Memories (Dennis Aubrey)

Recognizing truth is a matter of experience because it involves distinguishing the real from the illusory. Experience itself is a product of memory. And memory is even more complex than truth. And so the pattern gets more multi-faceted the deeper we look, like one of Mandlebrot’s mathematical phantasms. What appears at first simple becomes infinitely complicated and intricate.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Some memories we remember as dreams, in the present tense; others as historical phenomena that stay safely in the past. Some memories carry their meaning with them. Others mean something because of their relationship with something that occurred in the past. Others depend on the future to reveal their significance. This is the web that is woven back and forth, across and through time.

North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some memories lie dormant until something conjures them up. When my brother David and I were 11 and 12, our family moved back to France from the United States. We had lived in France before and as small boys we spoke the language fluently, but had been in America for the past six years and forgotten all we knew. For the first week or so after our return, we lay in bed in our hotel room at night before going to sleep, counting the French words we had newly learned. One day we might know twenty or thirty, the next day perhaps a dozen or so more. Then one warm summer afternoon we went for a walk in the countryside and passed through a small farming village. While walking along the road we smelled the very particular and very familiar smell of a French farm village. It was so clear to us that we knew that smell from our past. We remarked on it and left the significance behind. That night as we lay in bed, we tried to count the French words we knew, but couldn’t. Words and phrases flooded back to us and we couldn’t keep up with them. That smell of the farms unlocked the memories, and a language associated with those memories.

Side aisle of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There are certain things that are done to consciously preserve memories, to fix moments in time so that they will never be forgotten. We take pictures, write descriptions and letters, film with a camcorder, and still it is not possible to retain a memory in its entirety. Most of the time, parts are remembered and then the detail is filled in with ideas, interpretations, and transitions that have no relationship to the original. And then other times something happens in a moment that is unforgettable and complete, and as long as there is a portion of that singular memory, the entire memory will be complete. Once, in Los Angeles I was a driving on the streets. I slowed at a corner to make a right turn in heavy traffic. As I did, my eyes momentarily locked with those of a young 20 year old Latino standing on the corner. In the moment of our eyes locking was all the pride of millennia of human breeding; male challenge, virile and powerful, born to rule. As I continued around the corner his girlfriend came into view. We, too, locked eyes, but hers were bruised, swollen and battered. And the look in her eyes was that of utter despair and hopelessness, doomed somehow to be ruled. These two seconds are forever part of my being.

View from crossing, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ Aubrey

My very first memory is like a black and white snapshot, clear and crisp, but in trying to understand it I fill in blanks for things I didn’t know at the age of 15 months when it happened. It is hard to keep the memory pure. Sitting on a lawn on a summer day by myself. It was not our home; we were visiting. On chairs across what seemed to be an enormous lawn were the adults, perhaps five or six, talking and watching me. My mother was in a sundress, I think. Behind them stood a house with a high front porch where the adults were sitting. In my memory, my parents seemed an immense distance away; it seemed that I had never been so far from them. Attached to the visual memory is a sensation of freedom, of being unfettered. All I did with the freedom, most likely, was to eat rolly-polly bugs and other nonsense I picked up around me, but the feeling is there half a century later.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Most of my memories are visual, but some have multi-sensory character, like that of my Aunt Dell descending on us when we were children. She came in a wave of perfume, bright red kewpie doll lips, and thick pancake make up. When she lit on our face, we were dusted with dry powder and left with a big red smear of lipstick on her chosen target, usually a conspicuous cheek or forehead. And afterwards, a dry, not-unpleasant perfume lingered for hours. When I think of Dell I remember the red lips, the dusting with powder and the smell of perfume.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But few memories are this complete. Most are like the medieval restorations of the 19th century French architect Viollet-le-Duc. He looked at the vestigial forms, the ruins of chateaux and churches, and tried to extrapolate them back to their original construction. In the end, these restorations became more and more the evocation of an imaginary Gothic age guided by his imaginative intelligence. They became fantasies on a medieval theme, until like some, like Pierrefonds, were no more real than the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. In our human memory, we construct upon the framework of the conscious image and try to fill in the details. But if we are not careful, the details overwhelm the original memory, distort it, and in some cases replace the original with a reconstruction. And like a Viollet-le-Duc restoration, the original is subsumed by the fantasy.

