleep I heard the coyotes begin to sing. This was in the days before wolves were reintroduced into that particular area of Montana, but we had stories of wolves that others had told us. I made myself wake up and listen to be sure that what I was hearing had the distinctive yip, yip, yip of coyote song. Convinced that what I heard was coyotes, I drifted off to sleep to the music of such a beautiful space.

To this day singing coyotes sparks the memory of the beauty of the lake plateau and the gorgeous beauty of the clear night sky without any light pollution. It was a powerful moment and it stays with me wherever I go.

The truth is that we carry lots and lots of memories in our minds and many of them do not rise to consciousness very often. They are there, but sort of lurk in the background as we focus our attention on other matters, solving the problems of the present or making plans for the day to come. Then something triggers our memory, often a smell or a sound, and we recall something that we hadn’t been thinking about for a long time.

Recalling a treasured memory is more than a mental exercise. It isn’t the same as recalling information that was learned and has not been recalled for some time. Some of my memories are full-body experiences. I not only recall the sound of the coyotes and the sight of the night sky. I recall the gentle ache of muscles stretched and pushed just a bit, the smell of the pine boughs, the warmth of my sleeping bag and the joy of the friends with whom I was camping.

There are some things about aging that I anticipated when I was younger. I don’t think that I anticipated that I would become a sentimental and nostalgic old fool whose emotions would sometimes overcome him. That is, however, a fairly accurate description of me, at least part of the time. And now that I’m at this point in my life, I don’t mind the description. I enjoy the nostalgia and I enjoy the sentiment.

I’ll keep inhaling deeply and listening carefully for the smells and sounds that trigger my memories.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!