Family History and Sensory Memory

We were driving through the Near Westside of Indianapolis, past several Mexican grocery stores and restaurants on our way home one afternoon. My husband was driving and he suddenly turned his head to get a better look at one little restaurant. “I remember going there once,” he said. “It smelled like warm corn tortillas inside.”

 Homemade tortillas Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley, Flickr

Homemade tortillas Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley, Flickr

Warm corn tortillas. “How long ago was this?” I asked him. “Oh, probably, fifteen years ago.” Fifteen years ago, yet the scent of warm corn tortillas still stuck in his mind when he caught a fleeting glimpse of the place he hadn’t been to in that long.

Our senses are what make up our memories. We experience the world through our five senses, and our five senses are what makes an impression on us to form memories, even obscure memories like the scent of warm corn tortillas.

I overheard my mother telling my husband at dinner not too long ago about how much time she and her siblings used to spend at the drive-in theater when they were young, and I remembered her telling me once that the sound of tires driving over gravel always brought back those memories. That sound was inextricably tied to those summer nights at the drive-in movies. 

I asked my dad once if he had ever met his great-uncle Ralph. He had, but he was so young that what stood out in his memory about that visit was it was the first time he had ever had iced coffee. He’d never known coffee could be iced before, and the smell and taste and novelty of iced coffee was what he remembered most. Even in his fifties, that sensory memory came right back.

Children are so in tune with their senses. They may not realize that the familiar smells and tastes and sounds they are growing up around will come back to them in the form of memories later in life and take them right back to certain times and places in their childhood. I remember going on a walk in our neighborhood with my then four-year-old daughter. Someone must have had a wood-burning stove nearby because the neighborhood smelled of wood smoke. My daughter caught the scent and piped up that it smelled like camping. We hadn’t been camping in months, but she smelled that wood smoke that night, and immediately associated it with her memories of camping.


 The smell of a campfire can bring back so many memories 

The smell of a campfire can bring back so many memories 

Senses tie us to our past in ways we don’t even realize. I love the animated movie Anastasia, where it’s the scent of peppermint that ultimately brings back the memories that were lost for so long. No other prodding or questioning did it – just the simple scent of peppermint. Perhaps it’s the senses we need to tap into when we do our deepest family history research. What smells did you grow up around? What was your favorite meal that your mother cooked for you when you were young? What did she make for you when you were sick? What music was your favorite growing up? An old song not listened to for a long time can bring back a wave of memories. I’m no psychologist, but I can see that somehow music is built into our brain waves at certain times of our lives, that only those songs can resurrect certain memories in the most precise way. For instance, only when I listen to the song Leia’s Theme from the Star Wars soundtracks can I remember the way I felt on my first trip to the Smoky Mountains in 5th grade, and understand the depth of what the Appalachian Mountains have meant to me over the years. That song brings it all back and I feel the closest to what I felt then only when I listen to that song.

Memories are complex. They are the fullness of our lives, joys and sorrows and everything in between. When exploring our family’s collective memories, using the senses brings up so much depth and life to our history, but we must understand the complexity of humanity as we do our research, especially with our children. Sensitivity to the human soul we seek is always a necessity when we are researching our family. We’re more than just a pedigree, we’re living, breathing people with a past – a past that is worth remembering. When we remember that our relatives and our ancestors lived and moved and breathed and experienced the world around them with their five senses just the same as we do, we discover the beauty and intricacy of family history, and appreciate every one of them in the way they deserve to be appreciated.

To preserve your own family's memories with your children, subscribe to our newsletter to download your free copy of Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide