On your way to the best years of your life
Everyone’s banging on their gongs
The sooner you leave the sooner you’re home
Back in Massachusetts
To your golden age where they tuck you in at night
You didn’t see it coming…
–Guster, Homecoming King
My sisters and I had been running the short route from my Auntie’s house in Plymouth, Massachusetts down to the little state park, where the fresh water mixes with the sea water in the marsh for several days, but it was only on my own that I’d finally caught a gigantic whiff of the slightly pungent, nostalgic smell of the sea. As it filled my lungs, the lyrics above sailed out of my ipod, and it all took me back to those summers on Cape Cod spent in damp, little wooden shacks with my grandparents, building sandcastles with my cousins, and eating off paper plates at picnic tables, the scent of the sea still fresh on us, swimsuits still damp, and sand caked to our sunburnt bodies.
My grandparents, my mom and my Auntie, and probably their grandparents, all have similar memories, which is why, despite the lack of charm and space in the cabins, we went back summer after summer to be on the Cape. When my Auntie drove me down to Falmouth on my recent trip to Massachusetts to catch an obligatory glimpse of the seashore, I asked her if those rustic cabins are still there on Cape Cod, and she said that despite plans threatening to tear them down to build something more luxurious, they’re still there as far as she knows.
When I was in the states I watched a bit of television, and I kept hearing young parents talk about intentionally creating experiences that would make memories for their children. But it struck me as I was running up that hill in Plymouth, catching glimpses of the ocean, smelling the sea air, and feeling those memories of the Cape wafting back, that memories are anything but carefully crafted. Instead, they’re the stuff of generational rhythms, habits, and tradition, which is practically the opposite of willpower.
You conform to tradition, because you can’t make any choice otherwise, because those habits that your family formed for you are deep in your bones, and so memories are by nature, quite beyond us. They come from the stories that have always been told, before us and about us, photos that our minds can’t remember, but we commit to, because they make sense, and we feel we belong right there beside all the ones we love with the good and the bad.
This isn’t to say that new traditions can’t be made, but that the ones that last are usually anything but consciously rehearsed. Which explains why I worried that those cabins might be torn down, or that I feel a tug to the ocean, when most of my childhood was actually spent closer to the lakes and plains in Wisconsin. Memories aren’t learned like the stuff of letters and numbers, but breathed, smelled, and lived in, like life itself.