Memories from long ago are often sparked by the simplest things experienced now. A visual, an action, a scent, a sound, a song, or a combination of many of those elements, and suddenly, in a flash of mental time travel, I’m transported from today to yesterday.
Recently this phenomenon occurred three times in the same day.
That’s what I call a good day.
Conall is an athletic, exuberant and goofy dog. I’ve always said he (and before him, my malamute Meadow) has a sense of humor, but that’s hard to explain; you have to see him in action to grasp just how his behaviors are done purposefully to make me laugh, timed so that I’ll see and react. He plays for his audience of one: me.
There’s a certain trail in the forest near home that was designed by mountain bikers. It descends a steep hillside in a series of tight switchbacks. Each curve has a high, steeply-banked berm on the outside to keep the bikers from flying off the the trail. Conall often cuts many of the switchbacks. I laugh and call out “Cheater, cheater!” when this happens, which of course only reinforces the silly behavior. Or he’ll jump onto the lip of the berm and pose, seductively.
Heading uphill one day, Conall having playfully planted himself in the berm, I thought I’d experiment with the slow motion video option of my phone.
When Conall cheats by cutting a switchback, he lurks next to the trail above or below where he cheated until Finn and I come around the proper way, jumping from the undergrowth back onto the trail to resume his lead, head and tail held high, amused at his own joke. When he did this a couple days ago, I instantly thought of my earlier dogs Meadow and Maia.
Switchback cutting is the exact behavior Meadow adopted years ago, but in her case, she would pounce with play growls on big sister Maia, the “rules girl” who never cheated the trails and instead stayed in front of me as we made our way through the elbow of the switchback.
Conall tries a similar playfulness with Finn, who, like Maia before him, follows the trail rules – and me – and rarely takes Conall’s bait for a game of chase. But sometimes Conall gets lucky.
Conall’s cheating on this particular switchbacky trail always makes me think of Meadow, and Maia’s reaction to her cheating, and all the fun I had running trails with those girls.
Not far from that bit of switchbacking trail is another section that meanders through big trees on a gentle downhill. Conall loves this stretch. He loves any downhill, accelerating and dashing ahead as I call out, “Zoom!” He’s a speed demon. (Finn used to be as well, but at 13, I’m grateful he’s able to still run with us at any speed.) Toward the end of that same run where Conall cheated the switchbacks, his zooming down through this other section of trail, following the packed-snow trail’s winding path through the trees as if they were slalom poles, sparked memories of a happy time in my childhood.
My brothers and I were lucky, growing up in the Seattle area in the 1960s when our school district sponsored a ski school. Every Saturday morning during winter ski season – late December through March – my father would drive us to the school buses that took us to the ski resort for our lessons, a sixty-minute drive away. He would be there to pick us up again around 5:00 pm, exhausted, hungry and happy. Most winter Sundays, Dad would drive us up for another day of skiing because he also enjoyed it and we kids could never get enough. I suspect my mother, who wasn’t a skier, enjoyed having all of us out of her hair for most of the weekend.
Loving skiing as much as my family did meant great anticipation as winter approached each year. We started paying attention to weather forecasts. In the 1960s a Seattle TV station had a weatherman – Bob Cram – who was also a cartoonist, and his funny creations often included skiers, so we were fans. Every November we would gather together in front of the TV to watch with rapt attention Warren Miller’s latest annual ski movie. His scenes from the West’s best ski areas, featuring its best skiers and great narration, always worked us into a fever for the upcoming ski season. We would check our ski gear and clothes, and beg for something newer and better as Christmas gifts. (How my parents kept four growing kids in downhill ski gear, from lace-up boots and cable bindings on wood skis to buckle boots and metal skis, not to mention goggles, hats, gloves and jackets, I’ll never know.) We’d do exercises to strengthen our ankles and legs. And sometimes we would take our ski poles out to the vacant, wooded lot next door where we had created a narrow trail through the undergrowth. We would pretend to slalom ski down the slope, through the close-growing tree trunks, running and hopping with assists from our poles, leaning our shoulders in as we carved turns like our Olympic hero Billy Kidd.
As I watched Conall race down through the trees on our snowy trail recently – he actually accelerated for maximum speed! – I was instantly transported back to those happy days of running with ski poles through the treed lot next door in anticipation of ski season, and later, actually racing through a slalom course on icy, rutted snow, trying hard to make it through the final gate without falling. (I still have the trophies I earned at end-of-season races in junior high school.)
The joy I know Conall experiences as he dashes through the trees at full speed, banking the curves and cutting close to the trees, equals that of my childhood self, both of us racing as fast as our legs will carry us.
It’s thrilling. Why wouldn’t a dog enjoy it?
Apples and Crackers
After the snowy trail run that prompted such fun memories of dogs cheating and slalom racing, I was slicing an apple for an afternoon snack. I placed the apple upright on a second-hand china plate. My right hand held the paring knife as my left kept the apple steady. As I started carefully slicing the apple in half, my eyes focused on the shape of my hands, my fingers, and more particularly, an indentation in my left-hand middle fingernail.
A thought shook me like an earthquake: I’m looking at my father’s hands.
My father’s fingernail.
Memories overwhelmed me.
First, my entire apple eating ritual is an homage to my father. I have saltine crackers ready to eat with the apple because that’s how my father taught me. He showed me how to slice the apple into quarters, removing the seeds, core and stem. Take a bite of apple, followed immediately by a bite of crackers, and chew them together. Repeat until the apple’s gone.
Simple, yet delicious.
(After my father died, while researching my book I learned he shared this ritual for eating apples with his colleagues in Boeing’s Flight Test. Apples and crackers were staples in their on-board box lunches. He also showed them how to use saltines to soak up any remaining dressing of a Caeser salad. He and I both loved saltines. Is it any wonder that when asked what my favorite food is, my answer is always: crackers.)
Noticing the ridge and furrow on my fingernail sparked a more bittersweet memory.
When I was in college, I took a class about genetics. I learned that there are certain traits that are clearly passed from one parent to their child. One was the appearance of fingernails.
In 2009, as my father was nearing the end of his life, he needed help with many aspects of his personal hygiene. I trimmed his fingernails and toenails for him, an abrupt lesson in how the circle of life starts with parents caring for helpless children and often ends with those same children offering similar care for their increasingly helpless parents.
I had always noted the similarity between our hands and nails, but while giving my father a manicure one day, I pointed out how he and I both had a ridge and furrow in the nail of our left middle finger. He said his seemed to become more pronounced as he aged.
Since then, my own middle finger ridge and furrow have also become more obvious. And every time I look at that nail, or run a fingertip across the ridge, I think of my father. It has become my talisman, like the thunderheads that also always remind me of him.
As I prepared my apple and added saltines to the plate, watching my hands do something so normal, so routine, I saw in my mind’s eye my father’s hands doing the same chore. He would often cut apples and place the quarters and crackers on a plate for us to snack on when I visited him. I remembered that conversation he and I shared about the ridge and furrow as I gently clipped and shaped his nails, alarmed at how soft and fragile his skin had become, how his hands shook with a slight tremor. He was frail. Old.
Watching my own hands handling the apple, so similar in appearance to his, I felt connected to him again, all these years after he passed, in a way that rarely happens anymore.
I felt grateful that the apple and crackers granted me those few minutes, thrown so vividly into yesterday, spending time again with my father.
The smallest details can pack the biggest emotional impact.
Feature image: Conall posing on one the trail switchback berms, January 11, 2021.