Essay No. 10, From A Collection of Essays, “A Life Distilled”
A consequence of a long life is ownership of a vast storeroom of memories. Subsequently, I have identified a subgroup of memories that fly below the radar until without warning they erupt into the present, triggered by a present experience. But, this isn’t quite the same as the déjà vu known to most of us, the feeling of ‘this has happened before’.
What I’m experiencing is sense memory, a reaction in real time to the triggers of scent, sight, and hearing. Last winter, my memory of a car ride with my father suddenly came to mind, presented for review, triggered by the same, exact look of the sky and the same intensity of light as I remembered from that car ride sixty years before. As always, I’m amazed by the minute detail of an inconsequential scene absorbed by my mind to later spring forth as obscure detritus. Or, is it?
It might be coincidental, but, as I look back, I first became aware of my sense memory at about the same time I was aware of experiencing some regret over how I had been living my life. I was in my early forties. I had been married for over twenty years. Once upon a time, I was unwilling to spend time in the past or feel the pangs of any regret. Guided by my naiveté and an effective denial system, I’d ask myself what was the point or the value in it? There was no hook to get me to review what once was. I’d have to think about things I’d rather forget such as misspent educational opportunities. These days, I pay my memories their due. However, I want to have an emotional flack jacket close at hand. This type of memory can take my breath away with its bitter-sweetness.
There is not much about the Village of East Hampton that I have taken for granted. Over two years, I have been soaking up the sights and sounds around me, the lore and history. My curiosity was turned on at first sight. The man who brought me here came out from New York City to this Village with his parents and sister in the 1940’s. He was seven. While he was getting used to this place, I was a young child on the Outer Banks of North Carolina bonding to that place.
Now, almost a lifetime later, open to the feast before me, I’m temporarily putting my Outer Banks memories aside. In my psyche, however, I’m still a young girl open to the present moment. Sight, hearing and smell are building memories now as they always have. These senses are like seasonings gathered at another time, used to flavor my days and heighten my appreciation for the present moment.
Bravery, I learned, is good to have on hand for this kind of expedition where past and present fuse. In a state of naiveté, I walked out of our driveway onto Baiting Hollow Road in the Village of East Hampton, a 68-year old girl. It was my first long walk to become better acquainted with my surroundings.
There’s no missing the ubiquitous privet hedge. It’s a landscape staple out here, a diplomatic form of fencing. It was blooming at the time of my walk. Its scent brought me back to a childhood swimming pool where I met my first privet hedge. A snack bar at the pool served turkey sandwiches seasoned with dill and mayo.
That’s where I learned bees prefer privet nectar and popsicle drippings on cement more than harassing us kids. I didn’t know a lot of things, but that I figured out. Many years later, in my early 40’s, a long way from that Virginia country club and my childhood, my husband and I moved back to New Jersey from California with our young son. One spring day, I had time to take a walk alone. I remember tears suddenly welling up owing to a scent that was hitting me like a straight-on punch to the heart. I was submerged in long ago memories I couldn’t figure out at first. In seconds, I identified the scent of privet flower and saw a long ago scene at Farmington pool. I sighed out loud with an impossible longing for my childhood. The poignancy of that moment was piercing.
Most of us recognize déjà vu. But, the memories I’m describing are scenes from a kaleidoscope of ever-changing images attached to the past, brought on by the present, to fall below the horizon line when their purpose has been fulfilled in seconds or minutes. It’s a scrapbook without pages, a film short nudged into production at the direction of the present and the past.
What directs the timing of these appearances, I do not know. Once the process has begun, I’m helpless to do anything but watch the show. It’s coming from me, an ego with many facets. Then, it goes back into me. Almost always, I end up in painful longing that tells me I am missing something now that was a delight then. Bittersweet would be the prevailing adjective.
Being a writer has made me aware how my long walks seed the fertile soil of my memory and imagination. My walks in the Village of East Hampton often assault my senses which in turn light up my imagination through my past experience. I keep a pen and paper on me when I walk, or suffer the angst of losing a thought provoked by a memory that came to visit only in one moment, maybe never to appear again.
The triggering of thoughts of the past through scent, sight or hearing is not a conscious decision made on my part. Once the memory is out of my Pandora’s Box, I understand how ephemeral its nature is. It has the substance of smoke, wafting in on an errant breeze to find a foothold, a screen on which to reveal itself. Why is not necessary for me to know.
Enter Stage Right – Lovely, Lyrical Lily Pond Lane, my name for it. By the way, the word ‘lane’ is too modest for this grand avenue of glorious London Plane trees. Here, Man has planted the perfect tree to hold its own with the immense mansions of Lily Pond Lane. These trees should be bowed to and worshipped every day.
As I was walking, it was the sight of those molten and gnarled tree trunks that immediately project me back to my childhood memories of the Outer Banks. Instantly, I’m remembering the ‘pretend’ candles I’d try to make by the tide from fine, wet sand dripping through my fingers. My younger siblings bought what I was doing and tried it, too. They were part of the intensely sweet scene I was remembering.
Outwardly, I’m a mature woman, taking a walk. Inside, I’m captivated by the scrapbook that’s been kept for me to see at moments like this, wary of its capacity to sting. In the end, my heart aches to have one of those beach days back again. How I love my brothers and sisters, those children we once were. We made our own happiness wherever our parents let us be. We had to. We needed that ‘sorbet course’ as a transition from a dinner plate jumbled up with parental alcoholism. I couldn’t have made it through childhood without each one of my five siblings. My heart aches to have just one of those days back regardless of the bitter-sweetness to be endured. These memories are proof of happiness.
Why are the unhappiest memories of life often the easiest to access? Possibly, it’s how we protect ourselves, vigilant to the lessons we had to learn once upon a time. On the other hand, the sweetest memories from my early life bubble up into the present moment without my help, cued by the light of a day, the smell of smoke in the air in the fall, the exact same breeze and temperature from somewhere in the past. I know that moment from somewhere because I lived it. It belongs to me
Newly mown fields along Georgica Road as I walk towards the beach and the intensely scented pink roses growing in the dunes – these are relative to my most recent past, the walks I take. I’m transported to a horse farm I once owned not so many years ago in New Jersey. The roses are about the tiny cottage in Nantucket I bought just after my divorce over twenty years ago. I owned it for a short time. I savor the scents of roses and hay however they come to me. If tears come to my eyes because of it, I know I have proof of my own humanity. I continue to walk.