An emotional childhood sense memory, unlocked by a graham cracker.
I put a small piece of graham cracker on the tip of DJ’s tongue and rubbed her shoulder while it dissolved. Her eyes closed and I closed mine, willing the flavor to spawn wings, to travel back through what was left of her mind and attach itself to something she could remember...
DJ was one of the residents in the memory-care community where I used to work. Everyone who lives there has some sort of dementia. DJ’s was profound yet she still had access to her manners and to some language; when she opened her eyes and saw me, she said, “Thank you, darling” in a soft Southern drawl that contained all the loveliness and charm that has belonged to her for over 90 years. Then she uttered a series of short whispery hoots that made her sound like a happy baby owl, took my hand to her lips and wept.
That happened every day, every time I gave her a graham cracker. Her reaction, one she did not have to any other food, even other sorts of cookies or crackers, convinced me that the unique semisweet amalgam that is a graham cracker—brown sugar, vanilla, a bit of cinnamon, the unquestionable flavor of graham flour—must have unleashed something inside her, some vague sliver from her past.
Science has not yet revealed the full mystery of the human mind, but there is a great deal of evidence supporting the powerful connection between memory and the senses. Multiple MRI studies of the brain have shown that familiar tastes or smells will instantaneously activate the “emotional brain,” the primal area of our brain responsible for memory and feelings. And we see evidence of the bond between tastes and smells and our memories every time a certain flavor or aroma suddenly transports us back to childhood. That bond can be overwhelmingly powerful. Inspired by that same effect, Marcel Proust, after all, wrote volumes.
In DJ, I saw what I hoped was some small version of what happens inside my brain when taste and memory collide. Every time the memory-care center’s cook—a handsome, über-talented guy who was good enough to helm a five-star restaurant—made his marinara, first the smell and then the taste spontaneously returned me to my childhood and this vision: my mother standing at our small stove in her plaid bikini making spaghetti sauce on a hot Sunday afternoon. A young divorcée in the days when I didn’t know any other mothers who were single or had to work, she hardly ever cooked but once in a while, on her day off, she’d take a break from sunbathing and whip up a batch of sauce that we would eat together, in various incarnations, for the next full week. A wooden spoon in one hand, scotch on the rocks in the other, she’d be swaying and singing along to a Robert Goulet record, lost somewhere in her own private reverie, oblivious to the tiny boiling spurts of oily sauce popping out of the pot and landing on her bare arms.
Is this recollection accurate or a reconstruction, something I’ve created because I need an image to embody my emotions? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because the feelings are real. Every time I remember this, I cry. I don’t necessarily feel sad; it’s more that I am just overcome by these big emotions, and crying is my natural response.
That is why DJ’s weeping never alarmed me: her tears were one of the few remaining ways she had to express her feelings. Who can say for certain whether simple things—like the taste of a graham cracker you loved as a child—can provoke a memory in the mind of a person whose mind seems all but gone? Perhaps no one, at least not yet. But I believe what I saw was some dormant fragment of her past brought back to life through taste, triggering a recollection that for a split second produced the deepest kind of satisfaction. And it made me want to hoot.
Diane Goodman is a writer and a caterer in Phoenix, Arizona. Her most recent collection of short stories is Party Girls.