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Madeleines, Gumnuts and Autumn Leaves

Inspired by a Creative Writing Workshop, given in the Glass House hills inland from Mooloolaba, Australia in 2001.

Timothy Findley* wrote, “Without memory we are nothing.” In “Pages From a Writer’s Notebook” he reflects, “In every Ibsen play there is a character who says, ‘I remember,’ and what follows can break your heart.” People who have waded through, “Remembrance of Time Past,” recognize Proust for his evocation of memories prompted by the senses.

As a primary teacher, I felt it was important to inculcate the concept of reflection in my students. At the end of the year, we would list and classify the high points of the year gone by. We would examine the calendars, charts, photos and murals that had collected around the classroom; then list excursions, visitors, special days, illustrating our favourite ones, remembering themes we had studied. I always took them to the market, accompanied by enough willing parents to enable us to explore and “research” in small groups.  One task was to find madeleines, the little cakes immortalized by Proust.

Back in the classroom, I gave each child a portion of the madeleines, following an inspirational speech about the “magic” ability of taste to invoke memories. Obediently the moppets closed their eyes and savoured the lemon‑flavoured sponge cake. One little philistine said, “I don’t see nothin’!” I replied, “Tyler, when you are a little old man of fifty‑two you will eat a madeleine and remember your dear old grade one teacher!”

Perhaps it is because I have been transient all of my life that I make a special effort to preserve concrete and abstract souvenirs. Often I have stood looking out at a beach, a skyline, a bathtub (!), memorizing it for the future. Usually the days are full and stimulating; I don’t need to wallow in the past. But in quiet times, I can take out my “treasures” and fondle them like the beads of a rosary.

I live on a boat. There are long, dark, hours at sea when I call upon all my resources in order to stay awake, keeping watch for things that go bump in the night. A healthy storehouse of memories can get me through the “Hour of the Wolf”. We spent a year in Australia prior to arriving there on our sailboat. After my return to Canada, a little girl I had taught sent me a jar filled with gumnuts to bring me memories of the eucalyptus‑scented hills around Adelaide. Now, after another wonderful sojourn in “Oz”, I have returned to Canada for a visit.

I stepped out on the deck of our country chalet and was assailed by the unique smell of an Ontario summer; I haven’t experienced it for four years. Walking through the streets of the city where I grew up, I am on the edge of tears; faces long forgotten, feelings buried in the past, words to a popular song…all come unbidden, inspired by the fragrance of a particular plant, neighbourhood streets, the faces of passers‑by, familiar, though strangers: they are “my people”. I peruse my photo albums, caress my beloved books, forage among the cartons of memorabilia (not everyone can dig out her first corsage, grade two report card, satin christening bonnet…). There are people who “weed” mercilessly. Their space is much tidier than mine. I believe their lives are less rich in sensory stimulus.

The eight months I spent in Australia, after our arrival in 2000, have added another rich layer of “remembrance” to my onion‑like existence. I love that “sunburnt country”. We explored the red soil of the Outback, marveled at vast expanse of golden beaches, and partook of the temptations of vibrant cities. But, as always, the high point was the interaction with so many warm, memorable people. I started a Book Club, whose group dynamics amazed us all; a random gathering of women clicked in a magic way. They continue to interact while I have gone off into the sunset…but we will keep in touch. One Book Club Buddy took me to her Creative Writing Class. The group dynamics of that first meeting were another fortuitous accident; wonderful products were inspired by the invitational environment and creativity exercises.

Back in Canada, as summer’s heady perfume gives way to wood smoke and autumn leaves, I will have time for reflection and synthesis. Reviewing my videos, reading the accounts we wrote as we went along, cross‑checking them with my personal journals and talking about our experiences with kindred spirits, I will try to make sense of it all. I’ll look for patterns and meanings gleaned from the commonplace, as well as the exotic experiences we had along the way. That voyage, of course, was metaphysical as well as actual. Inevitably we learn much about ourselves along the way. As I reflect, I’ll pause from time to time, undo the top of my “memory jar”, inhale the scent of gumnuts and remember Australia and dear friends.

* Findley, Timothy “Pages From a Writer’s Notebook” Canada