Monday, July 18, 2022

My Personal Madeleine



LUCY BURDETTE: even if you’ve never read Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you will probably have heard of his madeleine. He described how biting into a madeleine cookie caused an old memory to resurface--which he wrote about for pages and pages and pages.


This morning I am wondering about objects in our home or office that might do something similar. Mine is an old dictionary with my name inscribed in gold leaf as grade winner of the Metropolitan Spelling Bee hosted by the Detroit News. When I see that book, or when I hear news of this year‘s national spelling bee, I am instantly back in sixth grade. I easily won my sixth grade spelling contest in our school and was sent on to the district championship. Sixth grade was probably the nadir of my shyest, most awkward years. I can remember my father quizzing me from a small booklet with a deep blue cover. I remember wearing black and white saddle shoes to the district competition (so very uncool!) I remember being too shy to ask anyone where I should wait, instead I fell into the nearest line. Other kids made mean comments and I eventually realized that this line was a class that was waiting to be seated, not a line for contestants. I also can remember like it was yesterday the word that I went down on. Epic. E P I C. Epic. Only it turned out it wasn’t that version of the word it was another, EPOCH. I definitely should have asked for a definition!


Can you put your finger on something in your home or photo album that brings back a very specific memory?


HALLIE EPHRON: Lucy’s question got me flipping through albums, looking for early memories. Here’s the earliest triggering a memory. It’s me (the little one) in my sister Nora’s lap with my sister Delia looking devilish to the side.

The picture triggers 2 memories. One is the dresses my sisters are wearing - they’re actually pinafores worn over white blouses (with lace collars and sleeves). I remember that when they got handed down to me the cotton was starched and scratchy. And I remember the wallpaper. That was the bedroom my sisters shared and the wallpaper was blue-and-white checked. Eventually my dad took over that bedroom and that paper got replaced with a neutral grasscloth.


So many of my earliest memories are purely visual.


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I just saw an ad that some store was selling cereal-scented candles, supposedly to remind people of their childhoods. Trix is one, and Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs. Okay, that’s weird, and let me just say those fragrances would not make me nostalgic.  But we have a photo of me with my sister Nina, she must have been four and me–seven?  We are on the patio of…somewhere, and we are having a foot fight. For the unenlightened (those not in my family) that entails sitting on the floor, feet out in front of you, placing the soles of your feet to the other person’s soles and then pushing to see if you can get your legs straight out and make the opponent's legs bend. We are really having fun, and it reminds me how close we used to be. They used to  call us Ann-and-Nina, as if we were one person. 


(Just as an aside, I was CLEARLY destined to win the spelling bee, and then I missed ALCOHOL. ALcohol! I think of that humiliation and frustration with myself every time I see that word.)



DEBORAH CROMBIE: I was thinking about this, and then a photo half hidden by the mouse pad on my desk caught my eye. It's a faded snap of a brown tenement building. A round rice-paper ceiling lamp glows in one window on the fourth floor. It's the flat my first husband and I lived in in Edinburgh. Just that glimpse and I can see it all so clearly! The two-bar electric fire in the sitting room, the heavy dark blue curtains in the bedroom, the convection heater we rolled from room to room (no central heating in these old Georgian buildings!) The biting cold. The view of the Calton Observatory. The smell of pasta cooking and the taste of sherry. Lovely how a little trigger can bring so much back.



RHYS BOWEN:  Such an interesting topic. I have various objects I’ve brought with me around the world. One was a baton presented to my grandfather, an orchestra conductor. When I was a child I used to try and conduct with this, not realizing it was ebony and silver and thus TOO HEAVY!

The other trigger is my mum’s sewing box. Even now when I open the layers and inhale deeply inside I can smell home. I can’t identify the scent but I’m there.


JENN McKINLAY: Butter tarts. As soon as I taste a butter tart, I am on the deck at our cottage in Nova Scotia. I can smell the salty bay just yards from the deck mingling with pine trees and abundant summer roses that surround the cottage. I can hear the brook babbling its way down the side yard to the beach, the buzz of the bees, and the zip of the hummingbirds as they fight over the feeder. I can feel the warm sun on my head and the hot cup of coffee in my hand. For a moment, everything is perfect.

 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I was looking around the house for some aide de memoire I hadn't thought of in a while when i realized... I was wearing one! Two, to be exact. My mother, an always-stylish woman, got these chunky silver earrings somewhere in Europe back in the 1970s. They came to me after she passed away, and every time I put them on, I can see my mom sitting at her vanity or leaning forward toward the bathroom mirror, putting them in as a finishing touch to a chic minidress or a flowing Elizabeth-Taylor influenced caftan (Mom, who was very proud of her girlish slimness, had more fitted Moroccan styles than Liz.)

