The Meaning of Memories

September 30, 2014

What is your favorite sound? Mine is a train whistle in the distance. As a kid, I used to lie awake at night, hearing it in the distance, hauntingly beautiful, like the mating call of an ancient and extinct species of giant bird or mythical airborne whale.

My second favorite is the sound of Canada Geese honking to each other as they fly.

My third favorite is the sound Mourning Doves make, sitting on our roof outside our window. Each of these sounds evokes an entire world of memories for me, and seems somehow fraught with meaning.

The older I grow, the greater grows the power of simple sensory memories to move me. For example, the smell of an old, well-worn book. To me it evokes the aroma of my father’s study.

My father’s study was ringed with wall-to-wall (and nearly floor-to-ceiling) bookshelves, handmade by my mother, in their early penniless years together, from plain pine boards with tacked-on molding edges and stained a dark walnut. Those shelves held volumes and volumes, some of them books my father had brought over from Europe during the war when he fled the Nazis, many others treasures he had gradually accrued during his first few decades in his new homeland. They were books about music, about Palestrina and Schütz and Bach and Handel and Haydn, about composition and conducting. Many more were about art, Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo and Leonardo, or philosophy, or history. There were volumes of Thomas Mann (no relation, but my father’s favorite nonetheless) and Nabokov.

I didn’t understand any of them. I was only a kid. But I’ll never forget the smell: old leather, aged damp paper, permeated faintly with sweet pipe smoke, and mixed with the raw scent of new pine and the solventy whiff of dark stain.

To me, that smell equals the unfathomable wisdom of books. To me as a child, that smell conveyed knowledge and safety.

My father knew things. There was a whole world out there, of nameless depths and complications, that he understood and that I couldn’t begin to grasp.

I didn’t know what was in any of those books, or even who had written most of them — but even at the youngest age I could sense a lot of experience and thought had gone into their making.

Medieval mapmakers calligraphed elaborate and terrifying serpents and dragons on the edges of their world maps to denote the unknown dangers that doubtless lurked beyond. For me, the serpents at the edge of my world were replaced by the smell of musty leather and old paper and stained wood — the unknown, but not terrifying at all, because it was all known, if not by me, by someone I trusted.

It’s a funny thing about memories and the senses, how viscerally a tiny gesture of sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste can evoke an entire world. For my wife, the smell of cinnamon and apples brings her back to years and years in the kitchen with her beloved grandmother. For many, the feeling of a hug is the best of childhood in a nutshell.

For me, it happens most with sounds — especially those three: Train whistle; Canada Geese; Mourning Doves.

As a kid I fell in love with the call of the doves: A single note, held briefly, then a slight leaping break, like a yodel, followed by a descending tone.

Note, yodel, descent. Pause. Note, yodel, descending tone. Over and over.

When I was a kid I wrote it into a composition, a solo flute above the murmuring choir and distant timpani thunder, in a setting of Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest. As an adult, it’s come to be the sound of devotion and constancy.

“As long as you’re here, I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

And Canada Geese: I love this sound so much I wrote it into a story, It’s Not About You, where it triggers in the book’s main character the critical insight that gives the book its name:

“Suddenly Ben heard an odd sound, like a subdued chorus of oboes in the distance, or perhaps English horns. He looked to the left and to the right, but saw nothing. Then he glanced upward—and saw a long, slender V slipping gently across the autumn sky. Canada Geese, arrowing their way southward as the fall cooled. … He recalled reading somewhere that the V formation gave the birds far greater aerodynamic efficiency, allowing them to travel great distances without tiring. As he watched, the flock’s formation blurred and shifted direction, breaking apart and reforming seamlessly with a different bird slipping into point position at the V’s apex. Ben marveled. How did they know how to do that? The gentle honking continued, gradually fading as the birds made for the horizon. It seemed to Ben the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

Like the doves, the geese’s call feels like the sound of connection, communion, and pure devotion.

“We’re us, we’re doing this together, we’re here for each other no matter what.”

The train whistle, to me, says, Home. “No matter how far you’ve gone from home, I’ll carry you back safely.”

All three sounds stir something in my soul. None is human, strictly speaking — yet they all somehow express some sort of humanity, a poignant and almost melancholy sense of being a drop held in the enormity of eternity, connected to other drops in a tiny lifestream.

Maybe I’m making too much of some birdcalls and a steam whistle. But that’s how they feel.

What are your favorite sounds, smell, sense memories — the ones that stir your soul?

5 Comments

  1. Love the new look of the blog John! I remember baking apple pies with my grandma and the smell of the ocean is also a big happy trigger for me. It instantly brings me back to carefree days at the Jersey Shore with my parents and brother and grandparents. I think I need to go take a walk on the beach more often to soothe my soul. Thanks for the reminder and the beautiful prose.

    Reply
  2. Love the new look of the blog John! I remember baking apple pies with my grandma and the smell of the ocean is also a big happy trigger for me. It instantly brings me back to carefree days at the Jersey Shore with my parents and brother and grandparents. I think I need to go take a walk on the beach more often to soothe my soul. Thanks for the reminder and the beautiful prose.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Laura … Having grown up in Jersey I know exactly the shore you’re talking about!

      Reply
      • and whenever I see fireworks or smell them I think of that one July 4th night with my family on the beach in Lavallette, NJ when one of those helicopter fireworks went horizontal and not vertical. I didn’t know my dad could jump that high!

        Reply
        • The smell of saltwater and sand — another powerful sense memory!

          Reply

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