Over the Fourth of July holiday, I traveled to Chicago by train. The scenery between Minneapolis and Chicago isn’t dramatic or exciting. But gazing out the window as we passed through the small towns and fringes of cities gave me a glimpse of something I don’t see much of anymore—the slow march of summer days. Kids on bikes and gardeners tending their yards. Flags flapping lazily over front steps. Here a dog diving wholeheartedly into a creek as his owners watched from the banks. There a field of leafy corn shimmering in the sun. It reminded me that when I was younger—even through high school and into college—summer was another country. Things changed once you crossed its borders. The light shifted. Time moved at a different pace. The sights and sounds and smells were all its own.
Coincidentally, I also popped in to read one of my usual blogs, and the topic was smells and memories. What smells evoke the strongest memories? Not surprisingly, many commenters mentioned their mother or grandmother’s perfume, baking, holiday scents such as pine needles, and smells associated with school (chalk, “ditto” paper). But almost everyone also mentioned summertime scents—flowers, freshly cut grass, salt air, Coppertone lotion, chlorine, charcoal and lighter fluid, and warm rain on sidewalks.
I thought about how difficult it is to use memory in writing—to evoke an exact sense of time and place that readers respond to on an emotional level. Moviemakers can rely on costumes, sets, lighting, and soundtracks. But to do the same with words on a page…. I admire any writer who can. Probably my favorite example of this talent is To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee used so many details of her own childhood, and did so with such skill, that the fictional events of the story’s climax that summer in Maycomb, Alabama, now live in the memory of generations of people across the world.
How about you, readers? What is your favorite example of the Proustian skill of bringing memories to life? Or, simply, what scent reminds you most of summer?