Listen to Justin read this piece: The Little Things
I’m standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. She has black and white linoleum flooring. There’s a frying pan on the stove with grease in it. It smells like her here. Like her fried chicken. Like her moisturizer.
I’m sitting on my mom’s bed with the satin sheets. I’m holding my pet rabbit, watching television as my mom gets ready for bed. I see her pearls hanging from her vanity, and I smell her smell. She smells like the feeling you get when you hear the word “gorgeous.”
I’m in my aunt’s Cadillac. We’re on our way to see Phantom of the Opera. She rented me a tuxedo and she’s wearing a fancy dress. I hear her talking to me, and I hear myself responding, but I’m not really listening. She smells like glamour. I want to be like her.
I’m sitting in front of my computer at a coffee shop, thinking of what I will write to you. There is an older lady sitting by a window. She’s reading a newspaper and sips from a mug once in a while. I think it’s tea.
They creep up on us, these moments. It’s when we least expect it that we’re suddenly looking at our lives, at our memories, and remembering things not because they are noteworthy, but because they make us who we are. These are the little slices of life that, for whatever reason, stand out.
These moments mean nothing to anyone else but to whom they belong, and they cannot be fully described. They cannot be relived. Out of context they are totally mundane. But to us, they mean everything. We remember them as vividly as we do our darkest tragedies and our proudest triumphs.
Imagine a co-worker telling you, “I went to a coffee shop last night and I smelled coffee beans. I sat in a comfy chair and people-watched. It made me remember when I was in college, when we were in study groups. I remember how soft the chairs were, and how we procrastinated as much as we could. Whenever I smell coffee, I remember this.”
You’d probably think him strange to share such a boring story, to unveil such a vanilla truth. But you have a million such treasured memories. About how the grass smelled when you played in it as a kid. About what it felt like to play with your Matchbox cars and Barbie Dolls. You remember smelling wrapping paper at your birthday parties, and the wind in your face when you rode your bicycle.
They are inevitable, and they are invisible. We don’t get to pick which details we’ll remember, but it will take just hint of a smell, a vague silhouette of an image, a nugget of similarity, to fill you with nostalgia and overwhelming, vivid memory.
The night my mother died, I remember holding my rabbit on her bed, looking at her jewelry on her vanity. I remember peeking into her bathroom to see her washing her face. And I remember later standing outside, in the ambulance lights, smelling the spring air.
We remember random details about our lives, sometimes around events that change who we are. But more often and just as vivid, the details we remember are the ones connected to the rest us–the 99% of life that’s more routine and less memorable.
Today, when I smell someone wearing my mom’s perfume, I picture myself on her bed, watching television–not the night she died, but our routine. Her perfume makes me remember her–not her death.
They are only apparent to us in retrospect, these memories. We don’t decide what facets of life we’ll remember. We didn’t go to birthday parties as kids to smell wrapping paper. We didn’t roll around in grass to find out what it felt like. But we remember these things better than we do the presents we got or what games we played.
So my point, like these memories, is simple. Pay attention to the details–enjoy the little things as we live them, because, as someone said once upon a time, “one day you will look back and realize the little things were the big things.”