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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Memory Triggers

A friend of mine posted a picture on another social network showing the bottom part of a boot that she had briefly put on her foot. It was a good-looking piece of footwear; it appeared to be black suede, with a buckle strap around the ankle. Snazzy. She has had these boots for several years, but she can't bring herself to wear them. The sight of them takes her back to the time in her life when she bought them. You see, they were purchased just before she went into the hospital for surgery and ended up having a stroke. The time after the stroke was a terrifying one for her. In addition to the challenges normally associated with recovery from a stroke, the trauma to her brain unlocked some horrible repressed memories. So every time she thinks she wants to wear her beautiful boots, she is reminded of that very difficult time in her life.

I find this very easy to understand. The human brain is an incredible thing, full of mysteries. And I think that things that we experience with any and all of our senses can awaken memories or feelings instantly. For example, I have a well-worn pair of black leather gloves somewhere around the house, or accidentally placed in a storage box. The leather is soft and supple, they have a soft knit lining, and the cuffs come up over the wrists to make sure there is no gap between them and my coat sleeves. They have kept my hands warm on numerous occasions, and they are also excellent for things like driving. But the first time I see them every winter season, I am, like my friend, transported back to what was going on in my life when I purchased them.

It was just before Christmas, and I had just been released from the hospital. I had gone in because my entire chest cavity was in so much pain that I couldn't sleep. The doctors in the Emergency Department discovered that my lungs were full of fluid, and I was admitted for further tests and care. By the end of the week, I learned that I had systemic lupus, an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system goes haywire and attacks various organs or tissues. In my case, the kidneys were under attack, and my lungs were full of fluid because I was retaining more than twenty-five pounds of water. When I was released from the hospital, I was very weak. But there was that one day when I felt that I just had to go Christmas shopping. It was on this trip to the mall that I purchased the black gloves. It was a very difficult experience for me. Just driving to the mall had exhausted me, and I had to sit in the car and rest before going in to shop. And I had to keep stopping to rest quite frequently. If I hadn't been so stubborn, I think I might have just sat down in the mall and cried. But I kept plugging along.

Another thing that takes me back to that time is the movie Beaches. I saw it in the theater with my best friend, and by the time it was over we were an absolute sobbing mess. She was crying because the character in the movie who died reminded her of how I looked when I was so very sick. And I was crying because I felt such guilt at what I had put my friends and family through because of my illness. I have never seen it again.

There are other things that trigger memories for me, as I know they do for just about everyone. One of my favorites is when I open a new bottle of cider vinegar. One whiff, and I am remembering all of the nights before Easter, and dying the colorful eggs to go in the baskets. The dye tablets were dissolved in a mixture of vinegar and water, so I think I will always associate the smell of cider vinegar with memories of sitting at Gram's kitchen table while the two of us decorated eggs. And then ate them every day for at least a week!

Now my mind is whirling with things that trigger memories. The smell of a stew cooking can transport you to coming home from school on a wintry cold day in your childhood, and smelling the stew bubbling on the stove. Lemons can remind me of my grandmother's exquisitely delicious lemon meringue pie, the best I have eaten in my entire life. The angle of sunlight as it streams through a window can transport you to decorating a Christmas tree, because the quality and direction of the light are so different then than they are at other times of the year. A large full moon sitting just above the horizon might take you back to a young romance, or perhaps bring the scent of crisp autumn apples or fresh cider to your nose. And music! What memories it helps to create, and recreate! Try to deny it, but I won't believe you. And you won't believe yourself either! 

I am sitting here in front of my keyboard with a nostalgic smile on my face as my mind recalls these different things, and what triggers the memories. Yes, some things trigger memories that are unhappy or stressful, but there are so many that take us back to times and events that we never knew at the time would be so precious to us. Whatever your memory triggers are, I hope they lead you to a time or place that cheers your soul and warms your heart. A slice of lemon meringue pie sounds really good to me right now. What sounds good to you?