A Sense of Memory
“You have a terrible memory,” Tanya, my wife, says.
She’s right. Unlike her, and several of our friends, I have trouble remembering the chronology and details of our lives. Sometimes, I can’t even remember what we cooked for dinner the night before. While Tanya can reference the words and discussions that we’ve had with friends five years earlier, I have trouble remembering the gatherings altogether.
Biographical information is referred to as episodic memory, the data recorded from our personal experiences: a hard day at the office, for example, or a night out with friends. The neurological substrates of memory involve a complex interplay between the cortices, hippocampi, basal ganglia and other structures. These networks encode our everyday senses and experiences into a dynamic tapestry. And while there’s a large and evolving body of research regarding the cellular and circuital basis of episodic memory, it remains mysterious and unclear.
For me, it has always felt that time marches quickly. Often, the past feels elusive — a vast ocean that leaves seafoam in its wake. We planned to depart our home in Baltimore when the worldwide pandemic struck. Normally, such a transition would inspire nostalgia and self-reflection, conveniently aided by visits to restaurants and stores throughout the city that defined our young adulthood. But we were trapped in our apartment in early 2020. We were limited to outdoor walks or neighborhood drives. And carry-out. Unable to bid a proper farewell, I could only reflect on my memories. But I struggled to remember the layout of our first apartment (was the kitchen west-facing?) or the time and place where we first had Valentine’s Day dinner.
“Was there a time your parents came to town and stayed with us?” I asked.
“That was in 2016,” Tanya recalled quickly.
For me, our twelve years in Baltimore resembled a cacophony of noises or a mixed up kaleidoscope. I felt an almost desperate need to organize and catalog these fragments. We began revisiting our favorite parks and ordering dishes from beloved restaurants, giving our oldest daughter, Lisa, a chance to play outside and re-sample our favorite foods. I noticed that while Lisa ran around the bronze Cupid fountain in Mount Vernon at dusk, I’d see flashes of our wedding photos by the Washington Monument, five years earlier. When we picked up styrofoam-packed carryout from Fell’s Point, I’d remember the greasy taste of potato boxtys during late night happy hour at Slainte. We drove past Pigtown, and I’d hear the phantom melody of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” under the blood-red stained glass windows of the Mobtown Ballroom.
Bao is a simple food: fatty minced pork and vegetables wrapped in dough, steamed in a metal pot or fried in a cast iron skillet. To me, bao contain memories of my childhood in the Chicago suburbs: of my maternal grandma steaming frozen xiǎolóngbāo on sweltering summer afternoons. They remind me of the first time I brought Tanya to meet my parents, when we’d all waited in line at Kang Kang Shau May in Los Angeles.
Now, I think of how much Lisa loves “juicy bao bao,” watching her bite a small hole in the thin wrap before slurping up the gravy.
Our search for delicacies during our final months in Baltimore yielded many such treasures. Gooey Nutella cookies and bitter Vietnamese-iced coffee from the dingy dark-lit Bun Shop, where I’d spent years studying during my medical residency. A savory “farm-to-table” apricot and chicken stew from Woodberry Kitchen, where we celebrated my 23rd birthday. Oversized waffles and brackish goulash from the diner where Tanya and I almost broke up in 2012. I found that in each of these foods, I “tasted” my memories — a sweet and honeyed reminder of our lives together.
My memories live not only in flavors, but in sounds. At night, Lisa falls asleep to the soft airy music of Johannes Brahms or Frederic Chopin. With the regularity of a metronome, her eyes will begin to gently close and her body will curl into a cat-like ball. Holding her and listening to the opening octaves of the “F-minor Ballade,” I am transported to the Music Institute of Chicago, where I’d practice on the Steinway piano. I hear the octaves progress into multiple thematic transformations, ending with the piece’s famously tumultuous coda. While listening to Beethoven’s “Waldstein” piano sonata, I remember playing it in my last solo performance as a graduating high school senior, not knowing that my parents would depart Chicago shortly afterwards.
Lisa also loves music. Her favorite songs are from Disney’s “Frozen” or “Moana.” She listens to them for hours, singing along with Elsa while dancing with Olaf the Snowman. Even as a toddler, the words and melodies have embedded themselves in her auditory cortex. She associates it with some of her happiest moments, sitting in her mother’s lap while singing and throwing her fists in the air. At bedtime, she requests “Dinah Sings, Andre Plays,” a 1960 album of pop standards that is her bedtime “lullaby.” Sometimes, she croons along to “Sleepy Time Girl.”
