Google being “triggered” and content is served up about the psychological effect of being returned to a traumatic experience, a terrible inheritance for those with painful pasts. I recently had two experiences, though, which made me wonder why “triggering” is only associated with pain.
Google “recalling happy memories” and the results include terms like “reminisce” which doesn’t come close to capturing what it feels like to revive a happy moment in the same way triggers revive trauma. To reminisce is what you do when those old Facebook posts pop up in your feed, evoking an “Awww” or “That was a great day” or “The kids were so little” or “I was so young.” Triggering is different, it’s visceral. A sound, a smell, a comment, a backdrop actually returning you to the moment before it became a memory.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across a special on public television which returned me in a profound and positive way to my childhood. The show was a feature about John Denver and a concert he held at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado in 1974. I was 9 at the time and I don’t remember watching the concert itself on TV then but John Denver songs were an omnipresent soundtrack to my young life.
My sister Lauren, who is eight years older than I am, had a beautiful voice, played guitar and, not surprisingly given the era, gravitated to folk music, including John Denver. She had a well-worn book of his music with Denver on the cover, gazing out from behind his distinctive round wire rim glasses.
As I listened to Denver’s melodic “Annie’s Song” and the soaring “Rocky Mountain High” in my own adult home, I was 9 again. I watched my sister picking out chords in our shared bedroom, my fingers trying to mimic hers. Then I saw her at our kitchen counter making homemade pizza, a special treat, pushing the dough into the corners of the rectangular metal baking sheet, laughing as it retracted in defiance each time. I helped spread the tomato sauce with the back of a spoon and dropped handfuls of mozzarella until no red was showing. John Denver played “Country Road,” “Prayers and Promises,” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and for those few minutes as I listened I was just a little sister again, safe and loved.
Then just last week, I was transported back to another happy time and place. My two young adult children had the same spring break, and I planned a couple of days in New Hampshire so they could ski and I could sit by a fire. As the three of us drove through Franconia Notch, the road narrowed and I noticed the skiers like little figurines coming down the steep slope of Cannon Mountain. All around us were white-tipped evergreens and nearby peaks were wrapped in clouds like a scarf. And then there I was on the same road nearly 20 years earlier. Jack was about 4, Maddy nearly 2. We were taking them on an “adventure” as I used to call our outings. There was a Raffi CD of children’s music playing and one of our favorites started. “Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on me, willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you.” The lines repeated, adding names and putting a W as their first letter like this, “Willoughby wallaby wusten, an elephant sat on Justin.” And Jack was giggling and Maddy was smiling behind her pacifier. And then we started choosing names for the song, starting with their favorite preschool teacher Donna, “Willoughby wallaby wonna, an elephant sat on Donna” to even more giggles and Jack shouted out “daddy” and the elephant say on “waddy” “wommy” and “wack” and so on until our gales of laughter must have echoed throughout the entire White Mountain Forest.
I turned to Jack, who was doing the driving this trip and asked if he remembered the song, singing a little of it, and he said, “Can’t say that I do, Mom” and turned up the podcast we’d been listening to about politics and current events. I looked back at Maddy sound asleep against the door, air pods blocking us out, and I smiled in gratitude for both the past and the present, triggered, or whatever better word there might be, in the best possible way.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”