While teaching my children how to write, I’ve noticed that some of them protest the most when the assignment involves sensory description. They think it’s too hard, or it’s boring, or it’s just unnecessary. What they don’t yet understand – at the stage in life where the present is larger than life, the future stretches blankly and endlessly, and the past is small and populated with memories that are deeply embedded but hidden – is that sensory details are more powerful than even the words themselves.
We’ve all experienced a random whiff of something that immediately brings us back to a certain place. I have a few bottles of perfume that smell just like 7th, 8th, and 9th grade…each one very specific. The first few bars of a song on the radio can trigger a very specific image in our mind. A picture has the power to cause old feelings to well up uncontrollably. Our senses are inextricably linked to our memories, and it’s really a very precious gift.
I want to tell you the story of a place that will forever be a part of me. A place that brought me so much joy that twenty-five years after I was last there, I can still remember…..everything. That place is my grandma’s house on Sandpiper Hill Road, in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. It’s a town on Cape Cod that got a mention on an episode of “Dawson’s Creek,” which I admit gave me quite a thrill.
Grandma, my mother’s mom, is my last living grandparent. She lived with her husband, John, in the house on Sandpiper Hill Road, for about a decade, as best I can figure. We visited Grandma and John every year around Labor Day, which often meant we were there for my birthday, too. Cape Cod was a magical place for me. There was the drive-in theater where I watched “Back to the Future,” then shopped my heart out the next day at the flea market held at the same spot. The many warm-water ponds gave us incredible beach days. The seafood restaurant we always went to probably had great food, but I only remember the lobster-shaped lollipops they had.
Those memories are rich and vibrant in themselves. But that house. It occurred to me several months ago that I could check out the house on Google Maps. My grandma and I were pen pals, so I had written her address many times as a child; the name “Sandpiper Hill” came easily to my mind. I typed it in the search bar and it immediately popped up. I could tell right away that this was the right place….from the areal view I could see that the road made a 90-degree turn to run parallel to the ocean, just as I remembered.
I clicked on the street view and started to navigate. I didn’t know the house number, but I was sure I could find the house. I went down the road a few clicks and saw that I was heading into town, with a supermarket coming up on the right side. It was all so familiar, and I began to get excited. But into town was the wrong way, so I did a 180 and headed down the tree-shaded road. Up ahead I could see the road start to rise up the hill, and my heart beat a little faster, just like it used to do as I sat in the back seat of our station wagon. At the crest of the hill, the road was no longer shaded by overhang, and the 90-degree turn I’d seen from up above was straight ahead. And that meant that the house would be directly to my right.
I turned and looked at Grandma and John’s house. It was different now….a whole second story had been added, so the face of it was very changed. But it was still familiar. The gray cedar siding. The yard made of sand with tufts of tough grass scattered throughout, where they used to dig a hole for the clam bake.
Looking to the left, I saw the windmill in the neighbor’s yard.
Just past that were the wooden stairs leading down to the rocky beach on the bay side of the Cape, where we dug for hermit crabs, collected shells, and played on the wall of rocks.
In my mind I could still see the rooms inside. Right through the front door was the open family room and kitchen. There were bright blankets on the couch and always a little bit of sand on the floor, tracked in from the yard. The kitchen was where Grandma cooked lobster and mussels, and served up boysenberry ice cream.
In the front corner of the house was the bedroom where I slept, in a twin bed with windows all around. I’d lay there with the warm, salty breeze swirling around me, reading books, writing and drawing, and in the later years, dreaming about boys.
Down in the basement apartment, there was a cricket who lived under the refrigerator, and John had us convinced it was Jiminy Cricket, himself. One year when my uncles were visiting at the same time, they helped throw me a surprise party in that basement. I think I was turning seven, and I got blue clip-on earrings.
It’s funny how memories work. You can’t always predict what’s going to stick. The sights, sounds, and smells that do get cataloged in the recesses of our brains are powerful. I recently visited my Grandma, and she was brought to happy tears at the memory of a song her mother used to sing while cleaning chickens. It’s often the simplest of details that carry the most weight. Do you cherish lovely memories like the ones I have of the house on Sandpiper Hill Road?