When I touch piano keys these days, I struggle to play. Ten years of absence from practice has left me with a diminished technique. My touch-memory has faded. Reflecting upon my medical practice, I can testify to the importance of tactile memory. When we place epidural catheters for women in labor, we learn how to appreciate “loss-of-resistance.” It is the unique, satisfactory pop when a needle passes through the spine’s ligamentum flavum and into the fat and vessel-filled epidural space. When we inject fluoroscopic-guided facets for arthropathic back pain, we rely on our sense of touch and texture. It is important to detect whether our spinal needles are passing through skin, fat or muscle before hitting bone. In ventilating patients, who are too sick to breath on their own, we feel the elasticity and compliance of their often fluid-filled or scarred lungs.
In a similar vein, I remember watching Lisa learn to roll over and crawl. The pat pat of her wobbly first steps. The pitter patter of her now spry run. The whrrrrrllll of her rushing tiny blue scooter. Tactile memory may be more subconscious, but it will shape her abilities and development.
Today, I’m still surprised by Tanya’s distinct ability to remember events. Perhaps our neural circuits are organized differently. We both miss Baltimore. However, I can’t always replay the events of a distant dinner date or day at work. But it’s easy for me to recall the taste of a salty Faidley’s crab cake, the dank smell of the harbor or the blare of sirens by the hospital. Through these senses, I’m reminded of the disorganization of our poorly-decorated “first” apartment, the glare of the sun-bleached Inner Harbor waterfront, the terror of my first call shift in the emergency department as an intern. I rely on them not only as “cognitive clues” to remember my life, but as a bittersweet connection to that which we’ve lost and to preserve its significance.
My grandfather, Hanbai, was born in 1922 in Shanghai. He died shortly after I turned 18. He was an allopathically-trained neurologist who defied the ideological pressure of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In a decade when Western “bourgeoisie” influences were forbidden, he played his clandestine violin at night and taught his children to speak English. He was a formative caretaker in my childhood. He took me to school, taught me to read and regaled me with stories about the past.
While my episodic memories of our “adventures” together are fading, I am still reminded of his influence. When buses pass by, I’m reminded of his cantankerous lectures on the evils of communism on the “423,” my route to elementary school. When I listen to Dmitry Kabalevsky’s “Variations in A Minor,” I’m reminded of how he’d rhythmically tap his feet and encourage me while I practiced piano. In my favorite Korean coffee shop, Dooby’s in Baltimore’s midtown, I’m reminded of his love for dry spicy chili paste and McDonald’s coffee (and his own terrible attempts to prepare sandwiches made with bologna and salad dressing). When I flip through his wallet of faded business cards, a “rolodex” of contacts who helped my father when he first came to the United States, I’m reminded of his love and hope that his descendants would have a better and freer life.
I’ve come to appreciate how memories reside not only in quiescent storage, but linger in the aftertaste of bourbon or the scratchiness of a vinyl LP. They dwell in the gustatory hairs of the taste buds, Merkel cells of skin and olfactory receptors of nasal epithelium. When Lisa gets older, she may forget her first daycare, her trips to the Seminary Oaks playground, or her first post-Covid playdate. But when she falls while learning to ride a bike, she’ll reach out to catch the ground, accustomed to the muscle-memory of learning to ride her tiny blue scooter. When she tastes coronation chicken salad with sweet apricot marmalade, she might recall our many trips to the Baltimore Corner Pantry (our favorite local British cafe). When she hears the somnolent nocturnes of Frederic Chopin or languid songs of Dinah Shore, she’ll remember us rocking her to sleep against the Baltimore night sky.
Like certain aromas and foods that are redolent of my grandpa’s devotion and warmth, I hope that Lisa can also draw from her sensorial tableau when we are gone. Her episodic memories of us will eventually dim, but she can look to her senses as a neuropsychological connection to her past. I’d want for her to bite into a “juicy bao bao” and be transported to our sun-filled East Baltimore apartment. I’d like for her to feel her mother’s tender embrace in her favorite songs. And I’d smile if, after every stumble and fall, she’ll remember that we are always beside her.
© Yian Chen
Yian Chen is an assistant clinical professor of anesthesiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. He previously lived in Baltimore City and wrote nonfiction for a literary magazine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.