I Remember the Sandwich
In the PBS Masterpiece series Any Human Heart, a character named Gloria Scabius is talking about herself as a poor young woman. She tells her companion about a time she only had enough money for a sandwich or a bunch of violets. She bought the violets. She said she would have forgotten the sandwich, but she remembered the violets. I probably would have remembered the sandwich. That struck a chord with me and got me to thinking about memory. When I took a Cognitive Psychology course, we studied memory and no one seems to know precisely how the brain processes and chooses what information it stores. I find it fascinating; especially when things float to the surface that I haven’t thought about in years.
I remember great meals and the great cooks in my family. My brain has stored the light, fluffy taste and texture of Aunt Etta Mae’s homemade coconut cream pie; the smell of Mother’s yeast bread as it rose in the pan; the popcorn Dad served us with slices of crisp red apples in the fall. Those memories tell my mouth to water and it does. When I smell burnt food, I remember my Grandma Wentz’s fried potatoes and can see my grandpa smothering them in ketchup in a futile attempt to cover up the burnt taste.
Memory can be triggered so randomly. Friday night when I was watching Jeopardy!, one of the questions was, “Who is Chopin?”. That triggered a memory of a tiny bust of Chopin that my piano teacher had given me. It sat on my piano for years. I’m not sure what it was made of, something white that had a little sparkle to it and was gritty to the touch. I wonder what ever happened to it.
Memories are like dominoes, one touches another, opening up another remembrance. Piano lessons remind me of how I used to bite my nails. My parents tried everything to get me to stop. Rewards didn’t work; even painting my nails with a special hot sauce mixture they got at the drug store for nail biters didn’t work -- I thought it tasted good. No outside stimuli worked. What did the trick came from inside me when I began playing in recitals around age 12. The public shame of displaying bleeding nails and cuticles made me stop cold turkey.
Smells are always a good memory trigger. Once in a while, when I smell cigarette smoke that has a special acridness to it, I’m taken back to when, as a little girl in grade school, I would be awakened in the middle of the night by that same smell and the low murmur of my parent’s voices in the next room. As an adult, I realized what they had been doing, but as a child I just thought it was a funny time of night to be awake and smoking. That was before things got really bad between them.
As an adult, I sleep with the covers over my head, just my eyes and nose sticking out. My ears are always covered. I remember doing that as a child to try and drown out the angry voices of my parents. It only muffled them, but it felt safer somehow. I haven’t lived in a house with angry voices since I was a child, but I still seem to need the comfort of covering my ears.
My son grew up in a house without angry voices. The memories I have of raising him are my best memories. He was fun. He had, and still has, the best giggle I’ve ever heard. He’s always been the trickster, loves to play jokes, even as an adult. One of the best tricks he played on me, still makes me laugh out loud. He was about 24 and living with me temporarily. I had come in late and Casey was already in bed. I made myself a bologna sandwich. The phone rang; I sat my sandwich plate on the coffee table and went to my room to take the call. It was an extended conversation, when I came back out and hungrily bit into my sandwich, I couldn’t bite all the way through it. I opened it up and discovered my bologna had been replaced with a piece of cardboard the exact size of the round of bologna. I immediately yelled, “Very funny, Casey!” All I heard from the next room was, “Heh, heh, heh”.
Casey is an artist. The other day I was going through some of the drawings he did as a child. In one of the drawings he used a cross hatch pattern for shading. Another domino falls. I’m immediately taken back to riding in the back seat of my Grandpa Wentz’s Studebaker. It’s summer time and Grandpa is wearing his straw fedora with the black band. He has just had a hair cut and I could see the back of his tanned neck. It had deep cross hatch marks in it. I was fascinated with those marks and what caused them and why they didn’t match the smooth skin on his face.
Because my Grandpa Wentz was such an important person in my life, I’m back again to wondering about memory and how it affects the way we live our daily lives. I’ve worked hard to get my life to where it is today. It allows me to be a happy combination of a social person and one who needs solitary time. This helps keep my life balanced, because when I write during my solitary time, I often draw from the dark and difficult memories of my childhood. I don’t believe writing heals in and of itself, but it gets me to a place where I can process, move on and make more memories, which will create more dominoes to tumble and fall on one another, releasing sources of never-ending memories that make a writing life so rich.
Rebekah for Poplar Grove Muse