The Autumn as Inducer of Childhood Remembrances

In ‘The Innocent,’ one of the twenty-one short stories in Graham Greene‘s Twenty-One Stories (Penguin, 1970), the narrator of the tale notes,

On an autumn evening, one remembers more of childhood than at any other time of year…

Our hero is correct. Or at least, this rings true to me. Why might that be? Our story-teller does not say any more, leaving us to entertain our own hypotheses at leisure.

So, autumn evenings. The light changes–in the right latitudes, quite dramatically–, the shadows’ contours transform, the trees morph, chameleon-like, through several shades of foliage–and again, in the right latitudes, exquisitely, leaving most of us grasping for the right verbal arsenal to do justice to their beauty. The heat of the summer drops off; there are hints of it in the high afternoon in the early part of the autumn, but the mornings and evenings bring subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle hints of the coming chill. (Here on the American East Coast, these changes are vividly manifest every year.)

Now, of all these changes, I think the crucial one, the one that sparks our narrator’s rumination above, is the changing light. And that is because I think that when we recall our childhood, we conjure up images bathed in a particular light; the chambers of that nostalgia have their own peculiar illumination, one writ into the deepest recesses of our memories by our infant encounters with the sunlight of our homelands. The change of summer light into the autumn shadings, which produces its own melancholia, is also thus the trigger for the release of these memories and their associations.

All of this makes my personal resonance with the line above a little peculiar. I live on the American East Coast but my childhood was spent in India, where the light is very different. And one of the primary drivers of my often-desperate urge to return to India is to feel the Indian light again, to feel the sun’s rays–and they can be harsh, let me tell you–fall on my skin, my eyes, and evoke, somehow, in some cranial cranny, a treasured image, sound or smell, that by dint of my usual geographical location, has become too deeply buried and inaccessible.  (Years ago, after I first moved to Australia, my good friend Eric Martin–a migrant from France and mathematical logician par excellence–said to me that one of the most important determinants in memories of homelands being perennially prickly companions of the immigrant was the light of his erstwhile home, impressed permanently into his traveling self.)

But even for an immigrant like me, one who now spends his life moving in a chamber lit by a very different lamp, all that is needed for the recall of childhood is the melancholia that floods in with the softer light; as that mood surfaces, the mind senses the light as the cause, and the most fundamental of the exile’s thoughts are pushed to the forefront: remembrances of lands and times long gone.

Small wonder then, that the autumn, even though formerly associated with festivals and the welcoming of the rejuvenating winter after the enervating summer, and now with heralding the icy East Coast winter, still retains its ability to take me back to that place in the mind.

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