Monday, 18 January 2021

Sweet Memories

I began a writing course at the beginning of January. It’s about writing Creative Non-Fiction – essays, memoirs, biographies, travel stories, etc.  A lot of creative non-fiction relies very much on the author’s memories.

Memory is such an amorphous thing. Somewhere in your brain you store up a picture, or a smell, or a sound. Then, when you experience something in real life, like the soft fur of a kitten, the smell of bread baking or tomato soup simmering on the stove, or  the sound of the wind in the trees or a train whistle in the distance, suddenly you are carried away, over to that part of the brain that has stored that little snippet of colour, touch, smell or sound. And surrounding that snippet is a whole story.

The smell of onions simmering in a pan, for instance, makes me think of hachee, a dish my mom sometimes made at the end of the week, when the roast that began at Sunday dinner was reduced to a few scraps in the bottom of the pan, along with a cupful or so of rich brown gravy. She would slice half a dozen onions very thinly and throw them into the pan, letting them simmer for hours. Half an hour before supper, she peeled a big potful of potatoes and put them on to boil. There would probably be some green beans taken from the freezer cooking in another pan. The whole house was filled with the aroma of simmering onions, and the windows steamed up from the cooking.  Hachee was a winter dish to warm your bones after a trudge from school through the snow and icy cold (uphill both ways, of course!) A steamy kitchen and delicious smells created a warm welcome home. Later, around the supper table, we would ladle those beefy onions over chunks of potato and tell mom she should make this every day... it was so delicious. Mom was smart, though: too much of a good thing doesn’t make it special anymore.

And then there’s the memory that arose last week when I spilled a little bit of strawberry jello powder on the counter. Without even thinking about it, I licked my finger, then stuck it into the little hill of flavoured jello and popped it into my mouth. My brain lit up: it’s Lik-m-Aid all over again. I am 9 years old,  living in a neighbourhood with lots of kids. We travel in packs, seeing what kind of interesting adventures we can get into. Mr. B is working in the garden, and when we show up, he unexpectedly pulls a quarter from his pocket and tells us to go spend it. A quarter is a huge treasure; sometimes parents will let us take an empty little pop bottle to the store and spend the 2 cent refund; on a really good day, we might get a big bottle, which will give us 5 cents, but that usually means you have to share the refund with your sister. But a quarter, a whole quarter, to spend amongst the four of us? Unheard of.

Of course, we head down to the Fat Man on the Corner. (I think his name was Allen, but we all called him -- not to his face -- the fat man, because he was.) He has a tiny convenience store in what should have been the living room of his house, and on the counter by the cash register, are big bottles of candy: jawbreakers in a vast array of colours, jelly beans, suckers, humbugs, wax lips, candy necklaces, double-bubble gum, taffy individually wrapped in wax paper, Twizzlers in black and cherry, and packets of Lik-m-Aid, which was nothing more than flavoured coloured sugar. Unfortunately, I have no photo of that store or the Fat Man, but this scene looks a bit familiar.

The Fat Man pulls out a tiny brown paper bag for each of us while we hem and haw over the choices. He never seems to be impatient, but once we’ve picked something, we can’t change our mind, so it’s important to get it right the first time. Do we get a one-inch jawbreaker for 2 pennies, which will last for a long time – the bonus is that layers of different colours are revealed as you suck on it – or do we get 3 much smaller gumballs for the same amount of money? Lik-m-Aid was a good choice because it could last for a very long time and it was sharable. It was often sold in packets of four flavours, side by side, so 4 friends could buy one packet and each would get a flavour: grape, orange, lime or cherry. 


Once you’d argued or traded your way to your favourite flavour, you all ripped open your packet, licked your finger, and stuck it in. Before long, your finger and your lips revealed your choice – green lips and fingertips were pretty spectacular! Later, Lik-m-Aids came in single packets which included a stick to lick. Your fingers stayed flesh-coloured.

Clutching our bags, we’d make our way to a back yard or playground and check out our riches, savouring the goodies one at a time. A trip to the Fat Man on the Corner could keep you out of an adult’s hair for many hours, so there may have been a method to Mr. B’s generosity.

After a jello-inspired trip down memory lane, imagine my delight a few days later when I walked into The Windmill, a store carrying Dutch supplies, and found a box of Cherry flavoured Lik-m-Aid on the counter. “Postdated,” read the sign. “Free. Help Yourself.” I did not need a second invitation, and in my favourite flavour, too. They’ve changed the name and the graphics, but in fine print, it tells you they used to be called Lik-m-Aid. They’re new and improved: now the stick is a candy stick, so after you’re finished licking up all the sugar, you can chow down on the stick. I must confess, I did use my finger for a while, for old times sake!

 One thing I learned in my course is that memory is notoriously unreliable. You are so sure of something that lives in your memory, but it turns out that you have actually created a story around the little snippet stored in your brain and the story may not be true at all.

I’m pretty sure that in the case of Lik-em-Aid, I’m not making it up. I have the red finger to prove it!

PS: I found this photo of my sister and me licking giant suckers gifted to us by visitors. We were living on the top floor of an old mansion that had been converted into apartments. It was steaming hot that summer, and we used to sit out on the fire escape outside our kitchen window, where this photo was taken. Oh, the memories! I'm glad I have the photos to confirm what I think I remember.