I was coming out of a Target store yesterday, when the scent of discount store popcorn immediately took me back to my childhood in Oak Forest, IL. Saturdays, I’d go with my parents to Markham to shop. We’d get groceries at Jewel Foods and sundry items at Zayre’s. I remember the smell of the popcorn in that store, and recalling that scent invites me to remember the aroma of pepperoni pizza slices being kept warm, the slush on the floors when it was snowing outside, the cold air rushing in each time the doors slid open. At the time I’m recalling, I was in the third grade. We’d just moved from our downstate farm to the southern suburbs of Chicago.
On one of those Saturdays near Christmas, I spotted a sled in Zayre’s that I wanted. I wanted it so badly that I put up a fuss when my father said it cost too much, and I would most certainly not be getting it for Christmas. I was an only child, and despite what you may have heard about only children getting everything they wanted, I recall a number of times when my parents told me no. This was one of those times. I pouted, I cried, I made a scene. All to no avail. My father took me to the car where we waited for my mother to finish her shopping. I pulled the hood of my coat up over my head, and lay down on the back seat, still crying. After a while, I heard my mother’s car key opening the trunk. I heard the paper of shopping sacks, rustling, then the slam of the trunk lid, and the rattle of the shopping cart as my mother pushed it to a corral. When she got into the car, I smelled her Aqua Net hairspray and the scents of the store on her woolen coat—the smell of that pizza, the smell of that popcorn, the cold, damp air.
We went home, and I went to my room, and gradually we forgot the scene from the store. When I was finally out of school for the holidays, we made the five-hour drive south to spend Christmas vacation at our farm. It was there on Christmas morning that I woke to the sight of my sled, wrapped with a red bow, underneath our tree.
Now I’m left to wonder about what it must have felt like to be my mother and father, who became parents in the middle of their lives. My mother was 45; my father was 42. They were survivors of the Great Depression, a farmer and a schoolteacher, well-versed in want, always on guard against loss, but there I was, their only child, who had no idea what those Depression years had done to them. Why was my father always harping when I left a light on in my room? Why did he have to force my mother to buy new dresses when she needed them? I was a kid who wanted what a kid wanted. At the time, I never gave a thought to what it cost, not only in dollars, but, more than that, what it cost my mother to make the decision she did on her own after my father and I left the store. Were there angry words between them? How much did she have to deny herself because of what she spent? At the time, these questions were beyond me, but yesterday I smelled the popcorn in a Target store, and I let that scent carry me back in time to the Saturday when my mother bought that sled for me, and I took a few moments to recall the memory and then today to write this post, letting it lead me to this: She bought that sled because I wanted it; she bought it because I was her son.
It’s certainly not earth shattering for me to point out that sensory details can take us places in our writing we otherwise wouldn’t reach, so let me simply say this. Sometimes we can start with a scent, a sound, a taste, a texture, a sight, and we can daydream our ways back into the past. Pay attention to what sticks, which events become vivid. Those are usually the ones that we haven’t quite laid to rest. There’s something to be mined there in a piece of memoir. Follow the trail, ask the questions, speculate on the answers. Don’t start with the large subjects. Start with the details. Let your senses take you down into the material.