Thin places: Where memories come alive

I was listening to Marty Smith of ESPN do the Fore Please, Now Driving podcast for the 87th Masters Golf Tournament this year. The discussion turned to how some places like the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, are just full of memories, ghosts, wisps of recollection, and echoes of voices and cheers long gone that sometimes seem to be brought forward and magnified in our own day and time. They talked of cheers for Ben Hogan that might echo in cheers for Tiger Woods that might reverberate in this afternoon’s cheers for John Rahm. That being Easter week, my mind immediately went to my church as being one of these thin places as well, with stories of those who went before, those who made sacrifices so that we might have a beautiful plot of land, a wonderful building, or a magnificent altar. There is one other place, though, that my mind always goes to when speaking of thin places and echoes from the past.

My grandparents were farming folks who lived in middle Georgia, just outside of Cochran. My grandfather planted soybeans, watermelons, peanuts, and other crops, as well as raised chickens, hogs, and cows on the flat fields and gently rolling hillsides that made up their small farm. I have many, many wonderful memories of their home and how it felt to go there in the summers and for Thanksgiving and Christmas time. The last time I was there at the house, several years ago and long after anyone had ceased to live there, I could hear, feel, smell, and taste my way through the yard, the house and onto the front porch, then across the road and out to where a dry dirt ditch used to become a small raging rivulet after a summer rain.

The dinner bell perched high on a wooden post out back, and I’m sure it was actually put to use long before I was there as a kid. The old wooden shed out to the side of the house was the home for tractors, riding lawnmowers, and my grandfather’s old blue pickup truck, the one that could maneuver in the fields as well as on the dirt road that ran past the house to the crop dusters’ airport down the hill. The back porch was screened, and just standing there and listening, I could hear the long-ago laughter and conversation of boys and girls and their parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents gathered around a table covered in newspapers, three or four watermelons, the pale green, and the vividly striped kind, ready to be sliced open and quartered. Salt, if you wanted it, waited as well. Long sharp kitchen knives did the carving, and suntanned, sweaty kids did the eating, digging their faces into the sweet red flesh up to the ears, juice dripping down their chins and onto the wood floor. I could stand there and hear the sound, feel the feel of the knife slipping into each melon, the crack as it opened, the first sweet taste.

Through the back door and into the kitchen, I could go in my mind, and the first smell to hit me was always the addictive aroma of tea cakes, the sugar cookies that my grandmother must have turned out by the plate load when we were all there. I don’t know how many I ate over the years, but when standing there, I can smell them. I can taste them. Into the dining room, where many a breakfast of homemade biscuits, sausage, eggs, and grits fortified the adults for the work day ahead. That table became the gathering place for the adults at every visit, especially during holiday time, and was often piled high with so much food that the only way to deal with it was to pull a sheet over the whole thing until the next meal rolled around when it would be uncovered, and we would eat again. I say we because until I was much older, I sat in the hallway at the kids’ table with my cousins. The big freezer sat over in the corner and was covered with cakes and pies, what seemed a dozen or more, and they too would stay there until eaten up, piece by piece, over the holiday visit.

The living room held memories of watching TV while pouring a bag of peanuts into a Coke and drinking and eating until we moved on to the next thing. Nights sleeping in the old bed that once was in the living room, after we had once stayed in the front bedroom waiting for Santa to land on the noisy tin roof and come down through the chimney to leave boxes of fruit and nuts and a few toys for us was another indelible memory that lived in that house long after we ceased to visit it. The front porch was my favorite because that was where the swing was, and on the swing, I could be anything. Pilot, ship’s captain, writer, actor, poet, dreamer, sleeper, anything at all. So many hours of swinging, back and forth, and back and forth, over and over again. When my wife and I bought our current house, one of the first things I did was buy a cedar swing and hang it on the front porch. I sit in it rarely, but it is there, just as it must be, a placeholder for my memories, a portal to that thin place on my grandmother’s front porch on the house on what is now Jack Dykes Road, named after my grandfather.

Thin places, wherever they are and whatever they represent, are wondrous. They evoke memories, sights, sounds, smells, experiences long gone, and people we held dear. They make us feel, almost automatically, pulling us to those places that we know we cannot go, back to those times that we know are no longer real, back to those lessons long ago learned, to conversations or looks from people who have not been with us for many years or even decades.

The church. The fishing pond. The field in front of the house I used to live in, that came alive with Christmas decorations every December when I was a kid. The site of the old football field. The old elementary school building. My life is full of these places that evoke the past, stimulate memory, and pull me backward while propelling me forward into making my own memories with those who will remember them and their own thin places many years after I am gone.

What are your thin places? What do you feel when you are there?

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist.


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