Memory’s a long-con. As we live our lives, events seem so indelible that they’ll never fade. In the moment – and in the days, months, years after – we convince ourselves that the minutiae of the vital will never leave us, that some remembrances are too important to be forgotten. Our memories are lying to us. Every tick of the clock pushes us further from those moments, and with each push out into the new, the now, our memory lets go a little more.
As a baby, my daughter smelled like pound cake. I’m sure it is not uncommon for new parents to take great lung-filling gulps of the air that surrounds their babies. Count me in that number. Feeding her a bottle, I’d cradle her upward, breathe deep of that warm, sweet smell, and think that this, this, was something that would linger.
Having a newborn is an exercise in yo-yoing states of mind. Joy, exhaustion, frustration, and happiness shoulder one another aside constantly, sometimes letting you run the gamut in a mere five-minute stretch. Those conditions make remembering hard, both in the short-term (Did I wash those bottles? How long ago was the last diaper change?) and the long-term. My memories of the few days my wife and daughter spent in the hospital post-birth are fractured, leaving me with tiny glimpses of whole days. All of this is to say that when I realized what exactly it was that my daughter smelled like, I consciously tried to file that away, to dig a divot of memory for it to occupy.
Today, four-and-a-half years later, my sense-memory of that smell has gone. It fluttered away along with the faces of students I’ve taught and Dexter McCluster’s career rushing yardage at Ole Miss and the name of the guy who wrote that story I’d like to use in class sometime, the one about the thieves who were trying to blast open a safe that had come into their possession.
The smell has left me, but the metaphor lingers. When I’m in a bakery and I smell that thick sweetness, I can prod my memory to life, can tell it that this is the smell that matters.
Fiction is tool for empathy, yes, but it’s also a tool for memory. The metaphoric weight at fiction’s core gives us the chance to find a new language for the things that matter to us. When I sit down to write a story I might be trying to entertain or to instruct or to frighten or to move a reader, but underneath all of that what I’m saying is this: remember remember remember.