Shades of Proust
I bit into the store-bought apple and experienced an instant recall. I was six years old, standing knee-deep in weeds and biting into the apple Grandpa Kunschke had pulled off of a tree. This wasn’t a déjà vu moment where one experiences a sudden feeling of familiarity while in a completely new place. Or the feeling one has had the exact same conversation with someone before. It was more like time-travel, and I could actually feel the consistency of the crisp succulent apple in my mouth — the same sweet, yet tart, taste. This must have been the type of subconscious memory experience that Marcel Proust wrote about in his “Remembrance of Things Past.” During the early twentieth century, Proust discussed involuntary autobiographical memory, a subcomponent of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort.
Now, I wanted to physically go back to the same place where I ate Grandpa’s apple. I couldn’t remember where this apple tree had been. I had a sense it was on the edge of a northern Wisconsin forest. There hadn’t been any apple trees on Grandpa’s property. Perhaps there’d been a couple of apple trees that had sprouted up along the road to town, and Grandpa had shown them to me as we walked that way. I wanted to see if those trees were still there, so I called my aunt and sister to see if they knew. Neither remembered anything about wild apple trees or a woodland orchard along the road.
During a recent visit to spend a summer weekend with my sister, she suggested we visit a Heritage Orchard which the town had recently preserved next to the new library. Neither of us remembered it from our childhood, but we wondered if that could be the spot I was trying to remember. If not, we could at least gather some apples to use for the apple pie she wanted to serve that night.
Over eighty trees make up this old orchard which slopes downhill from the library on top of a small bluff. This wasn’t an orchard that had been planted in straight rows; the trees were scattered here and there between the foot paths that wound downward, and tall weeds and shrubbery grew in between them. The bent, ancient trees were laden with apples, many having already fallen to the ground. Their sweet scent attracted birds, bees and other insects, as well as deer and raccoon.
Following the orchard path I had no memories of having been here before. I wandered from tree to tree searching for ripe apples within easy reach. Then I noticed the path I was on led to the back yard of a familiar-looking house below the bluff. A family friend, Irma, had lived there. Looking at the view from her back yard up to the orchard, I realized that this may have been the place where Grandpa and I found the trees.
I reached up, pulled an apple from a nearby tree, rubbed it on my sleeve and took a bite. Sure enough! That was the taste I’d remembered, and this was the exact spot where Grandpa and I had been standing over sixty some years ago.
 [Volume 1 “Swann’s Way” published in seven parts from 1913 to 1927]
What a pleasure to read this true story, Nancy. It made my day. Now I have to go scouting around for Marcal Proust and his book, just to connect the dots.
Thanks for posting this little gem.