Why I Would Be a Terrible Crime Scene Witness

Assignment: Write about how you remember things.
(The original assignment was to write about why I remember things. I chose to write about how I remember them.)

Memory is an odd thing. Highly subjective, intensely personal, how we remember something can be as individual as what we remember. Science tells us that memory is closely linked to certain senses, like smell. Simply smelling a fragrance can trigger a memory. I know this is true because there is one odor that always sends me back to …not a particular time, nor a particular place, but to the way that time and place made me feel.

pelicans on pilings

Pelicans on pilings.

Creosote. I love that smell. Not because it is particularly pleasant, but because when I close my eyes with the scent of creosote in my nostrils, I am transported to a time and place where I was on or near a boat. Not a particular time and place, but any time when I was in a marina on a hot summer day, as the sun cooked the creosote-soaked pilings and wafted the aroma past my nose. The smell of creosote invades my ears with the sounds of seagulls honking, and halyards snapping on masts, and water lapping the bottoms of boats, and flip-flops flapping down the dock. It brings to my eyes the sight of my father sitting in the cockpit, pulling Maryland crabs from a greasy paper bag, using his pocket knife to dig the meat from the shell, dipping the meat in the melted butter and popping it into his mouth. Creosote evokes the feel of the wind and sun on my face as the old boat moves through the waves, the gentle rolling motion a lullaby, the slight vibration a caress.

Now, whether I’m walking along a railroad track or driving behind a roofing truck with a trailer of hot tar, the smell of creosote transports me back to those summer days when I felt so alive, so peaceful, so unencumbered.

But not all of my memories are related to smell. Many of the things I remember from childhood are associated with strong feelings. Embarrassment, loss, anger, love, joy, fear, pride, hurt. If I examine any of my strongest memories, I find at least one of these emotions behind it. Like sitting on a piling and finding myself covered with ants (fear, pain), then running to the group of women at the end of the dock and throwing my arms around my tall red-haired mother (comfort), only to look up and see that it wasn’t my mother at all (horror), and all the women laughing at the silly kid who can’t pick her own mom out of a crowd (embarrassment). Another emotion comes as I remember the moment: amusement.

In movies, people remember things as a movie: with clarity and detail they recall faces, dialogue, events. Most of my memories tend to be a series of impressions, tableaux, or snapshots, that fit together like one of those flipbooks that are sold in museum gift shops. I don’t know if the memories are in black and white, or if the color is absent simply because it didn’t register at the time. Occasionally a memory will feature a particular color because that color had some significance to the event itself, like the color of the dresses on the bridesmaids at a wedding.

While all of my memories are impressionistic, some are more vivid, and contain more detail, than others, like the time my father and I were stuck on the boat in Cara Cove during a bad storm. Or my mother’s birthday in 1963, when I came home from school and found her standing at the ironing board with tears running down her face, absently pushing the iron back and forth over the same spot, as she watched the events of President Kennedy’s assassination unfold on the TV.

But, generally speaking, my memories of childhood are sketchy. Unless an event had some profound significance in my life, or an unusual influence on my behavior or choices, most memories are severely edited and thrown, uncatalogued, into the dusty attic of my mind.

Gail Hunn ©2013