I’ve often heard people talk about how powerful memories are. How a particular sound or smell can bring back a memory as clear and fresh as if it were happening right now. Something happened to me just the other day …
Standing in a coffee shop on a Tuesday morning, I need a jolt of caffeine and something to eat. My stomach is grumbling as my eyes slide over the muffins (delicious, but really are just tiny cakes full of calories and sugar), scones (dry tiny cakes), pastries (tiny cakes with frosting), and oatmeal. I think to myself, “Seriously, they have oatmeal here?” Before I can fully process this, the customer in front of me orders the oatmeal. I must have accidentally absorbed the suggestion into my subconscious, because I heard myself also asking for oatmeal,while another voice in my head saying, “No! No! Get the scone!” But it was too late. The fresh-faced, 12-year old working behind the counter had already popped the top, and was filling it with boiling water. Oh god, this can’t be good.
I politely take my oatmeal and my grande drip half-caff and stagger, I mean walk, back to my car. After taking a deep, appreciative gulp of the JUICE OF THE GODS, I set it aside and contemplate the container of oatmeal. (It’s 6 a.m. and way too early to be responsible for my own decisions.) There’s no way to open this but slowly and suspiciously. The first thing I notice is that it’s kind of gray. It’s gray. I see some suspicious lumps, and poke at it with my spoon. I vaguely remember being asked something about raisins and walnuts. Walnuts are fine. I mean, I don’t think they should be floating around in your breakfast, but in general, I don’t have anything against walnuts.
But. I hate raisins. I especially hate HOT raisins.
Before I can fully process that there are dried-out bits of old grapes lurking in the gray goo, I’m hit with the smell.
Let me rephrase. Picture a flash of white light, followed by a long, psychedelic tunnel, and the camera zooms in on a 6-year-old girl. A blond-haired, pigtailed, little girl, sitting on a log, next to a camp stove, in some damn campground or other. She’s sitting there, staring forlornly at the contents of a metal “camping bowl” and poking it with that weird metal “camping fork”. It’s the summer of 1972 when camping out was actually an option.
Mother sees her poking at it, and says, “Eat.”
Daughter replies, “But it’s gray.”
Mother replies, “Eat it. It’s good for you.”
Daughter replies, “It has black lumps.”
Mother sighs, “Those are raisins. They’re good for you, too. Eat it.”
The older, so-superior, sister chimes in, “I love raisins!”
Daughter makes a face at so-superior sister, looks back at the bowl and says, “But it’s gray.”
Father enters the scene, looks at the contents of the bowl and says: “It’s Goddamnoatmeal. You’ve had it a hundred times before; you’ll have it a hundred times again. Eat it or starve, kid.”
End of scene as I flash back to the present. “Goddamnoatmeal.” I had forgotten about Goddamnoatmeal. I reflect that, while I travel heavily for a living now, I have long since gotten used to actual hotels, regular hot showers, and gourmet breakfast buffets. Well, maybe not gourmet. But at least few things on the buffet are gray. And I can guarantee you, not once have I ever been presented with Goddamnoatmeal.
As I ponder the difference between then and now, I am taken by a second flashback. It’s now 1990. My sister, who has likewise grown up and is now not (quite) so-superior, has taken me with her to study a petroglyph site in New Mexico. (NOTE: Petroglyphs are the rock carvings you find throughout North and South America, left by the Native Americans who lived in the area. Think of it as ancient graffiti, or what happens when a culture doesn’t invent the Xbox.)
This particular site is remote. As in, “Why-didn’t-we-turn-left-at-Albuquerque” remote. There is not a Sheraton or even a Motel 6 within 200 miles. So in a borrowed pick up truck, with borrowed camping gear, and a breezy promise of “You’ll have a good time!”, I’m once again sitting on a log, next to a camp stove (at the crack of friggin’ dawn!), staring into a bowl of … you guessed it, Goddamnoatmeal.
Me: “Oh my god.”
Sister: “It’s oatmeal.”
Me: “Yes, I see that. Oh my god.”
Sister: “I put in raisins. You like raisins.”
Me: “No, you like raisins. I hate raisins.”
Sister: “It’s good for you. Eat it.”
Me: “It’s Goddamnoatmeal. I can’t believe you made Goddamnoatmeal.”
Sister: “It’s what we have for breakfast.” She pauses here waiting for a response that doesn’t come. “It’s all we have for breakfast.”
Me: “It’s gray.”
Sister: “It’s either this or you forage for worms. Eat it or starve, kid.”
End of scene. I’m still sitting in my car, still poking at Starbuck’s reincarnation of Goddamnoatmeal, when I realize that I ran, but I could not hide. It has come for me. Goddamnoatmeal found me. And, I realize that this gray goo is a weird thread that runs through many of my strongest memories. And most of my best stories.
Goddamnoatmeal and a green Chevy van…