A Madeleine Moment

As usual before a workshop, I pick up a coffee to take with me. And so it was that on a recent Sunday morning I drove the roundabout way to The Ink Spot to stop at Starbucks for my regular Americano. As I waited at the light, a young man crossed the street in front of me. Slender, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved blue pullover, he carried what could have been a journal, could have been a book.

All at once and as if coming from someplace outside me, I was taken back many, many years to a particular drive-in restaurant on a particular early summer evening when a young man, slender, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved sweater and carrying a journal approached my car.

This was my “madeleine moment,” a spontaneous and unbidden memory that came as complete and detailed as Proust’s, whose spoonful of tea-soaked cookie became Remembrance of Things Past. I was alive, back in time, a young girl going to night school, stopping for a coffee after class at a drive-in at the beach where carhops brought trays to your car. I was there, sitting in my Austin-Healy Sprite with the top-down, writing in my journal when the young man crossed the parking lot and stood beside my car. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Bill.”
Like Proust, from that sudden, involuntary memory, I experienced a deep and profound sensation of pleasure, and after that first blush of joy, a feeling of nostalgia that nearly brought tears. A whole, young summer of first love, image by image, came to me as if photographs projected onto my mind’s eye, complete with sensory details of the taste of the coffee, the nubby texture of the young man’s sweater, his blond hair, the scent of salty air from the nearby ocean.

Memories are sparked by sensory sensations. Whereas Proust’s involuntary memory came from that teaspoon taste of tea-soaked madeleine, my memory came via the sight of that slender young man with his journal. But whose memory hasn’t been awakened by the first few notes of a forgotten song? Or seduced by scent to a long ago event. Don’t have an idea for a story or stuck someplace in your current project? Write a page of “I remembers” using a sense for each memory. (“I remember hearing…” “I remember smelling…”) Use a different sense every day in a five-day writing assignment: page a day. Write from your own or your character’s POV.

On that recent Sunday, the young man passing in front of my car crossed the street and entered Starbucks. I parked and went in, too, and stood in line, three people behind him. And for the next half-hour continued to glance at him at his table several tables away from mine, as if I were taking another and another sip of cookie-laden tea, and scribbled details of images in my notebook. Even now, several days later, the remembrances continue, real and delicious, and I continue to make note of them, living again those times past.

What about you? Have you experienced a “madeleine moment” that sent you to your notebook?

11 thoughts on “A Madeleine Moment

  1. A Sighting

    I catch Dad eating breakfast at a Café, a block from my California home. As an Englishman who considered England’s green and pleasant land the only ground worth his shoes, the sighting smacks me hard, like his wallops.

    To glimpse his protruding ears and shiny baldhead surrounded by wisps of thin mousy hair regresses me to age eleven and Mum’s repulsed voice claiming Dad trimmed his hair with our bathroom nail scissors.

    Now, his uneven ‘Friar Tuck’ endears me as does his round-rimmed glasses and brown Clarks sandals, worn on summer holidays to drizzly seaside resorts. This was the only time he ever removed his socks during daylight. At night, his white feet burned and blistered by a wink of sunshine transformed to baby pink with dabs of Calamine Lotion.

    Today I notice his clothes are arranged in a thoughtful manner, not like his rumpled self, which provided Mum with sufficient ammunition to shoot bullets for an entire day. He appalled Mum. Like her, I viewed him with dull disrespect.

    The man in the café turns and catches my eye and a warm glance passes between us. I flush from his gaze and am filled with deep regret.

  2. this reminds me of a moment in Idyllwild, a few years back:

    Spring Dust, revised

    Spring is here, yet
    The snow like powdered sugar
    Dusts the trees, the bricks we laid down yesterday.
    These two yellow daffodils, with their
    White frosted dust, remind me of my mother’s
    Tangy yellow lemon bars my sister and I ate on the porch
    That sunny afternoon, when we were young.

    • Cary, I love your poem. What wonderful images/daffodils snow dusted and mother’s lemon bars. Thank you so much for posting. Beautiful.

  3. I thought that’s what I was saying, yes, the snow on the hills actually brought forth an unexpected memory followed by intense spiritual communion. Yes you can use your name with his, I read YOUR stuff.

    • thanks for your comment, Krissie. Yes, it was a sweet experience and I was so grateful to start my day that way. The incident later became part of my “Show, Don’t Tell” workshop, when we talked about using the senses to “show” in our writing.

  4. I looked at the Proust essay. Did anyone out there actually READ ALL OF THAT?????? Come on fess up, I can’t read it at all.

    • I expect that Proust and his Madeleine Moment have become sort of literary icons, like Jack Kerouac’s long scroll of paper on which he wrote “On the Road.” That is, more people know about that aspect than have actually read the book. I’ve never read “Rembrance…” that, along with a few Russian novels and “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I did finally make it through “Ulysses” with the help of a CD recording of the book being read at the same time I read it.

  5. Without number. The sound of water rushing along the pipes in my apartment reminds me that life rushes forward in one direction just like that water. Memories swim by and fill my senses. Usually I think of life in the metro when we were kids and that can spur lots and lots of stories. The cold snow on the hills (sorry, four letter word there, snow, like cold, wind, iced, etc) reminds me of the small little coal bucket I grew up in an there are tons of stories along with the pungence of coal and snow. No tea though, I’m a decaffeeholic trying to get off chocolate. Well at least some chocolate. Well sometimes.

    • Thanks for posting, Linda. Of course, I knew you would use sensory memories to fill your writing. Wonder if like me (and Proust, if I can use our names in the same sentence), you ever had that spontaneous, involuntary memory arrive unexpectedly from a sensory experience.

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