Sense and Memory

People experience things and places in different ways. I was part of a discussion about this recently, and a friend described how some people remember best when they hear something, some when they see or read or touch something, or a combination of these senses.

Good writing is that which enables readers to feel, hear, smell and see what is going on. A good writer will use descriptive language that is multisensory. It will take the reader into the setting in every way possible.

I’ve always been sharply sensitive to atmosphere. Years ago in elementary school, my siblings and I studied piano for a time at an old United Methodist Church in Milwaukee. The teacher, who was the church organist at the time, taught piano in a basement Sunday School room. While waiting for our lessons, we sat upstairs in the church library.

That brick church, probably built in the late 19th century, had a dank, cold atmosphere. From the faded 1950’s Sunday School pictures on the walls of the classrooms, to the musty smell that greeted us as we entered, there was a feeling of the distant past there. It was as though time had gone by and left that church there on the corner, forgotten.

The large library was dimly lit and carpeted in ugly dark red. The furniture scattered around was black. As a bookworm, I looked at everything on the shelves while waiting for my lesson. The books were primarily old theological works with a few Norman Vincent Peale, positive-thinking type books scattered in. Dusty books of little interest to me.

What really intrigued me was the cemetery outside near the parking lot. It had apparently been put there on the site of an earlier church building. We walked through the gravestones there one chilly, late afternoon in what must have been October. I remember the leaves blowing around and the trees outlined against the darkening sky were nearly bare.

The graves were not recent. The headstones were old, and some leaned in various directions. Some graves dated back to the mid-1800’s, I remember, because it made me realize that Laura Ingalls Wilder would have been a little girl then. In the chill of the wind, even as a child, something of the ephemeral nature of life struck me. These people, too, had walked around, played music, laughed and talked. And now they were long forgotten.

Why do I remember that afternoon so clearly some 35 years or more later? I think because the feel of the chilly wind, the sight of the tilting old gravestones, the scent of the dry, crumbling leaves under my feet, the melancholy feel of that dusky, autumn afternoon impressed the experience on my mind all at once, so I could tell you about it in detail all these years later.

They say that scent is a powerful evoker of meory, and it is true. I can still remember the smell of a lavender, vinyl book bag I had in first grade. The scent was memorable to me, because it represented the excitement I felt at attending school. I loved elementary school, and that lavender book bag was a symbol of everything it meant. I’ve heard others comment that the smell of something will take them right back, sometimes many decades back, to their childhoods.

The gifts of sight and sound and feel and touch create so many simple joys every day, and we’re prone to take it for granted. Today, Em and I walked to meet Mary coming from the bus stop after school. The leaves are in peak color right now, and a cool breeze lifted our hair. It was a feast for the senses.

Up the long hill came Mary, swinging her bag along in the autumn sunshine, “I saw a dead bird, Mom. It reminded me of that verse that God sees even the sparrows fall,” said my girl, her ebony hair gleaming in the sunlight.

“It smells so good in here!” she exclaimed coming in the house. The meat in the slow cooker greeted us with a wonderful aroma. The sound of William practicing Bach at the piano greeted our ears as we prepared dinner. The red-checked tablecloth was a cheery sight as the table was set.

All of those sights and sounds and aromas are daily gifts from God, giving us the little joys that make up our lives. Everyday grace from our Creator.

5 thoughts on “Sense and Memory

  1. Kim says:

    This is so true. Still remember what my Granny’s house smelled like. I used to bake with her all the time as a kid and her house was a mixture of many different homey smells. To this day the smell of cinnamon takes me right back to Granny’s. Love your description of the old church. Made me feel like I’d been there.

  2. Lori Glass says:

    Enjoyed your post. I thought of the smell of purple mimeograph ink on school papers when I was in grade school and the smell of a new plastic doll. Thanks for the memories.

  3. carolyn says:

    It is so true, scent really does evoke memories. I recently bought some fruit spritzers that I’d never tried before. When I opened one up, the smell reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake dolls!!! That brought me all at once right back to my childhood. How funny!

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