The Power of Memories

Earlier this spring I sat on our screened-in porch and breathed deeply of the air. It was clean, crisp and clear – the way air often is after a spring thunderstorm. It was sweet, rich, full, encompassing.

And it was familiar. 

As I breathed in I was transported back to my childhood, back to my grandparents house in Southwest Virginia. I could see the green crab apples hanging heavy on the branch. I could hear the bumblebees along the tall hedge near the porch. I could see my grandpa sitting in his chair smoking his pipe. I wished I could smell the sweet scent of his tobacco, but it wasn’t in the air.  However, the smell of earth, of rain, of green and bloom and blossom – those were all around me. 

Memory is a powerful thing.  I hadn’t thought of that yard and those smells in ages, much less had I actually smelled them.  And yet in a moment on that beautiful day, I was instantly transported back to my 9 year old self, to a place I once knew and loved.  

When I was a kid fast food was just coming into it’s own, though I didn’t realize it. Eating out was a rare and special occurrence. There were really only two occasions I remember when our family would eat out. The first was Wednesday nights at Taco Bueno, when my mom hauled the 5 siblings to piano lessons in the city and afterwards to church. The second was every-so-often on Sunday nights IF another family asked us to get pizza with them. Peter Piper Pizza – the name still resonates in my mind. It’s where I first became aware the Supreme pizza was aptly named, was truly the pizza-de-reistance, where I first remember tasting olives, where I first remember my dad giving me a dollar to get quarters to play Pac Man or Galaga while the grown-ups talked. To this day I’ve never had a pizza as good nor an olive as earthy and flavorful. Yet to this day, when I get a bite of a good Supreme, the memory of that Peter Piper pie is there.

Soft drinks were also a rare treat.  We never had them at home, unless they were bought specifically for that greatest of all school activities:  the field trip.  I remember the joy of opening my Empire Strikes Back lunch box to find a Coke, a bag of smashed up chips, and a sandwich.  The Coke was wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it cold, and it was as beautiful to my 10 year old eyes as that little gold idol was to Indiana Jones.  It of course had rolled around in my lunch box, turning the chips to dust and simultaneously flattening and chilling my sandwich (was this in my mustard and pepperoni phase?), but I didn’t care a bit.  The Coke was the centerpiece, the Holy Grail, the pinnacle.  I savored every sip and, like that supreme pizza, I don’t think I’ve ever had one as sweet or as satisfying since. 

Which begs the question: Is my memory correct, or is it Memorex? (Age check for my readers if you remember that one)

“It looks like no one lives there anymore.” 

This was the text from my daughter underneath a picture of our old house. She was visiting a friend and they had taken a detour to see how the old homestead was faring.

It was cool for me to see it through her eyes a bit.  I’m always looking back, remembering, thinking about what was.  My kids have always asked to hear stories about our childhoods, but this just struck me as different.  This time she was going down her own memory lane, wanting to see her old place.  She lived a large chunk of her young life in that house – she was 4 when we moved in, and 10 when we moved out.   A lot of the pics and videos chronicling her early years were filmed inside those walls and now, going back, taking her own pic, she was remembering her time there.  It was cool to see.  

Yeah, it’s just a house, but like all of the places we call home, it serves as a reminder a very specific time in the life of our family as a whole, but also in the stories of each of us.   I’m sure her seeing it conjured up some bad memories along with the good, just as it would for me.  Funny how places do that.  They’re simply the stage on which the play is staged, the backdrop, and as such they become an integral part of the story. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “Hiraeth” the past year or so. It’s from an old Welsh word and it refers to a kind of homesickness. It’s like a combination of the homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning for a home that you cannot return to, that no longer exists, or maybe never was. Memories would play an obvious role in Hiraeth, specifically good memories which tend to over-ride the bad ones, or what we might call wearing “rose-colored glasses.” It is extremely easy, especially if you’re going through a rough patch, to look back and glorify “the good old days”, when, if we’re honest, those days weren’t really that good after all.

Or maybe they were, but it was a specific time and a specific place. The truth is we can’t go back, not really. Memories frame a moment in time, and once that moment has passed, it’s gone. Spending a lifetime trying to recreate what once was is a fool’s errand. Trust me – I know. You’ll drive yourself crazy doing it, and, here’s the real kicker, you’ll miss out on the memories you could be making right now – the tyranny of the past will enslave your present. I’ve done way too much of that, too.

So I’m trying to learn to enjoy the deja vu moments when they come, like that day on the porch. I can remember those days and smile, while also finding joy in the present moment. I can eat a piece of supreme pizza today and be thankful for the taste, all the while remembering the ONE from childhood that will never be again. I can sip from a Coke Zero and let it remind me of that uber-sweet treat from days gone by and be thankful for the zero calorie sip at the same time.

And I can look back over 24 years of marriage, multiple houses, multiple states, kids growing up and be nostalgic without being sorrowful.  Those memories are a part of me, a part of who I am, but they’re not the whole story. There are new ones being made every moment of every day.  One day, if I’m lucky, these new ones may hold the same sense of wonder and Hiraeth the ones from my childhood do, or perhaps more.  Maybe I’ll appreciate them more as they happen, knowing once they’re gone, they’ll only reside in the sights, smells, and memories of my mind. 

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