Proust had his madeleine, what about you?

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.”

Doug, who grew up in Los Angeles when it was full of orchards, said, “What I remember about LA is the smell of orange and lemon blossoms. And hillsides covered with wild fennel.”

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!”

Sensory memory

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.

On the road in the Bay Area

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

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5 thoughts on “Proust had his madeleine, what about you?

  1. Aloha: My very first glimpses of Hawaii were in Hilo, staying with friends who farmed in a heavenly place on a hill. Talking scents, sounds and sights, lush greenery and the hammering rain on the tin roof would be some of my memories of the area too. They also grew ginger, ginseng and other exotic produce. But back to Proust and the madeleine, don’t you find that certain yoga poses send you back in time and trigger acute memories? Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Good question. I did consider my yoga history when writing this post (to find some tangential link to yoga!). While I might remember little details around a pose (eg, where I learned it and how a teacher taught it), I find the link between pose and time/place to be subtle. Maybe that’s because I’ve practiced yoga in various settings over the years. It’s as if I carry the poses with me and don’t strongly associate them with time/place.

      In contrast, I still miss the Strawberry Canyon fire trail and UC Berkeley’s Spieker pool. I associate running with that particular trail and swimming with that particular pool. You’re an equestrian, aren’t you? I’m sure that your riding memories are tied up with particular horses and courses (is that the right word?).

      I’m curious to know your memories of yoga poses and time/place. Thanks for your comment, JLJ!

    1. Whose Marlboros? Not you!

      Thanks for inspiring this post. I have one more, too. Although our writing group disbanded years ago and we’ve more or less lost touch, I’ll always associate “writing group” with ours. I can still hear each person’s voice, remember our stories, and laugh about our oddities. What a mixed bag; we never would have met if not for the group. And we all claimed that we disliked joining groups!

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