The Persistence of Memory
4 November 2019

Upbound, Lake Huron

It is not a truth universally acknowledged that the greatest smell in the world is the pad of a Labrador’s paw, but it should be. I learned of this when I was young, on the cold winter mornings when my sister and I would tramp sleepily down the stairs in our dressing gowns and pajamas. The dining room/kitchen had two heating vents on the floor and while my mother prepared breakfast we would each take one, a process which involved dislodging a family pet. The dog was preferable as she would surrender her place graciously whereas the cat would spar viciously for position. Once our vent was secured, we would lie, knees and cheeks to the floor, what is called ‘Child’s Pose’ in Yoga, and wait, warm air billowing beneath us. Often our golden lab Simba (named long before the Lion King and meaning Lion in Swahili) would sidle up to me and I would put my right arm around her and bring her in close, her nose to my nose, a paw curled beneath my chin. And that smell would announce itself with each inward breath I drew, dry and earthy, musty and warm. Even today I will press my nose into the base of a dog’s paw and breathe deeply as a vintner might before an uncorked bottle of wine.

​Today it’s quiet on Lake Huron. The sky above is porcelain still and pale as a Bronte sister’s brow. It is the first time in a week that the wind has dropped below 20knots and though the temperature still hovers around zero, when you remove the wind from the equation it becomes almost pleasant out here. Before winter became a chore, snow was something I used to play in. So many sensations and memories are awakened in this season. The feel of my jacket zipper against my lips, clammy hands in damp mittens, salt-rimmed puddles on the tiles by the front door, socks balling up and coming off as I remove my boots, of snow pants and snowballs and slush in the street. And then there was the time I felled the school bully with a chunk of ice hastily thrown in self-defense. He crumpled like an accordion into a bank of snow, a perfect ribbon of crimson blood gushing from his temple. Terrified, I ran all the way home thinking I’d killed him, and I hid in the basement under the computer desk and waited for the police to come and take me away. They didn’t. He wasn’t dead, he just needed stitches. The next day in the principal’s office I received the requisite talking to. As I was leaving his office, moon-faced and teary, he called my name and I turned. He smiled and winked at me, which in hindsight I guess was the closest he could come professionally to giving me a high five and saying,

‘Good job Nick. You showed that little prick.’ The bully never laid a finger on me after that. Nor on anyone else in the schoolyard. I’m told he bears the scar even now.

​As I stand my watch on the navigation bridge other memories return to me. Like how after a heavy snowfall we would eat our breakfast and listen to the radio as the announcer read off which schools would be cancelled for the day. If ours was named, my sister and I would drop our spoons and whoop and holler and jump about the room in a frenzy of excitement and joy so infectious even Simba would join in and bounce along with us confusedly, aware there was cause for jubilation, but unsure what for.

Just as the sea reflects the mood of the sky, so is our present self often a reflection of our past. Our experiences, our memories good and bad, help shape the people we become, and were they a measure of wealth, then I feel I would be richer than most with mine. Proust can have his madeleines, for me it will always be a dog’s paw.

When I am old and grey,
and my memories
fall away in the breeze
like the gossamer fluff
from a dandelions head.
Let the one I retain be this:
lying on that heat vent,
cocooned in a small bubble of warm air.
The carpet’s warp and weft
prickly on my cheek.
The sound of my mum’s
ministrations in the kitchen,
of CBC radio and the cat
meowing to be fed.
The oceanic rise and fall
of the dog’s breath
humid in my ear.
The smell of her paws
and my arm around her.
Let it be known,
lest I be in any confusion at the time,
there was enough love
and happiness in that room then,
as to amply fill a lifetime.