Sensory Details and Memoirs

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.


  1. Sherri Steele on December 5, 2016 at 11:22 am

    I am sitting in the Walmart parking lot drinking my coffee, and I picked up my phone to review my list. I saw your post and decided to enjoy the few minutes alone in my car to read your story. What a lovely memory. You made me cry! I miss my mom during this holiday season. You made a good point about the little details. You write in a way that speaks to me. Lovely.

    • Lee Martin on December 5, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      Thank you so much, Sherri! It seems that everyone’s senses are on high alert during the holiday season, and, yes, of course, some of the sensory details take us back to loved ones now gone. For whatever reason, blue Christmas lights has always been that trigger for me. I think they’re one of the saddest sights I and think of, but I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because they always seem muted and, therefore, a scrim separating me from loved ones I’ve lost. But I guess that’s for me to figure out in a piece of writing! I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

  2. Billy on December 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks Lee! I enjoyed this post and it took me back to memories of time spent in Oak Park. Such a wonderful neighborhood. When it comes to the senses, I’ve always struggled to use taste in my writing. It always evades me. Do you have any clever exercises or thoughts on how to practice writing about taste?

    • Lee Martin on December 5, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Billy, I think it’s true that everyone favors certain senses over the others. I usually think about taste as it applies to things we don’t put into our mouths. Cold air, for example. To me it always tastes like a penny. You might, then, think of other things you don’t really taste, but which seem to have some sort of taste associated with them. You could make a list of similes. “The cold air tasted like a penny.” Etc. If you’re dealing with food and drink, you have to think about what the individual tastes are–not just sweet, or salty, but what does in to making that overall taste. “The apple pie tasted of sugar and cinnamon and the browned, flaky crust.” Hope this helps.

  3. Joan Brian on December 5, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    Crayons! Something from my grade school gymnasium! Strawberries! Those smells can pull back memories with a surprising strength.

    • Lee Martin on December 6, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      Joan, now you’ve reminded me of the smell of paste and construction paper, and the sound those blunt tipped scissors made when we cut that paper.

  4. Susan Cole on December 9, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Thank you very much for this, Lee. I remembered back in my twenties working in a funky office where I met my future husband, the light coming through his office window as I sat spellbound by his sailing stories, the intoxicating smell of his Lucky Strike, the sounds of the cars passing on the street. I lost him this year and it has been hard to write about him but there it was, words spilling out.

    • Lee Martin on December 13, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      Susan, I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, but isn’t it grand to be able to access these dear memories through the sensory details. They really do keep us in touch even after a loved one is gone.

  5. Jeanne Voelker on December 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    The sound of my mother’s sewing shears against the dining room table as she cut fabric to make school dresses for my sister and me.

    • Lee Martin on December 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      So good to see you back online, Jeanne. I hope you’re doing well.

  6. d. ellis phelps on February 13, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    I laughed out loud! I cheered and clapped! I cried such tears. I found you and this post searching for “the use of sensory detail” in memoir writing, as I am presently facilitating a memoir writing workshop through a local library. This is a beautifully written, poignant, completely relatable, universal experience with so many exquisite details. Thank you for sharing it here. I will be using this as a writing sample for my workshop. & if this writing sample is anything like your other work (so much other work!), I must read it. All of it. And I will be sending a group of new readers your way!

    • Lee Martin on February 15, 2022 at 11:34 am

      Thank you so much for this very generous comment. I appreciate your sharing, and I hope something I’ve written will be of use to your workshop participants. Take care.

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