19 thoughts on “Memories (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you so much Dennis for this; first for you evocative tale (I love the re-membering – ie re-building – of your French via your Proust’s madeleine) but also your bringing in EEV-le-D, and ever so slightly shifting my picture of him – though we might fight about reality and Disneyland…

    1. John, Viollet-le-Duc is one of my heroes; imagine another 26 year old given the commission to restore Vézelay! I Lenormant’s report on the construction to Mérimée: “The young Leduc seems entirely worthy of your confidence. He needed a magnificent audacity to take charge of such a desperate enterprise; it’s certain that he arrived just in time, and if we had waited only ten years the church would have been a pile of stones.” Magnificent audacity indeed!

  2. Oh, I enjoyed reading this., Dennis….I agree that many memories are incomplete, and that it is difficult to keep memories pure… Like you, I have very visual memories, but occasionally the scent of something takes me back to a particular moment in time…

    1. Sue, certainly smell is a key to memory; more than once a smell has unlocked a world in my memory. But that barnyard smell of the French village in Poitou unlocked an entire three years of my childhood in a way. My parents told us (my brother and myself, who were four and five when we returned to the USA from France the first time) that once we boarded the ship home, we refused to speak French. So seven years later when we returned to France, we had lost the language completely and had to begin anew – until we walked through that village.

  3. “This is the web that is woven back and forth, across and through time.”

    Dennis, your writing and photography are gifts to all of us who follow your lead into the depths of the larger mystery of which we are a small part. My first memory is of being with my mother on a train when I was a few months older than you were in your first memory. We were traveling across the country from Los Angeles to Boston after my father had shipped out with the U.S. Army Air Force for the South Pacific. On the train haf-way across the country, my mother’s sorrow overwhelmed her momentarily. She wept inconsolably. As I have pondered that moment over the years, it seems to anchor so much of my future.

    Carl Jung would smile, of course, But he might also learn something by reading your flashback to the corner in LA. “As I continued around the corner his girlfriend came into view. We, too, locked eyes, but hers were bruised, swollen and battered. And the look in her eyes was that of utter despair and hopelessness, doomed somehow to be ruled. These two seconds are forever part of my being.”

    1. Gordon, that moment in Los Angeles, a mere matter of seconds on a busy street corner in Hollywood, is etched in my very soul. I can understand how your memory of your mother sobbing on the train must have introduced you into mysteries completely incomprehensible to a small, impressionable boy.

  4. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    Dennis Aubrey’s writing is as fine as his photography, fathoming the depths and height of the human experience. This Via Lucis piece on the power and complexity of memory shouted out to be shared on Views from the Edge.

  5. Hi, Dennis ! I read in a previous invoice on your cancer and hard time to heal ! Also for your wife ! Since 2 years, we live the symmetrical situation, my wife Catherine was diagnosed with a breath cancer. This was followed by 5 months chemotherapy, then bilateral mastectomy, and then 3-months radiotherapy. So we can understand what was your life during the last year(s). Priorities have changed for both of us, however we could one month ago have again a 8-days holiday in Alsace and Schwarzwald, looking a.o. for romanic churches…
    So, thinking to you and to Catherine, here a smiling guy bearing a heavy column, in the abbey of Alpisbach (Schwarzwald, around 1130): a symbol for you as well as for Catherine, wishing you a full healing in the future !

    Michel Aragno (Neuchâtel, Switzerland)


    1. Michel, thanks so much for this – so wonderful that you and Catherine could resume your life. We like the Romanesque churches of Alsace very much, and we love the smiling man with his great burden. Your comments mean a great deal to us, MIchel, and we wish you and Catherine the best for your future as well.

  6. Memories of an old house, now long gone, but still standing in my mind. The silent pine-scented cathedral of old growth trees on a logging road in Northern Wisconsin, alone, on an early autumn day. People and places no longer here in the “real” world. Then there are the vague stirrings of places I have never been to in this life, yet are so familiar. Strange thing, memory.

  7. I like your analysis of memory. Memories are valuable but tricky. For this reason we must review unprocessed, pure truth continuously in order to ground our lives and our memories in reality. That pure truth comes from Scripture, which should inform all of our thoughts, actions, speech, and memories.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, as always. Felt this post was more of a rumination rather than an analysis, but I love the contributions made to the conversation.

  8. Dennis, often your writing and photography are a match for one another and this description of the evocation of memory is up there. I sometimes wish I could “like” the comments of your other correspondents – so just to say how well everyone above has put their own stories and how lovely it is to see such a community of people coming together in these troubled times.

    1. Doug, I know exactly how you feel. And you are free to make a short comment on those other comments at any time. Some of our best engagements have been sparked like this. So nice to hear from you again!

      Also, hour post on Theories of Architectural Conservation is the third-most viewed post in the history of Via Lucis. We are seeing professors from Europe, Australia, the US, and Russia assigning it to their students! How about a follow-up?

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