Hank had some new playdough the other day, and I sat down at the breakfast table to open it up with him. I opened the first jar and held it up to my nose. I took a sniff, and as I did, I saw a face in my mind. It was as clear as could be, like a picture flashed on a screen. An older, almost elderly lady with white hair in an old-fashioned bouffant style, a smiling face, and crinkly eyes. Who was that? I closed my eyes and sniffed again. Same face in my mind's eye.
I lost track of what Hank was saying for a moment as I thought about that face. I was searching my memory for who that could be, or I don't know how to describe what I was doing. It was that strange mental operation you carry out when you're trying to place someone, a process that seems like feeling around in the dark, but which must have some logic and method that is hidden from us.
Very quickly it came to me that in my Kindergarten class, there had been an assistant teacher, and it was her face I was seeing. I just knew it. Now, I remember my head Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gainey, very well, even though I was just four years old when I started school. But I swear to you, in thirty-some years I had never thought or remembered that there had been another teacher in the classroom that year. I couldn't remember her name and I can't now, but it was like the memory warmed in my hands and I knew it was right.
I've read here and there about smell being the sense most strongly linked to memory, and especially to long-term emotional memories. Something to do with the olfactory organ being part of the limbic system. I have often had a smell remind me of another time and place, but I have never had an intact, out-of-nowhere, and wholly forgotten memory surface like that.
I've smelled playdough countless times in my life. So what brought up her face right then? Maybe it was the added nudge of sitting down at the table with a little child? I don't know, but it is kind of mysterious and wonderful to me, the way the mind works.
Just the day before, I'd had one of my standard conversations with Laura, along the lines of, "Right now your brother worships you, and when you are both old, he will be your best friend. Daddy and I will be gone and you and Hank will be the only ones who remember each other as children. How you treat him now will matter all your lives. If you are dismissive of him or contemptuous of him on a regular basis, now while he's little and you have all the power, he might not exactly remember later but he will put the feeling in his heart."
Okay it reads a little heavier than it came off. But Hank overheard part of this and said, "What do you mean put feelings in your heart?" So I tried to talk about how we remember and learn from feelings and experiences that happen even when we're just babies. So then the playdough moment happened, and I thought, "Do we really forget anything, or is it all still there in some occult way?"
Anyway, this is fascinating to me. Has something like this happened to you? Tell me. Or write about it on your blog and come tell us so we can go read.