Sense memory can be an incredible gift.
You’re firmly entrenched in the present or, more likely, dwelling on something that hasn’t even happened yet, and BAM! A certain something hooks into you, and you’re dragged back to a very specific time and place.
You see, taste, smell, hear, or touch something, and a recalled memory – perhaps long forgotten – buries every other concern vying for your attention. It can last for the briefest of moments or bring back pieces of the past that stay with you for days.
I understand that not all sense memories are positive, and I don’t want to imply that they are. I’m focused on the sunnier side of all this right now, though.
My friend Tiffany posted a painting on social media the other day, and as I scrolled past, the saturated blues, tinged with hints of pinks and yellows, shook me from my empty mental state. I scrolled back, and there was Maxfield Parish’s Moonlight Night.
The piece portrays a literal and figurative frozen moment on a chilly winter evening, the moon hanging full over a small farm and farmhouse.
The blues of the dark sky are mesmerizing and perfect. (It’s no mistake that the cobalt blue pigment Parish favored in his skies is often referred to as Parrish blue.) The snow, reflecting a mixture of the yellow moon and the ultramarine sky, is thick and drifted. Hints of yellow in the barn windows suggest the day’s chores coming to an end, a warmer yellow and pink glow emanating from the farmhouse indicating the warmth of a wood stove. A towering silhouette – a tall pine – breaks the sky, obscuring the perfect curve of the moon.
I sat and consumed Parish’s work, allowed myself to be transported back to my own version of this scene nearly 40 years ago.
I arrive on a brittle evening in late January or early February. Probably early February. I’m thinking about the Valentine’s Day cards Ma just bought for me to give out in school a few days from now.
The snowy barn driveway beneath my barn boots is slick from plowing. I run with all the power a seven-year-old can muster, then plant my feet and slide, propelled by the momentum I’ve created. Somehow doing this without falling. My little sister follows along, trying to replicate my movements.
Above, the evening sky stretches out across the Lamoille Valley from Johnson to Jeffersonville, its dark, unyielding, nearly unbearable blue broken only by the presence of a swollen, nearly full moon.
At the edge of the milk house now, I hear the sound of Ma and Dad and Grandpa finishing up chores. The high-pressure hose hisses as cow manure is washed down the milking parlor drains. Calves bleat, eager to bury their mouths and snouts in pails of fresh, warm milk. The cleaning system kicks on for the milking machines, adding a shrill whoosh to the symphony.
Across the road, Henry and Marjorie – the owners of the dairy operation my family runs – move from warmly lit window to warmly lit window, getting ready for dinner. Old maples and young scotch pines crack the outline of their farmhouse at the front and back.
Soon the parlor will be cleaned, the calves will be fed, and the milking machines will be left to finish cleaning themselves. Grandpa will get in his pick-up and drive home to Grandma. And my parents, sister, and I will walk about a tenth of a mile home to our trailer and have dinner.
Everything about this moment is unremarkable.
But as I sit and look at Parish’s Moonlight Night, everything about this moment is perfect.
And I cry a little bit, yearning for a moment of unremarkable.