Everybody knows that smells are some of the most potent memory triggers. For instance, one whiff of an onion sautéing, and I am transported to my grandmother’s kitchen in Minsk. I hear the burbling of boiling pots on the stove, seeing her garland of garlic hanging by a small, square, steamed-up window. I would watch my mom and grandmother cooking together, and laughing together.
Sometimes, walking by a smoker, I close my eyes as I inhale their second-hand smoke. I am not bothered in the least. Instead, I am hugging my grandfather, who always smelled like cigarette smoke. He has been gone more than four decades now, but my memories of him are clear and detailed.
Of course, other senses can also trigger our memories. Another major memory jogger is music. Hearing a song reminds people of an exact place and time they have heard it before, or heard it at a pivotal time in their lives. I was driving to a grocery store, and U2’s “New Year’s Day” came on the radio. I turned up the volume, began singing along at the top of my lungs (unfortunately for others, that is just the standard volume of singing for me) and was flooded with memories.
It’s 1982, my best friend, Amy, and I were riding around in my 1976 Ford pickup truck, RW (named for Raoul Wallenberg). Because RW only had AM radio and blown speakers, I improvised with a cassette player between us. We played U2’s “War” album on cassette over and over, again and again, memorizing it. That tape wore out, as did the second “War” tape. So many great songs — “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Refugee,” “40,” “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Surrender” and others. “Look,” Amy pointed out, “my eyes and the boy’s eyes on the cover of this tape are identical.” I stop at a stop sign, turn to her as she’s holding the cover up to her face. She’s right — they are both gray-blue (it’s sort of difficult to know because the photograph is in black and white, but that boy definitely does not have brown eyes, like mine). “… they say this is the golden age/ and gold is the reason for the wars we wage…”
Now it’s 1990, and I was living in Jackson, Wyoming, in a tiniest cabin ever made. I turned on the local radio station and heard U2. After that one song, the DJ came on and informed the audience that today was a U2 day — all U2, for hours. I immediately called the station (and got through as the permanent…