I sat on the stool at the narrow counter in the old brick building in New Orleans and stared at the wall in front of me. It was covered in signed and framed photos of the sports teams, jazz greats, movie stars and Marines who have eaten at this classic restaurant since 1938. I was at Mother’s, home of “World’s Best Baked Ham”, among other tasty claims to fame.
Nothing special to look at, it owes its longevity to its dedication to the basics—and the sense of connection to shared history that the wall of photos advertises. (The Marines began showing up on the wall because five of the original owner’s children were Marines during WWII, and the place became an honorary hangout for the “few and the proud” who passed that way.)
I looked at the pictures and realized how important they were to the atmosphere of the place. Along with Otis Redding, Jim Belushi, Carol King and those decorated Marines, I—and the tourists around me—now shared a memory: we, too, have eaten down-home food at Mother’s (and yes, that ham was terrific.)
Photographs and paintings can trigger memories the same way a fragrance or a well-loved song can. Time spent looking at a picture can jump-start rusty neural connections and spark a memory, even in someone who has lost the ability to find their way back to that memory on their own. When that happens, an opportunity is granted to be grateful for the “remembering” that has occurred, or for the feeling that is experienced when we suddenly remember an event or a person long forgotten.
There is a picture by Renoir that never fails to make me think of my Grandmother whenever I see it. Called Sisters, it shows two girls, the elder in a red hat, and a younger girl with large blue eyes and a hat covered in flowers. Grandma has been gone for many years, but seeing that painting magically and instantly transports me to her living room. I see the wallpaper with the cabbage roses behind the picture, the heavy old black telephone on the stand below, and the beautiful mirrored upright piano nearby. I remember the way you could hum anything at all and she could instantly play it. And I remember her love for me. All of that–from one picture.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For many it is a time of gathering and feasting and returning thanks to the Creator for blessings received. It is also a time of remembering and sharing memories–threads of history–that tie us to people and events from the past, and weave new connections with the loved ones right in front of us.
Don’t rush by this Thanksgiving, or fill it so full that there is no time to look back through your own history. Create new memories by spending time with the seniors in your life to look at old pictures–or listen to music that is not yours, but theirs–as a way of connecting to histories that are long gone, but maybe—just maybe—not forgotten. And then let the older ones teach you this song, so that you can sing with them and with Bob Hope, saying, “Thanks for the Memories…”