 

Although I don't have her figure, wearing these connects me to my mother's sense of style, and the way she always had one extra touch to her outfit to finish it off. If I smile in one certain way, I can see her again in the mirror. 


How about you Red readers? Tell us about a thing or a photo that evokes a specific memory!


57 comments:

  1. A family photograph when the children were very small takes me back every single time. And then there’s a picture of Jean and I when we were maybe four . . . I don’t remember having it taken, but I remember my mother hung it in the living room and there it stayed for years and years and years . . . Warm family memories . . . .

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanJuly 18, 2022 at 1:01 AM

      Awwwww that is very sweet. Xxxxx

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    2. Yep, as a writer, everything is a trigger, which is why to the outside eye I might seem to be a hoarder, but MY clutter has a purpose. Every trinket is a memory of a person or place, and they find their way into my essays and my fiction.

      I had a really bad couple of years after Owen died because everything-- phrase or object-- was a trigger. It took me a while to realize that, after half a century, I was going to hear him in my head, making a comment, on nearly everything that had happened or existed, and I had to celebrate that, rather than mourn it. Or I would realize that the object was mine, acquired or created during one of our periods of separation (it was a fraught relationship), which would then trigger a remembrance of why his comments hadn't happened.

      I am tied to the many places I have lived by the dishes, or curtains, or wardrobe from that home, that period. As the eldest grandchild on my paternal side, I remember iterations of the family cottages that the others cannot. I once rented a little red car with a black interior, and I was instantly back driving my red VW Beetle, with its black dashboard, as I commuted between Milwaukee and Madison in the summer of 1968, working on political campaigns, and weeping for the entire 78 miles because Robert Kennedy had been shot, and "Abraham, Martin, and John" had come on the radio. (Which triggers another memory: I shared my memories of that summer with Rosemary Clooney just after she concluded a press conference for a CBS special on her life story-- her friend Robert Kennedy's assassination had triggered her breakdown-- and she gave me a big hug. So much for cool journalist and celebrity subject.)

      I have the kind of memory that retains more than it should. Everything triggers it, which makes clearing clutter more than difficult. I pick up an object, and instead of worrying about it sparking joy, I can remember exactly where I was, probably what I was wearing and what the weather was like when I acquired it. And what was said. And if I stop to jot down some notes, I wind up writing an essay or a scene, and the cleaning project is abandoned. Which might be a better use of my time, though not by conventional standards.

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    3. This is in the wrong place. I don't know if that's blogger's fault or the fault of this quasi-new laptop that I swear I am going to throw out my fifth floor window one of these days. I wish they'd stop "improving" programs that used to work just fine.

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    4. "My clutter has a purpose" - here here, Ellen, Mine too. I even save chipped and cracked things for the memories they evoke.

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  2. I love these memories, Reds. Thank you for sharing them. One from my own childhood: my family of six moved before I was five from a smallish house to a bigger one a few blocks away. My mother grew sweet peas in the first house, and every time I smell that sweet, delicate scent as an adult I'm four again, playing in the back yard with my big sisters.

    One from my sons' childhood: I have a picture on my office wall of my first Mothers' Day with two children. Black and white, it shows me in bed in a nightgown nursing my big-headed four-month-old and smiling over at my almost three-year-old son next to me, who is smiling back, and talking, his hand on my knee. I remember Allan's dinosaur jammies, his clear mature speech (completely fluent before he was two), his blue eyes, how he would narrate stories to himself in a certain low voice as he played alone. And I remember my smiling, placid baby, always a lusty nurser, and how I would give him a baby massage with calendula oil scented with lavender after Allan went to bed, just baby and mom time. Sweet times.

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    1. Those are sweet memories, Edith. Maybe I'll recognize one of them in a future book with Mac and Tim;>)

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  3. Great memories, everyone!
    No photo, but I vividly remember spending time with my maternal grandfather in Osaka, Japan when I was 4 years old. It was springtime and my grandfather carried me on his shoulders (something my dad never did) as we traveled from his house to the corner store. He bought me a box of chocolate-covered raisins. My grandfather did not speak English but my Japanese was good enough (then) so we were chatting & laughing all the way.

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    1. How very special Grace! Chocolate covered raisins sounds so American, was it a Japanese treat too?

