Stafford: Triggered memories important to savor

Running out for a pack of cigarettes isn’t always a humanitarian mission.

But after 30 years of burning them, Brenda has cut down from a pack a day to a pack a week.

So on the Fourth, when a lack of nicotine started jangling her nerves the way the firecrackers send dogs and cats under the bed to hide, Denny and I headed out the storm door on a humanitarian mission to procure some nicotine on a stick.

I volunteered to take us to the drive-through in the Rav-4 my parents passed along a year ago when they gave my brother a bigger present by announcing they were giving up driving and moved into the senior care facility near his home.

But Denny’s old pickup was right there in the driveway, and he wanted to drive it for the same reason I always like to ride in it: the smells.

I know just enough about the workings of memory to be dangerous discussing it. But what I do recall is that the surprising power memories have to at times make us feel like we’re reliving moments experienced decades earlier is tied up in the way our brains pack them away for storage.

The content of the memory is wrapped up in the emotions felt at the time. As I think of it, the emotions are the things that make those moments memorable. But somehow, it all can be wrapped up in a smell as well.

Inside the cab, once my nose found that smell, my mind slid an inch over on the seat and I was back in my Grandpa Salli’s Crossley, a kind of Mini-Cooper-size pickup we called “The Bug.” He drove around this farm an hour west of Marquette, Mich., 55 years or so ago when my now 6-foot-5 brother and I could both fit together comfortably into the passenger-side bucket seat.

Like smell, music has the same power to conjure, which it did for me later in the morning of the Fourth as I leaned against the kitchen counter when the 1968 song “Time of the Season” came to mind.

Along with Sly and the Family Stone and the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations,” nothing so quickly brings back summers of the past.

Now both 88, Mom and Dad had their own “Time of the Season” moment a couple of weeks back, which came back in the kind of happenstance way such things do.

The activities calendar at their retirement center had a Wizard of Oz show listed, so my Mom took the elevator one floor up to fetch my Dad from the skilled care unit and take him down to the performance in his new wheelchair, which is easier for her to push.

He likes the change of scenery, of course. During his extended stay in the care unit, I’ve come to realize how socially isolating it is even in the best of circumstances.

They were settled in place, and the Oz program was proceeding, when the singer broke into “Once Again With Amy,” and the two of them were back in 1948.

I remember my Dad singing the song when I was growing up – often enough that I can sing along with the title words. But I didn’t know the back story.

In 1948 and 1949, Bill Stafford and Clarice Salli were seniors, not in a care facility, but at Northern Michigan University. And as worldy seniors, they would carpool with other couples to a bar at Lakewood, southeast of Marquette along the Lake Superior Shore.

My Mom said the drill was to have one beer and go home, a claim I believe for two reasons. One, she’s often remarked on their budget constraints at the time. Two, when I drive to Chicago to see them, she usually gives me fast food coupons for use on the return trip.

Anyhow, while nursing that one beer at the Lakewood bar, they’d sing along with music on the bar’s Nickelodeon, including that the song Ray Bolger sang in the Broadway musical smash “Where’s Charley?”

More people now know that Bolger played the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” than are aware that Frank Loesser, who wrote the music and lyrics, won Tony Awards for “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and a Pulitzer Prize for drama for a the latter.

Even fewer have reason to imagine that Loesser’s success led untold numbers of college age kids in untold numbers of bars to sit in front of untold numbers of Nickelodeons and sing along with “Once in Love With Amy.”

If they were like my Mom and Dad, as they sang, they would take turns substituting other girls’ names for Amy’s. And, if they were like my Dad, they had a particular girl in mind.

Of course, moments when memories rush back are few and far between and unpredictable in everyday life. I always savor them when they arrive, and I held a little private celebration as Mom told me another had come their way.

I suspect it may trigger another someday if I ever hear the opening words of their song.

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