Remembrance and the senses

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines remembrance as the state of bearing in mind; the ability to remember; an act of recalling to mind.  I am always amazed by the memories conjured up by our five senses. A smell, a taste, a sound can pull me back, place me in a specific time or make me pause. And it can be any thing at any time.

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen pulling apart a bundle of fresh cilantro for albondigas, or Mexican meatballs, when suddenly I could feel the heat of an evening summer sun on my cheek as I snipped the fragrant leaves from the plants in my parents garden. My mother or father always sent me to get the sprigs and gently I would pluck just enough for the pico de gallo, my fingers stained with the pungency of the herb. I breathed in the bouquet as I stood over the sink and suddenly I was twelve years old.

This past Sunday, the tenth anniversary of September 11, I got up early to watch the memorial ceremony. At one point, I realized my face was awash in warm tears. I’m not sure when they started to flow and I don’t remember when they stopped, but I noticed them shortly after Paul Simon sang The Sound of Silence. I remembered reading that Simon wrote the song about man’s lack of communication with his fellow-man, how we don’t share or truly listen.  Silence is what I remember about 09/11. Sure, I remember where I was, the events of that morning, how it seemed to happen in a state of slow motion like a herky-jerk old newsreel. I can tell you how I sat in my driveway and cried when I saw our American flag hanging above the garage, knowing our boys had wrestled with the rickety ladder to put up that flag when they were sent home early from school. But what I remember most is the silence. We live very close to Mid-Continent Airport, Cessna and Learjet. We are accustomed to the sounds of commercial jets, the test flight patterns, the burdened cargo planes. Even now I hear them, taking off and landing in the cool almost-fall air.   But not that evening or even the next day. As we fell exhausted into bed that night, the darkness was met with an eerie, unfamiliar silence. I reached for my husband’s hand and he reached for mine and we were both overcome with the magnitude of that day encapsulated in that silence. The sound of silence. And when flight operations were resumed, we became wary of those sounds, they were different, changed. Today, if a jet or plane sounds slightly off its course or too low, we pause and listen and wait.

Working with memorials, I’ve corroborated with families about how a simple thing can remind you of a lost loved one, the smell of a leather glove, the sound of a windchime, the taste of coffee ice cream, the sight of a tabby cat. Our senses are so connected to people, places, things that it is hard to disconnect and I don’t think I ever want to.

I can’t imagine seeing the large head of Hello Kitty or hearing a song by Jane’s Addiction and not think of Andrea. Life would be unbearable without those flashes of childhood after dusting myself in Johnson’s Baby Powder or pulling fresh-baked Mexican sweet bread from the oven or hearing the sound of bare feet on hardwood floors.

I liken this connection of the senses and memory to the tasting of wine. As you take in the smell or taste of the wine, you are reminded of its basis or beginnings.  You can smell or taste the earthiness, a specific fruit, a linger of spice,  a mixture of woodsy flavors, maybe a hint of vanilla, and all of this depends on the region, its environment, its history.

I like to think of this when I lose myself in a memory brought about by a smell, taste or sound. It’s like losing yourself in glass of excellent wine or stoicly finishing the small pour of a bitter wine tasting.  Either way, I find it great therapy to get a little tipsy on memory. After all, our remembrances are part of the environment of who we are, what we remember or recall is our basis, our beginnings.


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