Memory triggers, à la Proust, are going the way of the daguerreotype. Or the Polaroid. Even as we marvel at technology, we might wonder about the future of “Madeleine moments”. So much of our world appears in the same resolution in the same format on the same screen. What unique stimuli will grab us and take us back in time?
I looked at one of our old family photo albums recently. Maroon leather, black pages, and those little paper corners to hold the photos in place. Just touching the worn cover, I am brought back to a day when I was about seven years old. I had tiptoed into the inner sanctum of my mother’s bedroom, where the album was kept in a trunk at the back of the closet. My mother is sitting in front of a mirrored vanity, scenting herself from an atomizer of Shalimar. My mother gets up. I can still hear the creak of the hinge when she opens the trunk and takes out the precious album. She folds me into the crook of her arm as we turn the pages.
As an adult, I keep our family photos organized by date and subject into “albums” and “events” on my computer, synchronized with my smart phone. Kids at Halloween. Trip to Turks and Caicos. Always available. There are literally thousands of digital images, but few of them tingle my senses. None of them is etched into my mind in the same way as the three (!) sepia-tinged, girlhood photos of my mother, all taken at a photographer’s studio.
And what about maps?
“Time to look at the map,” my father would say, on our annual car trip to visit cousins in New Hampshire.
“ Do you mean the map with the coffee stain around Nashua or the other one that’s missing part of Massachusetts? “ I would ask. I took my job as navigator seriously.
“Either one, “my father would answer. Even today, just seeing the words Rand McNally can evoke the soft gray upholstery of my father’s 1956 Packard. Sitting between my parents on the wide front seat, I’d reach over to the glove compartment, pungent with the smell of the anise-flavored Pine Brother’s cough drops my father kept there.
Will our grandchildren fondly recall the voice of the GPS system stating “You have arrived.”
My mother in law’s recipe for brownies was typed on a little blue Aerogram. I had asked her to mail it to me when I was first married and living abroad. My husband was nostalgic for American brownies, the super fudgy kind.
I came across that Aerogram recently in a bulging file of recipes. It has chocolate fingerprints on it. My own and my children’s. Upon holding it in my hand, I breathe in and immediately recall the damp smell of our Swiss apartment, the yellow ceramic baking pan in the kitchen, the sound of the landlady beating her rugs.
I keep a lot of recipes now on my computer. It’s neat and convenient. But these perfectly alphabetized recipes don’t take me on any surprising journeys into the past. Not one of them compares to finding scribbled directions for Clafoutis, written by a neighbor in the middle of a book club meeting. Or the mimeographed recipe for Pumpkin Tea Bread which was provided by my son’s Kindergarten teacher and used every Thanksgiving since.
I won’t even talk about letters. Onion-skin missives from my beloved older brother, scrawled hastily while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force. I find one in a box in the attic. The return addresses come back to me in a flash. Or postcards from my first boyfriend with views of Cornell University and Lake Cayuga. Turning one of those over brings me back to the summer before that sweet young man left for college. His lips were chapped from working in the hot sun as a golf caddy. His neck smelled of soap.
Today I text my own granddaughter and she responds. “C U SOON, GRAN.” My message back is “personalized” with a photo and my electronic signature and LUV 2 U. She knows that I miss her, but she doesn’t know about all the other epistolary things I miss. Children’s notes written with waxy crayons, exotic postmarks, cartoons and dried flowers stuffed into envelopes.
When Proust’s narrator tasted the Madeleine, he was transported back to Combray. But what about a photo of the traditional cookie, compressed into a JPEG, reproducible at 300 pixels per inch, would that have done the trick?
A short-short is a story that contains fewer than 500 words.
My short-short, “TINSEL” appeared in Citron Review in 2011.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Not really. It was there in all the old photos. You can see it. The hollow core. Sure, the lips are stretched into a smile while she was mugging for daddy’s camera, happy balloons surrounding the chair, one fork hovering above a frosted cake, but there, at the corner of her mouth, where the cheek and grin meet, it’s perfectly visible. Not in the early shots, of course. But a dozen chocolate icings later, you can see it, if you look.
What do you mean you never looked? Or do you mean you look and turn away? Because you can’t bear it? Or are you just taken in by the Anne Hathaway dresses, all velvety and sweet? We never had those. Sure, she was spoiled, but that doesn’t change anything.
We both know that things were easier by the time she came along. I mean financially easier. Papa working at the bank, his own secretary, Momma with that little fur she kept in a vault at Beidermeyer’s, and her hair set each week at that beauty parlor down town. They could afford a new baby by then. And Momma and Papa loved her to pieces. Momma said she was a gift. A late season baby.
I have to say that I was crazy about her from the minute Momma brought her home, dusty with talcum powder, before they knew that talc was bad for babies. Her neck smelled sweet like corn. “This is my new sister,” I told my high school friends. You were already in college. Wagging tongues thought she might have been yours. Or mine. I was sixteen, virginal and unpopular, but you had that gorgeous red hair. People thought you were wild.
Sometimes I wonder why Jarvis Maple picked her. Of all of us. Why her? If we look at all three of us objectively, it’s clear that you were the prettiest. She was second. And I was third. That’s all there is to it. But he picked her. He had been around all through our childhoods, right? There’s that photo of you, maybe three years old, sitting on his lap. And then another one of me, at the same age. He’s wearing a three-piece suit, a crisp white shirt. My chubby arm is resting on his cuff. Remember the Easter candy he would bring, sometimes those decorated eggs with a hole cut out, little bunny scenes on the inside? He was there for every holiday. We called him Uncle, but he was no blood relation. Never married. He was one of the bank officers. Vice-President or something. Papa always said he owed his job, and so much more, to Mr. Maple.
So you think it’s because she was docile? That’s ridiculous. How can you say that? She was as spunky as either of us. Maybe more so. You’ve forgotten now, what she was like before. You’ve forgotten how she could stamp her foot. Or refuse to wear hair ribbons to church. She must have been six or seven. We were both out of the house by then. But I remember seeing her connive for a later bedtime, or argue for adopting another cat. I must have been home for Christmas, and I remember thinking that no one was ever going to push her around.
Sometimes I think about Jarvis Maple. It’s a good thing he’s dead. Because I would like to personally scorch his scrotum with a cigarette lighter. Or make julienne slices out of his dick with a kitchen knife.
Don’t tell me not to say things like that, for god’s sake. I’ll say whatever I goddamn feel like.
No, I don’t feel better. How can I feel better? Take a picture of her now, goddamnit. You’ll see.
What do you mean, calm down? Ever since it all came spilling out, I can’t get it out of my mind. That goddamn Uncle. All the goddamn so-called uncles, everywhere. I start thinking about it, and that’s when I want to reach for a large, sharp instrument. The kind you might use to shuck oysters. But then I realize that Jarvis Maple is already dead. Heart attack a few years back. All the bank people at the funeral. Papa in a black suit, praying, probably, for Mr. Maple’s eternal rest.
Neither he nor Momma ever knew what happened. All those trips to the circus, the state fair. Our little sister in her Anne Hathaway dress. That goddamn son of a bitch.
So we’re the only ones who know. And we don’t really know.
I saw her the other day. She’s bat shit crazy. She’s breathing and living, but her eyes are dead. And she used to smell like talcum and sweet corn. And there were balloons and glitter and tinsel and sparkly things, and those little Easter eggs. Remember?