Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Do you store memories in your olfactory tube?


Recently, I was making bechamel sauce a.k.a. white sauce, without fail as with every time I make it, along came that memory, playing like a video in my head. I was about 12 years old, it was Easter Sunday and my mother was ill in bed. When I was growing up Easter was a big event. We all got new clothes and Easter Eggs, Lent was over and all that deprivation and penance was done. Families gathered over a huge feast, almost as big as Christmas dinner.

We usually had a large leg of lamb, roasted with potatoes and served with cauliflower covered in previously mentioned bechamel sauce. But as my mother was ill and my older sister was not home, I took it upon myself to cook dinner. The most I had ever done in the way of cooking up to then was help prepare vegetables. With some instructions from the sick bed, I had everything prepared in good time, the very last task was the bechamel sauce. I knew how to make it, but I had never done it before.

There was no such thing as instant packaged sauces, my mother made this sauce from scratch. I melted the butter, mixed in the flour and started adding the milk. within seconds I had a gross lumpy mess. I was horrified! I trudged up the three flights of stairs from the basement kitchen to my mother's bedroom with the saucepan. She took one look at what I offered her and said I would have to start again. She explained in detail how to take the pan off the heat and slowly add the milk a little at a time, stirring constantly. I started again, carefully following her directions.

The second attempt worked - it was perfect, just like mother made! That memory is as vivid now as the event was then. I remember ever step of those stairs, I remember the panic I felt, and my mother's poor feverish face as she patiently explained how to do it right. The memory carries the scent of boiled cauliflower and roasting meat and potatoes. I remember serving my mother a tray in her room, and I know everyone gathered and ate the first dinner I had ever cooked and served, but the memory was the white sauce.

Some time ago I asked my mother in law about her childhood. I was fascinated by the fact that her father was a sharecropper in Kentucky. I asked her to describe her life and the house they lived in when she was growing up. She said it was just a house. I thought I could pull the vision of it out of her memory by asking questions. I asked her if she remembered when they first moved into the house, and she did, she told me about the room in a separate wing that was her bedroom and that she was always frightened there because it was separated from the rest of the family. I asked her what did the house smell like the first time she went into it. She didn't remember any smell. I imagined dusty, old wood smell, perhaps some wood rot, and tobacco maybe (it was on a tobacco farm) but no, she had nothing.

That lack of recall started me thinking about memory and what different people remember, and what triggers the recall. And does everyone remember in pictures and scents, or I am just weird? or is my mother in law unusual because she doesn't?

I know that certain smells trigger memories, but often I find it is the opposite, When I think of my father, I get the smell of stale Brylcreem, whiskey, and snuff. For my grandmother, it is Pond's Cold Cream and Coty's face power, memories of my mother bring back the scent of 4711 Eau de Cologne.

Then there are sounds that bring back memories, or maybe not so much the memory as the emotions surrounding that memory. For instance, whistling. When I hear someone whistling I get a powerful feeling of suppressed anger. I am usually a very even tempered person, but at the sound of whistling I want to punch the whistler in the face, or anywhere that will result in them ceasing to whistle.

I hate whistling so much I have blogged about it before, it is as though I was hypnotized to react with violence at the sound. And I guess in a way I was, probably more correct to say I was conditioned. My father used to whistle all the time, and he also used to regularly lay into us for no other reason than he was angry about something, or drunk. I don't mean that he gave us a sharp tap across the legs. No, he lifted us off our feet and punched, or backhanded us to the floor and kicked. Hence, when I hear whistling, I feel the need to protect myself, or maybe take revenge.