Experiencing Memory

I have been thinking about how I experience my memories.

If I close my eyes, I can picture my old Charles Street neighbourhood as it was in the 1940s. My house is still standing, though altered, and transformed lately into The Gourmet Burger. The urban streetscape has changed drastically. In my mind I still see the row of narrow attached houses across the street, with English basements and steps up to the front stoop. I see the lane behind the stores on Yonge Street. I see the Sweet Caps sign painted on the brick wall far above the little grocery store at the corner. I see the chunky apartment building at the corner of St. Nicholas, a woman tossing coins down to us from the heavy railed balcony. I can visualize different houses on the street, the oversized Romanesque-style Victorian like ours, smaller row houses, and ones with large front porches. I see myself walking to Wellesley Street School, down the cobblestones on St Nicholas Lane, walled with furniture warehouses at the bottom behind Rawlinson’s near Wellesley Street. I even had visual memories stored in my head that I only recognized years later when I was a student at University of Toronto. I would come upon an archway at the end of St. Mary’s Street, a stone facade or a street scene and remember being there as a child. Old photographs whether archival or personal help me to cue and elaborate scenes. Talking to my mother and brother help a little.

My recollection of sounds is mainly an ear for accents in speech. I can be transported back to the rooming house in an instant if I hear a Scottish accent or an Irish ballad. These voices of my childhood have stuck deep inside my head. Other sounds of the neighbourhood can be retrieved when necessary but it is a more conscious effort. Music can be a good trigger for scenes.

I have a few kinesthetic memories of the touch of someone or the texture of a rose petal but for the most part I have to think about these before I write about them. Taking the time to focus on the sensation of touch requires effort for me.

Tastes are not strong memory triggers for me. When they are, the memory is related to a particular scene, e.g. eating a new food, the taste of Ukrainian cooking or my mother’s baking. I almost never eat butter tarts because Mom’s were so good.

Smells and memory do interact for me. The smell of lilacs conjures up scenes from my childhood in a flash: picking lilacs, Sadie’s talcum powder, my April birthday, Dad’s digging up clumps and planting them in the backyard. I think of the smell of spices, the smell of baking, and the smell of certain foods. A lot of memories come flooding back given the right scent.

I experience most of my memories visually, like a little movie projector playing in my head. While this is my dominant mode, I do remember some scenes through my other four senses. When writing, I try to scan all five for sensual details.


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