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R U there, Marcel Proust?

Faded letters and photos may transport us where texting cannot go.

A family album damaged by the tsunami after the March 11 earthquake in Ishinomaki, Japan.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Memory triggers, à la Proust, are going the way of the daguerreotype. Or the Polaroid. Even as we marvel at technology, we might wonder about the future of "madeleine moments." So much of our world appears in the same resolution in the same format on the same screen. What unique stimuli will grab us and take us back in time?

I looked at one of our old family photo albums recently. Maroon leather, black pages, and those little paper corners to hold the photos in place. Just touching the worn cover, I am brought back to a day when I was about 7 years old. I had tiptoed into the inner sanctum of my mother's bedroom, where the album was kept in a trunk at the back of the closet. My mother is sitting in front of a mirrored vanity, toying with an atomizer of Shalimar. She gets up. I can still hear the creak of the hinge when she opens the trunk and takes out the precious album. She folds me into the crook of her arm as we turn the pages.

As an adult, I keep our family photos organized by date and subject in "albums" and "events" on my computer, synchronized with my smart phone. Kids at Halloween. Trip to Turks and Caicos. Always available. There are literally thousands of digital images, but few of them tingle my senses. None of them is etched into my mind in the same way as the three sepia-tinged, girlhood photos of my mother, all taken at a photographer's studio.

And what about maps?

"Time to look at the map," my father would say on our annual car trip to visit cousins in New Hampshire.

"Do you mean the map with the coffee stain around Nashua or the other one that's missing part of Massachusetts?" I would ask. I took my job as navigator seriously.

"Either one," my father would answer. Even today, just seeing the words Rand McNally can evoke the soft gray upholstery of my father's 1956 Packard. Sitting between my parents on the wide front seat, I'd reach over to the glove compartment, pungent with the smell of the anise-flavored Pine Bros. cough drops my father kept there.

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