In his Chandleresque novel, “Gun With Occasional Music,” Jonathan Lethem’s protagonist says, “I don’t possess an eidetic (photographic) memory, but I had a picture of her knees – and the creamy inches of skin above them – burned into my consciousness from the brief flash as I walked in.”
We all know how the senses can bring back memories. Sniff an aroma in the air, and you’re in a time warp. I grew up about a mile from the Silvercup factory in Long Island City. To this day the smell of freshly baked white bread… I can feel it now, sticking to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter! So the strains of a melody, or the look of sawdust on a floor, can unlock memories that are associated with these sensory experiences.
But earlier this year, while enrolled in a six-week memoir-writing workshop, I found that words triggered memories for me too. E.g., the word lanky in a NYT review describing a dancer, brought me back in front of my high school track coach, who used the word to explain why, low to the ground as I am, I could never be a great cross-country runner. I remembered the feeling as though it were yesterday, and was able to write about how I proved him wrong. Similarly, the word bungalow, which I hadn’t heard in a long time, served as a flashlight in the dark cave of my memory. Happily remembered stories from childhood summers at my grandfather’s bungalow in Rocky Point came back to me. What words trigger memories for you?
Just for fun, I imagined, from a list in Simon Hertnon’s wonderful “Endangered Words” (Skyhorse, 2009), a few that might aid famous people. Mark Twain who said, “ Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow…” might like perendinate, which means precisely that, whereas procrastinate, technically refers to a delay only until tomorrow. They are, however, used synonymously. Chavish (the mingled din of many birds) might bring back memories for Tippi Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” In the movie, she was driven daffy by the sound of it.
Noah’s adventures might be instantly recalled on his hearing the word pluviose (rainy). Hertnon selected it because he liked its potential poetic and figurative use, e.g., pluviose tears. He suggests it has a superlative connotation as well, which lends to its appeal. And he feels that offing (at a distance from the shore) “is a little gem worth rescuing.” It is used mostly in the idiom, “in the offing,” to mean nearby, in the sense of time or distance; e.g., “a waiter hovered in the offing.” I had fun picturing those Caribe Indians looking out to sea saying, “Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria… lifestyle change in the offing!”
Finally, if she heard the word sicko (slang, 1975, meaning deranged), Virginia Woolf might remember the day she wrote a 181-word opening sentence to her essay, “On Being Ill.” Some critics feel it is the most perfect sentence ever written.
I’ll quote it here sometime so no one accuses me of running on.