I don’t often wax nostalgic about my early childhood. It doesn’t often pop into my mind. I imagine it was a pretty average childhood for a kid growing up in one of the lesser urban boroughs of NYC. We played in the streets, walked to school in groups, played Chinese handball at playground time at school, typical stuff! But every now and then I will be bombarded by one of my senses that will take me back to a specific time, place and who I was with that will warm those cockles of my heart! Not sure what they are but hey, it is a word I can remember when a lot of words are migrating away from my alleged mind!
Many times my sense of smell will take me right back somewhere. When I visited my grandfather’s hometown in Italy someone was making sauce in the hotel kitchen and that smell wafting past me brought me right back to my dad’s kitchen, and brought a tear to my eye. When we were looking to buy an inn, we entered one in Vermont and I immediately noticed the same sweet/medicinal smell of my grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania which had been used by my uncle as a tonsillectomy hospital, and we wound up buying it. Visual memories are easy and frequent but, with the exception of music, which is probably THE strongest memory arouser, sounds don’t often do it.
Which brings me to the point of this rambling walk down memory lane. Several weeks ago I was walking in my neighborhood, mind not focused on anything in particular, and POW…. It happened. A loud screeching kind of noise repeated two or three times in quick succession snapped me right back in time. I recognized the sound immediately and I could smell and see it as if it were right in front of me. The screeching sound was the sound of my mom hanging a pair of wet pants on the clothesline and pushing the rope out so there was room for the next piece of wet clothing. Mom was there leaning over the railing where the little metal reel was attached to the back of our house. I was handing her clothespins for her the attach to the cuffs of the pants so that it would dry more easily, then a shirt and I handed her two more pins until the line was full of wet clothes. And in between each article hanging there was the screech of her sending the wet garment on its way to be dried. Another way we recycled instead of using more energy! There was a little dirty canvas bag hanging on the line where all the clothespins were stored. I remember that sound and the feel of the wood clothespins and the sound of mom’s voice as she mused whether the clothes would dry before the rain came!
I luxuriated in that memory for a while as the screeching continued for a few more minutes as I walked past. My mind moved to other comforting sounds from my childhood that to this day still bring comforting coziness to my life. One of the biggest comforters is in the middle of the night when I hear the CSX engines blow their horns as they cross the frighteningly rickety trestle over the Rondout Creek and as it gets closer you actually can hear the wheels of the train on the tracks until the 150 or so cars pass out of ear sound. It always reminds me of my brother, dad and I setting up the Christmas village with our Lionel trains each year. And there was a particular metallic sound of my back screen door closing as the metal spring did its job to bring that sucker back into position. I knew my dad was home safely then. I could go on and on about these memory enhancers like the thunder of a good storm which would scare the living daylights out of me at the time or the milkman closing the lid of our box at 5 AM, but I know you have your own sound memories that I would love to hear about. Please share them with us!
Sound and smell unlock doors to memory – long ago experiences can seem as though they are in the next room. Perhaps you listen to BirdNote on PBS? It’s a two minute program that explores facts about a specific species in each short segment. Here are my three bird notes that bring strong memories:
1. Mourning Doves: I grew up in a house very much like the one I live in now – a one-and-a half storey cape cod. My bedroom had two windows; one facing east overlooking our backyard and one facing south looking down at the small cement patio behind our attached garage. At a regular time each spring, I’d awake to the sound of doves cooing and sunlight filling my room from the eastern window. It was so soothing. The dove calls were clearly magnified by the courtyard formed by the intersection of the garage and the longer wall of the house. The doves must have been happy in their business pecking around the cement patio and calling their mates. But it also made me happy as well: a gentle alarm clock to begin another sunny day.
2. Eastern Thrush: Hands-down my favorite birdcall and most important memory. At twenty-one, I’m in a parking lot, leaning against my Triumph TR4. I’m shaken to my core. The parking lot is adjacent to a doctor’s office – and I’ve stepped outside to get some air and clear my head. In a minute, I’ll go back in to see Linda. It’s an obstetrician’s office: Linda and I have found out that she is pregnant. So many things are going through my head – we’ve no money and the odds are high that the draft will drag me to Viet Nam. It’s overwhelming… but then the trilling sound of a thrush cuts through the morning air. It is so riveting that it could be just the thrush and I alone in the world at that moment. At once, I’m calm. I realize that this is the most significant act a person can perform: to participate in bringing a new life into this world. My life won’t be the same, but my life is not the most important issue anymore. Caring for Linda and our baby is the imperative. Somehow we’ll find a way. I grew into an adult that morning.
Fast forward to the present… our first-born son lives in a wooded area. From his back deck I can enjoy the trees and regularly listen to the thrush in the edge of the nearby forest. My son has no idea of the memories that invokes.
3. Rufous-sided Towhee: Hiking the Shawangunk ridge brings beautiful views and tired feet. We’re on the way to Lake Awosting. Following the Castle Point carriage trail, a high, dry smell of penny royal is prevalent among the small pitch pines. The pines are deceiving – although small, many are over 150 years old. All along the trail, we are accompanied by a towhee, which flits from tree to tree singing its characteristic “drink your tea!” We imagine that this friendly bird is welcoming us to this beautiful landscape. And we agree with the towhee’s advice to drink our mint tea around the Svea stove later that evening. When I hear this call, it brings those backpacking days back to life!
Sound and Smells of Yesteryear
My childhood memories of sights, sounds, and smells come from living in a newly built suburban neighborhood with lots of open spaces surrounded by acres of untouched woodlands. We played outdoors at every opportunity and were free to move about between houses and the woods. The childhood sound that I no longer hear but remember fondly was the ringing of the large brass bell on my back porch when it was time to come home. It generally carried farther than my mom’s voice and when it rang around 6:00 pm it became a signal for many to hightail it home for supper. It was also a time when the neighbors seemed to collaborate and act as one large parent body. So, it wasn’t unlikely for an adult to forward the bell ringing message if they saw us so entrenched in our play that we didn’t react accordingly. So much for “Sorry mom, I’m late because I couldn’t hear the bell!”
The sounds and smell of fresh perked coffee wafted through our house each and every morning. First came the sound of water just starting to boil in the percolator. As it increased in speed and volume it brought the water through the tube up into the glass dome in a muted popping sound. Before long it perked in a regular rhythm obstructed only by the vibration of the entire metal coffee pot gently twitching on the gas burner. I never enjoyed the taste of coffee until I was in my 40’s but the aroma that greeted us each morning was as pleasing and comforting to me as the satisfaction it gave to those who drank it. I never realized how the smell permeated my clothing until the morning my friend’s dad, who occasionally drove us to school, asked if my mom brewed fresh coffee each morning. He could tell, he said, from the aroma each time I climbed into his car. Several years ago I began making fresh coffee in the same way. After sipping my coffee on the porch, I’d take Duke out for a walk and was always struck by the flavorful smell as soon as we re-entered the house.
My favorite sound/smell association comes every fall when I listen to the rustle of fallen leaves and the scent they exude after they begin to accumulate in layers. As a child I had extreme allergic reactions to ragweed. My hay fever began in mid August and usually lasted until the first frost. During that time, I was relegated to the indoors as breathing was difficult, sneezing incessant, and my runny noise a dead give away. When I was finally able to go outdoors fall was upon us and I would spend hours amid the leaves, enjoying their crunching sounds and strong smells without my histamines running amuck. Delicious memories that continue to this day.