What we remember

“Isn’t the past what people remember—who did what, how and why? And what people remember, isn’t that mostly what they’ve already chosen to believe?” –Amy Tan, “The Opposite of Fate”

It happens every once in awhile, usually in those moments when I’m least prepared.


I’ll be walking through a crowded store or driving in my car, and for a split second my eyes will catch a glimpse or my nose will snatch a scent and I’m instantly taken right back. It’s never the big moments that I return to, the ones we’re told are important, but rather the seemingly insignificant ones that should be easy to forget.

The random memory is triggered and my mind starts to rewind. Sometimes it leaves me happy and content with what I know, a smile on my lips as I recall a certain time. Other jolts of  memory take on a darker hue, a time I tell myself most likely wasn’t quite that bad despite the surfacing emotion threatening to call my bluff.

With the scent fading fast, I try to remember.

Then I think to myself that I should write, that I should write about that seemingly insignificant thing that has stuck in my mind for one reason or another. But along with what I thought I saw that started this whole dance, that thought soon disappears.

What stays?

Only now.

The feeling I’ve lived a million different lives, a choose-your-own-adventure that replays the same scenes different ways each time they’re cued back up. Did that happen to me or the girl in the picture? Are the memories mine or what I was told, what I choose to believe?

I suppose it doesn’t matter if it’s exact or slightly fictionalized. It’s still—and always will be—my own story to tell.

Maybe I will.

21 responses to “What we remember

  1. They’re remodelling part of the large gym on my campus that all of the kids walk through to avoid the cold and during the construction I got a whiff of that fresh paint, drywall and concrete smell, the smell of a new basement or house being built, and it took me back to when I lived in my favorite house as a kid. The memories just overwhelmed me at the time and I felt an insane sense of euphoria that lasted a good portion of the day. I was reminded of my Grandma and playing Mario Party for hours with her, my lack of responsibility and care as I was a child who enjoyed life without worries, and all sorts of other happy emotions. Scent is such a wonderful thing. And the coolest part of that day was that later in my Physiology lab, we discussed the sense of smell and how it’s tied to the thalamus in our brain which explains the whole memory-connection thing. ^_^

  2. My mom sent me some clothing that didn’t fit her any more, but that I could wear, and even though I washed them (my mom still smokes & I don’t), some of her perfume still lingered. Something about the combination of that, plus either the lotion I used & my laundry detergent, etc., smelled just like my grandmother’s perfume. I spent the day alternating between sadness at missing her and feeling happy for the reminder of her.

  3. sometimes when I remember something from my past, I just wonder – was that really me? It seems like my life has changed so drastically, and so have I. Or have I? These things keep me thinking…. which is better than not, I suppose. But sometimes, I have these overwhelming sensations of either remorse or happiness, and it bothers me that at any point of my life, I wanted so much more or so much less, ya know>

    • or just a question mark at the end of that semi-thought

    • I get it. But then I wonder if at that time, I really wanted so much more or so much less. Perhaps it’s only now looking back that I think about what would have been ideal, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I suppose that’s what we can use our memories for–to move forward and make “now” a time of less remorse and greater happiness? Who knows 😉

  4. Sheer writing genius, Abby. You amaze me.

    I often wonder if I would have any memories at all if it wasn’t for photos- they bring back what I think are accurate memories all the time. Especially from when I was very little.

    You are too damn cute in the photo by the way- I wonder what you were eating.

    Smell is the strongest of all connections for me though. There’s a mens’ cologne that makes me want to barf when I smell it b/c I was sick at a friend’s wedding and my friend wore that cologne. And I have some of my Dad’s clothes that smell like “him”…I just can’t wash them.

    • Smells are the ones that totally catch me off guard for some reason. They can be both a comfort and the cause of dry heaving 😉

  5. I’m too tired to comment as eloquently as those before me, but I so agree–smells can completely catch me by surprise and pull memories out that I would never have thought of otherwise.