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    2. ROBERTA: Hmmm, no, chocolate-covered raisins are not a Japanese treat but Japan imports a lot of chocolate products back then, including from Nestle. Even now, the Japanese have an obsession with KitKat chocolates. Nestle makes unique KitKats flavours that are only sold in Japan.

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  4. When Jonathan was born, I still owned the enormous German Shepherd cross -breed that Irwin fell for when we met. There is a photo of his gigantic head pushing into the baby carrier to get a good sniff of his new roommate on the day we brought Jonathan home. I am in the photo, too, laughing at his curiosity and monitoring his investigation. What a lovely relationship they forged!

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  5. Lately I’ve been wrapping Julie’s knee daily, doctor’s orders. And it reminds me of being very very small and going with my grandmother to the Red Cross to “wrap bandages.” During WW2 of course. There were strips of sheets and toweling I have no idea what happened to them next, sorted and sterilized surely. Guess we didn’t always have disposable gauze dressings. It’s a clear memory from my third year I think.

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    1. Wow, that's an oldie but goodie Ann. We hope Julie is healing quickly--do keep us posted and send her the best from all the Reds!

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    2. Wow, a tactile memory. I don't know if i have one like that. Maybe learning crochet from my grandmother? Hmm. Best to Julie and her caregiver.

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    3. I’m an oldie but goodie Lucy Roberta.

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  6. When I'm walking on a stretch of sidewalk that is laid out with a large square in the middle and a smaller section on each side, I flash back to walking with my grandma when I was a small child. She told us that the sidewalk was made so she could walk holding hands with one small twin on each side of her. My son recently bought some Jeni's Savannah Buttermint ice cream. That first bite also took me back to my grandma's and the mints she used to give us. They had a very thin shell on the outside that you bit through. I had totally forgotten them, but the taste took me right back to my fond memories of grandma.

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    1. She sounds so lovely Gillian! Nice to have those memories embedded deep inside...

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  7. The word I missed in a spelling bee was fiery. Probably 65 + years ago and I still remember the feeling of ignominy!

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    1. Oh yes, we will never forget LOL. But you can spell ignominy!

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  8. I have a stack of pocket-sized handkerchiefs hand-made by my mother from a variety of cotton fabric. One in particular reminds me of a summer dress worn by my older sister when she was about 7 or 8. I'm always happy when I reach into the stack and nab that one, because memories of summer time fun -- outdoors, at the playground -- come flooding back.

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  9. I have memories of my very favorite small flower print dress with three little red round buttons. Whenever I see a similar print I am transported back to my 5 year old self walking to kindergarden. Also, the song Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison brings back memories, when I was a young teenager, of our family trip to San Francisco.

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    1. That song sends me to the beach with my bestie Cindy in ninth grade! Every time.

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    2. It's a great song! I remember a kindergarten dress too. Wish I had it now--a dropped waist, with pleats. I think it was brown plaid with a white collar?

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    3. Same here: memories of a favourite summer dress that had peaches appliqued on it somehow.

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  10. Fun topic, Roberta, and fun memories, too.

    So many memory-invoking photos and objects, but probably one of my favorites is the one of me holding my grandson Zak for the first time. My poor daughter was in labor forever, nearly 20 hours, and all the grandparents but my husband (who has been Christy's stepdad now since 1982) were hanging around in the hospital that whole time, including my ex and his insane wife--who sat in that room with us and never spoke a single word to me. But the sheer joy of finally seeing that boy is a feeling I'll never forget, my own baby having her own baby.

    Now I'm all verklempt.

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    1. Sweet memory after a horrible 20 hours--yikes!

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    2. Aww. I can't wait for the same end result, Karen!

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  11. I'm loving this! For me, it's scents. Jean Nate brings back endless ballet classes and recitals. We covered ourselves in it for some reason. I think we thought it was very grown up! Then there is the scent of Badedas. I discovered it in Europe before it was available in the US and it was the one thing I asked for whenever someone was going "over." I was thrilled when it made it to the US as Vitabath!

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    1. I sure remember Jean Nate Kait, but never used Vitabath.

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    2. My grandmother wore Jean Nate! Yes, a definite memory trigger.

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    3. The fragrance of Chantilly can bring my darling grandmother back, clear as a bell.

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    4. Oh, Chantilly! Yes, I remember that...and the song, too.

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    5. Vitabath! I haven't smelled that in years! Is it still around, I wonder?

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  12. My mother's 1950s Mirro cookie press. I pull it out once a year and make butter cookies. Some of the press plates are the deck of card suits (clubs, diamonds, spades, hearts) for, I assume, bridge game cookies. Memories of decorating cookies, with my mother and then, my kids.

