Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Senses and Memories

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers.  I remember where a toad may live, and what time the birds awaken in the summer - - and what trees and seasons smelled like  - - how people looked and walked and smelled even.  The memory of odors is very rich."

 - John Steinbeck, East of Eden 

When I teach developmental English, one of the few directives I'm given for the direction of the course is that my students write a minimum of three essays, one of which needs to be descriptive in nature.  When I introduce this assignment, I have to segue into adjectives.  I wait patiently while no one volunteers the definition of an adjective, hoping it's a fear of speaking up in class that's hindering my students, & that I am not standing in front of twenty-five college students who don't know what an adjective is.

When the blank stares continue, I give them examples of topics that lend themselves to description, & these are always memories of people & places seared in my mind because of the sensory details that remain vivid, despite the expanse of years.  We discuss the intricate link between our senses & our memories, & I usually ask them to close their eyes and think about the way their grandmother's house smelled, or the sound of their grandfather's voice, or the feel of the sand under their feet on the beach, the rhythmic lapping of the waves.  Usually, at least a few of their eyes light up at this point & I know I will soon read a few essays about grandma's chocolate chip cookies baking, or grandpa smoking a pipe while he told a story,  or read about a gaggle of cousins playing ball barefoot, the cool, crisp grass crunching under their feet.

Last week, my Aunt Donna returned from spending Easter with her daughter & granddaughter in Dallas, & brought with her a sizable load of clothes & shoes Marykate has outgrown.  I literally squealed with delight as I sifted through the goodies, immediately trying some of the outfits on Reagan, much to her chagrin.

A peek at the loot:

Box - O - shoes:

One of the first outfits I tried on Reagan, & her choice of shoes, black Crocs, which were by far the item that most excited her:

Like me, Reagan doesn't have an older sister, but alas, when you have cousins, you can still participate in the childhood hand-me-down ritual.  Growing up, I had three older female cousins, two who were just old enough for me to inherit their old clothes while I could still wear them (I eventually grew taller than both of them).  Both of them three years my senior, I remember feeling a myriad of emotions regarding them when I was younger, similar, I am sure, to the mixture of love & envy & general awe a young girl feels about her older sister as they grow alongside one another.  We played together, we fought, we had sleepovers, we shared birthdays & holidays, we greedily dove into our Mamaw's chocolate pie while seated at the kids' table, we welcomed new cousins to the fold, we vacationed together, we grew up, we fell in love, we married, & we began reproducing ourselves.

This pic is worth posting, if only for a glimpse at my mother's awesome shirt:  

That's me in the bottom left corner, curious about the two newbies:

I know my mother bought me plenty of new clothes when I was younger, but truth be told, I loved my cousin's hand-me-downs.  They were, in my young mind, obviously stylish since my super cool, wise older cousins had selected them & christened them for me.  At thirty-one, I cannot recall what any of the clothes looked like, & I have no idea where they are today.  I am sure my younger sister may've worn them after me, & after that, Goodwill, perhaps.  

What I do remember is the way they smelled.  I could open a trash bag full of clothes today & tell you whether they belonged to Jennifer, or Elizabeth.  I loved the smell as much as I loved the clothes themselves, & today, almost fourteen years after her death, I wish I could open a bag of Elizabeth's clothes & revel in that crisp, clean smell.  Like her, it was unique, & it could never be replicated.  I am thankful for a happy & healthy Marykate, & her mother, my cousin, & I hope in adulthood, Reagan has memories of her cousins that are as precious to her as mine are to me.

It was bittersweet for me to dig through Marykate's clothes, & being me I thought of the closing line of The Great Gatsby, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." 

It's a bit shocking what will pull you, sometimes reluctantly, into your past, but I'm learning that watching your child grow has a funny way of triggering your memory.  Thanks for the clothes & the shoes, Jennifer & Marykate, & may there be many happy years of hand-me-downs.  


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