“The Persistence of Memory” is arguably one of Salvador Dali’s best known and most analyzed paintings. Scores of scholars have written millions of words exploring the symbolism of the soft watches, the ants, the cliffs, and the figure in the center of the painting, Dali’s intent, the correlation between the soft watches, the theory of relativity and the destruction of time, dreams and decay. From Wikipedia:
It epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness”, which was central to his thinking at the time. As Dawn Ades wrote, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. This interpretation suggests that Dalí was incorporating an understanding of the world introduced by Albert Einstein‘s Special Theory of Relativity. Asked by Ilya Prigogine whether this was in fact the case, Dalí replied that the soft watches were not inspired by the theory of relativity, but by the surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun.
So for all the twaddle, as far as Dali was concerned, it is just a dream he had, some melted cheese and the cliffs of Catalonia, his home, in the background.
But the phrase “Persistence of Memory” takes on new meaning when all you have left of someone are memories. And some of those memories are indeed persistent. Sights, sounds, tastes, touch, smell all possess the power to transport us to a specific time or place in the past to summon forth a memory. For example, there is a particular Doors song that takes me back to a party I went to in Junior High School (now called Middle School) with my girlfriend when I was 16. At the party, we declared it “our song”, and every time I hear it, I remember that night. The Dire Straits song “Why Worry” was the first dance at Terry’s and my wedding. It is our song, and every time I hear it, I go back to that Sunday evening, and can vividly recall the place, the people, the festivities. Other senses similarly elicit other memories, but the sense of smell can be the most evocative, the most powerful.
One of these fragrances, night-blooming jasmine triggers memories of weekend sleepovers at my friend Steve’s house when we were in Elementary School. His housekeeper grew the aromatic plants around the house and the cloying smell was nearly overpowering some evenings. The aroma instantly transports me to those Friday nights and Saturday mornings nearly fifty years ago, bicycling into Westwood Village with Steve, eating steamed sweet rolls at Ell’s restaurant, and generally getting into various mild forms of mischief on the UCLA campus. We have a cutting of that very same plant in our backyard, and once planted it beneath Jake’s bedroom window when he was born. Its scent calls up memories of sitting on Jake’s bed as we performed our nighttime ritual of reading, storytelling, music, cuddling and finally sleep. Often at the end of a particularly tiring day, I would fall asleep with him, curled up together as the sweet perfume of jasmine wafted in through the open window. It is a most persistent memory.
I was washing dishes the other night when another aroma hit me like a Peterbilt. For many years while Jake was growing up, we spent a couple of weeks every summer on the north shore of Kauai. Our annual family vacation, one which we always looked forward to with eager anticipation. We stayed in a ’60’s era condo steps from the sea. This was a special place for us. We went there for our honeymoon. We went there just two months before Jake was born, Terry hugely pregnant. We went when Jake was only a couple of years old. We went throughout his elementary and middle school years. We went there just 6 weeks after my bypass surgery. We went there halfway through Terry’s chemotherapy, a midpoint goal for her and a reward for enduring the misery of the treatments; that was the last time we would spend there. We forged our family bonds in the heat of the tropical sun and the cool silky caress of the Hawaiian ocean. We recharged and renewed ourselves under the Hanalei Moon. So many beautiful memories. Every year we built a ‘tiki hut’ on the beach made of driftwood and palm fronds washed up on the beach and spent many lazy afternoons lying in the dappled shade and dreaming about the future. Dream building. We would have our own home there someday; Jake would have his house, Terry and I ours, a guest house for visitors, with the swimming pool in the middle, a tennis court, gardens and fountains. We had so much fun together.
The condo was fully supplied with everything we needed, comfortable sleeping arrangements, living room with picture windows looking out on Haena Bay, and a full kitchen, complete with green Palmolive dish soap. Recently, Terry changed our brand of dish liquid to Palmolive with its distinctive smell, and when I squeezed it onto the sponge, the fragrance instantly transported me back in time to those many idyllic summers. And a sharp pang of longing struck me. Longing to go back to that carefree time, when the most momentous decision we had to make was to which beach would we go that day. Or to no beach at all, and just sit on the lanai and watch the cobalt blue breakers froth and foam and roll hissing over the golden sand. I can’t go back of course, and the smell of that damn dish soap will always remind me both of those blissful days and nights, and that I can never have another day at the beach with my son. All those dreams shattered forever.
There are millions of triggers for me now. Each one, whether a sight, sound, taste, touch or smell evokes a memory. These memories often come upon me suddenly and unbidden; sparked by one of the senses or just a random thought or mental image. The memories are not all pleasant, we are not perfect, nor was Jake by any means; that is part of life, but they elicit bittersweet nostalgia. Sweet for having had the years we did with our wonderful son, all the beautiful memories we made together, and bitter for something I cannot have – new memories that will never be made. Bitter because I will never see him again, hold him, laugh with him, splash in the ocean, sit with my family together in easy silence as we watch the waves roll in. So I am left with the memories that I do have. Persistent memories that will never fade away.