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    1. The card suits are so cool! I wish we had saved my mother's cookie press. I did finally buy one last Christmas, but it isn't the same.

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  13. I also have a Spelling Bee memory, which still makes me mad. My son (4th or 5th grade) went to the school district spelling bee. He was doing great, until one of the school board members (who is now a state legislator and was a former newscaster--a locally famous person) gave him the word 'tortuous', but he pronounced it 'torturous', which is the word my son spelled. So unfair!

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    1. oh boy wrong pronunciation could really make a difference!

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    2. I blew a spelling bee deliberately. I had won the county bee in the 4th and 5th grades, so I knew from experience that a win meant weeks of tedious drilling in preparation for the regional bee. It was down to two contestants, so I took a breath and carefully misspelled CAMARA, a word I knew perfectly well. The feeling of relief I felt when my opponent corrected it stayed with me, along with my relief when (much later) I confessed to my Daddy, and he just laughed and said "I knew that."

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  14. The scent of Chantilly always reminds me of my mother because she liked it so much. In her later years she never wore it and I don't know why. Maybe she didn't have any anymore.

    But spelling bees! I'm still furious with myself for missing FERTILE; I knew how to spell ORCHRSTRA when so many 'smart' kids didn't. It came down to only 2 of us and I got all befuddled. Of course I knew how to spell it, but when it counted, I didn't. I was doubly annoyed with myself because my mother had always reminded us she was county champion, from my same school. She even showed us the picture and pin she got. Last summer at a high school reunion, I talked about our sixth grade bee to Peter, the boy who had bested me. He had no memory of it at all, even winning.

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  15. Music evokes the strongest memories for me. _Take Me Out to the Ballgame_ will always send me back to a sunny day with friends at County Stadium in Milwaukee where I tasted bratwurst and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and watched Paul Molitor hit a home run in a winning effort for the Brewers. An all-around good day.

    On the other hand, I have blocked my memory of a losing spelling bee. Seems it was traumatic.

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  16. For me, it’s smells. During the first week of my freshman year in college, we freshmen were the only students there. We had a week of orientation to our “new life” as college students. The city was putting new tar on the road outside of my dormitory. To this day, I get a thrill of excitement when I smell freshly laid tar. It’s the smell of new life, new friends, new school, new possibilities, etc. And I love it!

    DebRo

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    1. Great memory DebRo--there can't be too many people who love the smell of fresh tar!

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  17. So many memory triggers--scents and sounds and visual and tactile. I rediscovered, in the bottom of a drawer, two pillowcases my mom had embroidered for me--never used. I decided to use them and now at night, if my hand touches the raised embroidery, I can see my mom holding her embroidery hoop. I touch the stitches she made--like touching her.

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  18. I went to dinner with some friends last night, and as I drove through Portland, I realized something that's struck me more than once - after living for 35 years (!!) in this part of the world, there are memories almost everywhere I go. Here's where we got ice cream and the Sailor spilled his entire cone. Here's where the petting zoo used to be. Here's where we bought my desk chair. Here's where we used to park for the Casco Bay ferry.

    This probably isn't a revelation to most people, but the mental tracks of my very peripatetic childhood and youth run deep, so the effects of living in one place for, well, a lifetime still surprise me.

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    1. I hear you, Julia. I didn't have a peripatectic youth, but I've lived in MA now for forty years, and have been a member of Amesbury Friends Meeting for thirty-three of them. So much attachment and both community and spiritual life lived in that one, simple, light-filled historic building.

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  19. So many things trigger memories! Noxzema and Sea and Ski take me right back to junior high and high school in Houston. A carload of girls reeking of Noxzema at the drive-in. The mom deciding hastily that a Bridgett Bardot movie was not appropriate and driving us back home to the slumber party. Girl Scouts slathered in Sea and Ski getting ready to sail the Sunfish boats at the camp on Galveston Bay.

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    1. That's so funny Pat--I'm wondering how far you got into the movie before the mom dragged you away??

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    2. 20 or 30 minutes? A very confusing movie. Blonde to brunette, walking about like she was stoned. No idea as to the plot.

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    3. Sea and Ski and Coppertone! Instant transport to the country club pool! Add smell of grilling burgers!

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  20. I read your post just after I'd eaten a cherry plum. When I was very small, they grew on a tree in my grandparent's back yard. I hadn't tasted one in decades. Yesterday, I noticed them for sale at the grocer's and bought a few. My first taste took me back to those summer days long ago.

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