In San Francisco last month, I had a mini reunion with a couple of old writing-group friends. Over dinner, the conversation turned to travel and hometowns and memories of “place.”
A moment later, he said, “You know the smell of Coppertone? Late in the day, hours after you’d gone to the beach, you could still catch the scent of Coppertone and feel the heat of the sun on your skin. Nothing like it!”
Doug’s examples reminded of my own experiences of what I’ll call “sensory” memory, which attaches to a particular place/time. To me, these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and visceral feelings differ from “personal” memories that no one else can really relate to. Here, the same trigger (related to involuntary memory and epitomized by Proust’s madeleine) might resonate with others, too.
When I recall Hilo, Hawaii, where I grew up, I hear pounding rain on a metal roof at night. (Good night’s sleep guaranteed.) There, the night sky is black. Not dark. Black. Stars actually twinkle. While Hilo has a reputation for rain (thanks to its average annual precipitation of 130 inches), I recall many bright days: sun, drizzle, sun, downpour, sun, passing shower, sun, etc.
At Christmas, I’d lie on the floor under our homegrown Portuguese Cypress and gaze at the lights, ornaments, and lofty greenery. Nothing bad could possibly happen at Christmas, I thought; my family was Buddhist and I chose the tree as our guardian angel. Today I don’t bother with Christmas trees but, trust me, the best viewing angle is from below.
Visiting California, part of my excitement stems from familiarity with my former hometown, Berkeley (see here if you’re a Berkeleyan or San Franciscan). While I generally dislike driving, I quite enjoy it in the Bay Area, tooling around between San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and also Santa Cruz, where I have family.
Countless times, I’ve made my way across the Bay Bridge, gambling on which line will move fastest at the toll plaza and praying for no backups. Here, I associate driving with listening to KQED, the Bay Area NPR station, which long ago hooked me with shows including This American Life, Fresh Air, Forum, and Car Talk. I do my
best only radio listening in the car.
Here, driving means being prepared for microclimates and 20-degree temperature drops from day to night. How refreshing the cool, grey fog of the Avenues in San Francisco feels after a sweltering afternoon across the bay—but I also love emerging in sunlight traveling the opposite way!
Heading toward Santa Cruz, I keep my eyes peeled for my favorite street name along Highway 17: Idylwild Drive. I dare you to come up with a better word. (Second place is a tie between Sugarloaf Road and Santas Village Road.)
And those are just my driving memories…
Images: Rainbow Falls and rainbow, Hilo, Hawaii; Sather Tower Campanile, UC Berkeley