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 population was just over 5,000 back then) and when the DJ came on, I asked him to play “New Year’s Day” for me. He told me that he played that song earlier (was that reproach in his voice? Yeah, if I had been listening, I would have known. Definitely reproach with a hint of accusatory criticism thrown in.) but he’s willing to play it again, in the next half hour. Then he proceeds to play it … immediately! And I dance around my cabin (OK, I actually hop up and down, there is really no room for any other dance moves) and holler along with the song. “…Arms entwined, the chosen few/ Newspapers says… says…/ Say it’s true, yeah true, and we can break through/ Torn in two, we can be one…”
In 1997, my husband Jeff and I went to Ireland to celebrate his graduation from law school. In everything but music, it was a perfect trip — I only heard “Danny Boy” — which should be played at least daily — one time, and that time was on the tour bus, through not-so-great speakers. As far as I am concerned, “Danny Boy” is THE song, with more heart and pathos than any other song. Ever. On the way to the airport to return home, Jeff and I were talking to the taxi driver about our experiences in his wonderful country. At this point, I do not care for any new U2 music. “Rattle and Hum,” (I called it “Rattle and Ho Hum) was the last album I liked, and even then, “like” is a strong word. I am explaining to the driver that I am not as much in love with one of Ireland’s national treasures any more — sure, we had a great time together — but, I will always dig their early stuff. That’s when the driver said that he heard a few of the songs on the new album, and he liked it. I gave him a skeptical look, which he couldn’t see because I was giving it to the back of his head, and told him I would give it a listen. It turned out to be full of techno pop, and I had a moue of distaste the entire time I listened to it. But that’s not the point. The point is, I absolutely loved “War” in its entirety; each and every song meaningful and lovely. Whereas the Beatles matured and became better with every album, U2 kinda peaked in perfection and then, in trying to re-invent and recreate themselves, to stay relevant and innovative, became weird and overly technical. (The opinions expressed here, as always, are mine and mine alone. If you do not agree, it’s OK to be wrong. If you agree, you obviously have superior taste.) But in that taxi, going back home, I kept singing U2 songs (quietly, for a change, mostly to myself). “All is quiet on New Year’s Day/ A world in white gets underway/ I want to be with you/ Be with you, night and day/ Nothing changes on New Year’s Day…”