by Winona Winkler Wendth
On November 22, 2013, I rolled into a familiar parking space. I had been sitting there fifty years ago when an announcer crackled and hissed through an AM car radio that the president was dead.
This time, I sat in my car and looked across the campus where decades before I had attended school. The school had changed radically: the campus was bare, not only because of the tundra-like landscape, but also because the school had closed—no students, no teachers, only a single groundskeeper. Near desolation. But the essence of that place had remained: global warming notwithstanding, the air was as cold as it had been; the odor of early winter was still in the air, the ground frigid but not frozen; the sky was overcast. I could smell November—the end of the year, but not quite.
A sense of place is not so much a combination of memories and retrofitted significance as it is a sensibility, a re-creation of a moment that carries odor and temperature, texture, and a light peculiar to that place, regardless of what might have happened there. Sometimes, these sensory flashbacks come to us uninvited; sometimes we can encourage them. But we have little control over what they do with us.
My grandmother followed me while I walked past a bakery in Prague, long after she was no longer on this planet; the ghost of my mother was at my shoulder, not long ago when I sat by a wood fire in New Hampshire and caught a whiff of stale coffee reheating rooms away on a stove; damp straw almost always takes me back to the Orient and a tiny tatami-floored home crawling with cats and babies; just looking at a bottle of Mateus gives me a headache—not because it’s cheap booze, but because, entirely sober, I slipped on an icy stair, hit my head, and suffered a week-long headache around the Christmas I had discovered the stuff; sometimes, my back hurts, too—muscle memories of responsible porch shoveling through the remainder of that winter.
I must write about the buzz, the slip, the ache, not the endless, emotionally frozen months in Wentworth, New Hampshire.
A mouthful of the salty, mono-textured foodstuff that is a mainstay of institutional cafeterias takes me to my school lunches and then to next period’s algebra class with Mr. Wateverizhamewuz. And the boy whose name I’ll never forget who sat next to me, reeking of Jade East and failing the course. I must write about the boy, the cheap cologne, the scribbles on the desk in the hard-chaired classroom, not about feeling damaged by a romantic mistake.
Sometimes, the sting of those tiny, icy snowflakes typical of New England winters reminds me that I’m old and tired and sends me back into the house; but sometimes it invites me back into my childhood and for a few moments, at least, depending on half a dozen other impressions, I have all the energy in the world.
I must write about the sting, the sharp air.
On that day in November 1963, I admit that I thought little of the president, or Dallas; I was sixteen. However overcast and chilly the moment, I was sixteen and could count on new beginnings and possibilities, including the possibility of cutting English class.
I remembered what that felt like.
This is what a writer must open herself to—that instant that speaks itself, that place whose concrete information creates, then opens a trap door and drops us into a messy accumulation of sensory memories that make us who we are.
Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished. Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.