It is not at all uncommon for our senses, particularly smell, to bring us back to places or times in our memory. Anytime I smell just-rained-on cement, for example, I feel like I'm in Portland. There is a certain industrial rubber flooring+old rainwater smell that puts me in my freshman dorm at Reed. The sting of camphor in my nose gets me feeling like a sick kid again. These things are, I think, pretty typical.
It is harder to be pulled into memory by visual objects. They're less specific, and more universal, I think. Once in a while you see someone whose smile or head tilt reminds you of someone you used to know, but actually objects are less memory invoking.
Except for a few. And of the few, for me, is a certain kind of red and black wool shirt or jacket. Where I grew up, wearing that type of shirt was almost a sign of manhood--certainly a sign of a certain kind and class of manhood. I remember no time when my step dad didn't have one of those shirts. When I waitressed in high school, the morning regulars who came in for coffee and cinnamon rolls before going to cut trees or run machinery or herd cows often sat in a circle of those shirts. During hunting season, those shirts abounded, being both bright enough to serve as safety gear and warm enough to stand between expectant hunters and cold morning air.
Last time I was home, I pulled a very old example of that type of shirt out of the closet in what was formerly my bedroom. The cuffs were very frayed and the elbows were patched with old flannel. Looking at it, I was momentarily puzzled--it was far too small to be my step dad's, and I didn't recognize it as one of his anyway. Looking closer, it occurred to me to whom it had belonged--my mother's father, who died in 1984. If I crawl back as far as I can into the recesses of my early childhood memory, I can just see him wearing it. Of all of the possible mementos to keep of him, my mom chose that shirt.
Twice in the last few days, I have seen this style of shirt where it doesn't belong. This morning I saw one in a window display at Buffalo Exchange, a store I don't go into anymore, because they are too good to even consider reselling my non-hip clothes. A couple of days ago, I saw a guy on the street wearing one, along with chunky glasses, a fedora, and pegged pants. No. No no no. My memories are not your fashion accessories, dammit!
Whenever anything I remember from my childhood gets twisted into hipness, I get annoyed. The modern cult of Johnny Cash drives me nuts. I loathe haut cuisine updates on country food--chicken fried steak is not meant to be made with expensive cuts of meat, and it should come with fried potatoes, not a gratin. Now this, the iconic red and black plaid wool shirt, taken from its roots in a certain class and geography and made just one more piece of ironically hip clothing.
Which, when it comes down to it, is what is happening to the entire culture in which I was raised, at least in the culture in which I now live. There is no real respect for the conventions, the ideals, or even the food and clothing of country people. Instead, there is this grim twisting of everything that was simple into something ironic. There was nothing ironic about the red and black wool plaid shirts the men I grew up around wore--they were there to keep out the cold, not to make a statement. Now I live here, I don't understand the statement, and I'm left increasingly cold.