By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
One breakfast in a lifetime of breakfasts stands out. Why?
Mother and father, aunt and uncle, and the young man are seated in a restaurant at a crossroads in Vermont. The fare is moist, tender pancakes beside strips of savory bacon, all soaked with maple syrup. The food is accompanied by freshly ground coffee with cream from a local dairy. Its fragrance is irresistible.
The diner buzzes with neighborhood folk: farmers, delivery men, truck drivers, a policeman or two, a few retirees who stay all morning, cleaning women on the way to work, a couple of businessmen heading for the office. The atmosphere is familial, warm, inviting. It makes everyone want to linger for one more cup, one more anecdote, one more smile. That’s all you remember, but it feels like eternal happiness, like some ever-welcoming home away from home.
It’s impossible to say what causes such random memories to pop into our minds. They just seem to rise like bubbles exhaled from some sleeping giant under the waters of time.
Perhaps it’s the scent of a fresh-baked pie wafting through the kitchen window or the sound of a train klaxon as it passes over a bridge that triggers a thought. Or maybe it’s nothing immediately discernible, but when a recollection or an image you don’t expect to contemplate emerges from the mist, it usually precipitates a moment of pure delight or, conversely, a poignant instant of melancholy. Overwhelmingly suffocating irony also might be the thing that sears an isolated experience into the place where deathless memory resides.
Grandmother is busy working in the pantry when her grandson comes into her house. She is absorbed in cooking something. Always glad to see each other, she and the young man share a heartfelt greeting. Then, almost shyly, she reveals her project. She has baked him a special Easter pastry that was his favorite from boyhood. In her later years she hasn’t made it in a long while. She has decided to make it for him one last time, and she expectantly shows him her surprise. In a box that he is carrying is a version of the same dessert. His wife-to-be had unknowingly surprised him with it an hour before, having heard him reminisce longingly about it so often.
Why, though, do recollections that are merely visual fragments, akin to still life paintings or photographs, also appear regularly for no obvious reason?
The very young boy is riding with his grandparents in their 1950s car. They are on their way to bring flowers to a cemetery for the grave of a relative. Grandfather stops at a small, improvised garden shop near the graveyard. He buys the flowers, but then he spots some strong, healthy looking tomato plants in a flat under a water faucet on the cement apron beside the building. The faucet is slowly dripping water. The tomato plants almost seem to reach for the drops. He discusses buying the tomatoes with grandmother. The boy becomes transfixed by the tomato plants and the water spigot, so much so, it seems that, unbidden and unexpectedly, they come back to him at odd moments for the rest of his life.
Then there are moments of conquering anxiety or gaining mastery of it.
His father’s brother, the outdoorsman uncle, is in town. He comes over for dinner. Of course the conversation turns to fishing. There is a small lake in the woods adjacent to the family farm. Its very existence is unknown to many who live in the community. The entire lake is completely surrounded by forest; it borders no roads. That makes it a more exotic and mystical destination for fishermen. It is said to contain the largest bass in the area.
The more they talk of it, the more animated his uncle becomes. Finally, he is saying that he wants to go to the lake and wet his line. He has all his equipment in his car. Uncle lives in Maryland and is on his way to his summer house in Maine. He is only visiting the relatives here for a couple of days. It would be a nostalgic adventure for him.
The boy’s father, more a baseball fan than an angler, protests. It is already getting dark, he points out. When the uncle gets enthusiastic, there is almost no stopping him, though. In a few minutes all three are on their way to the lake. By the time they reach the border of the orchard and the beginning of the woods it is pitch dark, moonless. They have no flashlight.
Somehow the boy finds himself in the front. His father and his uncle are reminiscing about their own youth and letting the boy lead. He knows the way in daylight, but has never traveled it at night. The path through the underbrush and trees is only single file wide, and it twists and turns a good deal. He knows that near the end when it reaches the water there is a steep decline through nothing but rocks and pebbles.
As the branches of saplings lash his face and his feet occasionally hook on a root, he begins to sweat. He is becoming anxious, but he doesn’t dare show it. The men behind him are deep in their reverie, a rare moment of sibling bonding at this time in their lives. The boy’s stomach flip-flops, and he stops for a moment. After a deep breath he goes on, tracing the path by memory and by feel. At last they break into the clear. The absence of tree cover makes it just light enough to pick their way down through the rock-strewn descent to the lake.
His uncle casts his lure for maybe twenty minutes and catches one decent sized bass. He flicks the cigarette lighter he carries to ignite his ever present pipe and admires the fish awhile, and then he releases it. They head for home, the boy once again in the lead. He is, for reasons hard to express, jubilant.
Are these and other recurrent memories special touchstones, or are they compulsive re-visitations of seminal events? Are they unresolved emotional episodes (how then to explain the oh-so-ordinary tomato plants)? Or is this just how the mind works, some chemical in the capocollo you ate that is stimulating the neurons where the particular memory resides?