Jones Bridge fell down last week.
It is not surprising. The 1904 bridge that replaced the Jones Ferry on the Chattahoochee River in Gwinnett County fell into disrepair as early as the 1930s and has been slowly and consistently decaying ever since. Somewhere between 1955 and 1960 an entire section of truss was stolen, supposedly by a man pretending to be a contractor who had been paid to take the bridge down.
The single truss that remained stood as a rusting skeletal sentinel over the river for nearly 60 years; finally succumbing to the elements nearly a week ago. I wish I had seen it fall, I wonder if anyone did. I imagine it looked like a Star Wars Walker, knees buckling under the shifting weight as it slumped into the water below. I wonder if anyone was there to hear it creak and sigh.
Why have I been thinking about this so much, you ask? Well, that now sagging pile of steel was once a solid and significant anchor of my youth and its collapse has me recalling childhood memories; the kind that stick in my nose, ears, eyes and skin and return to me like a flood whenever I think of the place.
Maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic here. It’s not like I have some suspenseful “Stand By Me” style coming-of-age tale after which my life was never the same. But, at the same time, don’t the sensory memories of our lives have some small role in shaping everything that follows?
When I think of Jones Bridge, I am immediately returned to crisp fall days spent with family at Jones Bridge Park. I instantly recall the colors: the sky so deeply blue you could feel it, the leaves so brightly arrayed it felt like a punch in the face, my rust-colored tall leather boots that I loved so dearly (yes, I know that is a weird one and yes, I have posted a picture of them on my Facebook page). The scent and sounds of the river were an unending background and its mist hung in the chilly air, landing gently on our cheeks as my sister and I ran about. I can still feel the smoke and warmth of the fire in the pavilion fireplace, a welcome base as we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows with aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents.
I would wager that none of them have the same memories that I do, but that is how I remember it. And for me, the bridge looms as a strong and peaceful framework in my mind.
I have been to the area other times in my life, not the least of which would be paddling through on a source-to-sea traverse of the Chattahoochee that you would think would hold more significance, but it doesn’t. Maybe it was one of those sloppy days when we would retreat into our rain gear and just paddle, intent on the end of the day and ignoring the scenery around us. I don’t know, but I know that I have zero recollection of canoeing past that childhood landmark that is burned in my brain from earlier days.
It is strange how memory works, isn’t it?
I did a little reading on sensory memory and it is fascinating stuff. Our brain is processing information from our senses faster than we even realize that information is present. The parts that we pay attention to get stored in our short-term memory and from there, the details that we replay in our mind get stored in our long-term memory. Those tiny bits of info entering through our senses are so detailed that the smallest of triggers can take us back.
Fallen bridges, dark corners of childhood homes, the perfume of family members that have passed on; can all live very palpably in our minds thanks to the well-stored details of our senses. In turn, that information helps shape what is important to us, and therefore, scripts the choices we make. My love for rivers and the natural world is fully a result of my memories of experiences such as weekend adventures at Jones Bridge, as well as others.
I am grateful to my parents for creating the adventures that have formed how I see the world, and I hope that I have helped create a similar foundation for my own child. Of course, she might remember things completely differently than I do, and that is what makes us all unique.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.