Sensory triggers lead down a rabbit-hole of nostalgia, connecting memories of a beloved grandmother with the present.

Gin-soaked olives get me every time. One taste and I’m transported back to my early twenties, having dinner with my grandmother. She used to order extra olives with her martinis. She’d line them up on a cocktail pick, dip them in her drink, and hand them to me. I’d savor them, one by one.

We could sit there for hours. We’d talk about my work, and she’d fill me in on all the latest gossip at her retirement home. She’d tell me stories about delivering codes in the Coast Guard and the years she spent teaching. Sometimes she’d talk about her darkest days, living with an alcoholic husband, eventually leaving him, and surviving breast cancer. She always had some kind of advice for me. We loved each other’s company.

When she got too sick to go out for dinner, she said she missed her martinis. I think it was the ritual she missed more than anything. So my husband started making them for her in her room. He’d pack up the liquor, a shaker, and a jar of olives, and he’d make us all a round. I have this picture of my grandmother in her hospice bed, breathing tubes in, holding up her glass and just barely smiling.

She’s gone now, but every once in a while my husband will order a martini with extra olives. He’ll put them on a fork, dip them in his drink, and wink when he hands them to me. I think it’s his way of saying “I loved her too.”

And with the gesture, he gives me a memory. A moment with my grandmother. No story, no photo, can take me back to that time with her like the taste of a gin-soaked olive. One little olive in the right place at the right time, and it’s as if she’s at the table with me. The taste connects the past to the present in a way I’m never quite prepared for.

I’ve been experiencing nostalgia more and more lately. It can take over any of the senses—a taste, a smell, or a song can bring on memories so vivid they feel like dreams. The older I get, the further back they go. You can’t stop time, but you can hold on to it.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a song or pick up a scent that brings back an experience I haven’t thought about in years. It makes me wonder what purpose these memories serve. Maybe they exist to comfort us. I get the strongest nostalgia during seasons of change, and I most often remember simple, happy times.

You can’t force nostalgia, and you surely can’t escape it. It’s a strange gift that way. Our brains record moments so we can relive them later, and we subconsciously assign meaning to sounds, smells, and tastes that serve as signals. When we get the signals, we go back to those places.

We have so little control over what our brains are recording in the background, and we can’t always predict when we’ll experience the memories. Maybe the best we can do is be present, pay attention, and try to give our brains something good to record.

I had the best time at dinner with my husband the other night. The weather was nice and the drinks were strong, and we were making plans. I was so content. At some point between dinner and dessert, I looked around in what felt like slow motion and thought, Will I remember this moment? What will remind me?

Kate kiefer lee

Kate Kiefer Lee is the Communications Director at MailChimp. She’s a former magazine editor and coauthor of the book Nicely Said: Writing for the Web With Style and Purpose. She’s slowly but surely working on a master’s degree in strategic communications. Kate lives in Atlanta with her husband, Andrew, and dog, Leon.

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Portrait by Roman Muradov