  6. What a great time for this post. I just had a conversation with my dad (who, as you know, had iffy memory these days) about when I was a kid. I told him what a remembered from a certain event, and he told me what he remembered. Its amazing that I always seem to remember colors and outfits. I’m not even a “fashionable” person, but I always seem to remember what people wore! And like deb, there are some things that still totally smell like my mom that I refuse to wash.

    • My mom used to remember every dish that everyone ate from ages ago- like 1973. “Steven had the pork loin and your Dad had the steak with bernaise sauce”…totally cracked me up! Toward the end of her life, she’d jumble up some of the other memories, but always remembered the FOOD

      • I’m not sure it counts given my history, but I’m kind of the same way in that I remember food. I think I don’t even realize what I choose to focus on, so maybe I remember the details of what was important to me at the time? Sometimes it’s clothes, sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s the weather. Nowadays I’m lucky if I can remember what I was talking about, as evidenced by this ramble 😉

  7. Sight, sounds and smells always trigger memories for me.

  8. I’ve always found that I remember little things more than some big things. That was pretty cool, and you are free to tell your story any way you want. That’s why we blog! 🙂


  9. I’m the same way with some smells. Pure nostalgia. Like when my mom visits me (she lives in Louisiana), then leaves and spare room still smells like her. I’ll stand in there and sniff around the whole room trying to smell it as much as I can until it’s gone. Then usually I’ll wait a while, then go back and try again.

    Whats strange, is it smells like a perfume to me and has a distinct sweet smell, but it’s not a perfume, lotion or anything like that…..it’s just her. I’ve asked her before what it is, but she doesnt know. And its been the same smell ever since I can remember. To me, it’s almost like inhaling concentrated comfort. I know that sounds really weird! It makes sense to me though…

    I know this is not exactly what you posted about, sorry to get off track!

  10. Smells and sounds are so intense for me, too. There is a smell in the early spring in my neighborhood here that somehow smells like kool-aid. It’s weird but it immediately transports me back to summers as a kid when my sister and I would sells tickets to all the kids on our street to come and watch us perform our gymnastics routines for them on our front lawn while they munched on the popcorn we handed out prior to the show. I’m not sure why the kool-aid smell does this, especially considering I believe we handed out lemonade. But who cares 🙂

    Lovely post.

    • I sold tickets for Get In Shape Girl and impromptu Mariah Carey concerts on my trampoline. However, I believed the beverages were of an additional charge. Two drink minimum.

  11. You’re a wonderful writer, and this post made me start thinking back on memories. Cinnamon reminds me of my grandmother making pies, daffodils my mom’s birthday, sun tan lotion brings up every beach memory, and red bull well that pretty much sums up college.

  12. Smoke and mothballs was my grandma Meme. Clinique Happy and handlotion is Grandma GG. Quite a contrast but both bring very warm memories tinged with a bit of sadness…

    Bacon = Nathan. Oh hell, bacon reminds me of anything and anything reminds me of bacon. Who am I kidding?

    • I didn’t take you for such a bacon freak 😉 Even though I don’t eat meat, I actually enjoy the smell of bacon. Go figure. As for Clinique, I’m a little distrubed that I (occasionally) wear the same perfume as your grandma GG. My grandma is Emeraude all the wall. Clinique Happy for men brings back lovely memories for me and it’s possible I still stop and smell it when I’m in the mall 😉

  13. Oh Abby, this is so right on.
    What I remember most are the small moments, and they are often triggered by a scent or the way something feels to my touch.
    My husband told me when he was 10, he told himself he was going to make a memory to remember forever. He is 50 now and he remembers his “saved” memory, right down to the last detail, to this day 🙂

  14. Kath (My Funny Little Life)

    This is such a beautiful and deep post, Abby! I read it several times.

    One of my favorite ideas to think about is how all possible times exist right now, parallel to each other, and all possible events – the ones that come to happen and the ones that don’t – somewhere manifest themselves in an infinite and infinitely multidimensional universe where everything is related to each other.

    Your post just made that idea become awake again. 🙂

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