Nostalgia: The past in present tense
Why is nostalgia so painful?
I love nostalgia even though it’s painful. The word has Greek roots in both the words “homecoming” and “pain.” Every time I go home to my parents’ house, I am hit with shades of it when I open a musty closet, run my fingers along untouched bookshelves, or rummage through dresser drawers that still contain small Mass books and buttons from when my brothers, sister, and I were little. A lot of people spend New Year’s thinking about what they will do in the year to come. I spent it thinking about what we did in years past.
There’s a spectacular challenge in making a childhood good, and my parents nailed it. Their house, mostly unchanged, is haunted by the sounds of happy shrieks coming from their pool and raucously violent games of Spoons or Spit played in the basement. (If you don’t know these games, you were probably born after 1980). Sometimes their house feels too much like a thing from the past when it teemed with dozens of neighborhood kids who spent all their waking hours eating my mom’s much-loved chocolate chip cookies, choreographing synchronized routines in the pool, or competing in marathon games of Monopoly in the barn. Maybe it’s all that ripe, wild kid energy that manifests itself so intensely at my childhood home to this day. The absence of it makes the nostalgia there that much more heady.
When I bring my kids home now, it is with a prickly pleasure that I watch them walk through my childhood. Their rambunctiousness raises the old ghosts up, and I can almost see them dance around with them. Just as we did, my children love to turn off the lights in the basement to play hide-and-seek. They stand over the grates on the street curb and spit down into the dark deep below. They don aprons and bake cookies with my mom, leveling off flour with her and licking clean the bowl. But watching them never feels quite right. It’s never loud enough or giddy enough or it just doesn’t smell right. Something’s off. The distance between me and the experience is too large. Nostalgia seeps through the pores of it and makes me sad instead of happy.
Last week on a visit home, I pulled the bin of cold weather apparel out from under the secretary desk in my parents’ basement. I rifled through endless pairs of long, navy blue ski socks and the full wool facemasks my brothers wore when they built igloos out of the plowed snow mounds on our street. I covered my kids in mothball-smelling snow pants, snow boots, and elbow-length mittens to hit the snow hill on the golf course behind my parents’ house. Trudging through three feet of fresh snow to get there was arduous, but the biting chill in the air kept us moving. We dragged an old sled behind us, its waxed gliders slipping easily across the snow. Just as I did 30 plus years ago, we ducked through the hole in the chain link fence my dad snipped every year until the golf course rangers gave up trying to stop him. The hill on the 14th hole of the course was then and is now a perfect sledding hill, just steep enough to be fun for any age.
I loaded my son on the sled first. Thirty years ago, it would have been one of my brothers dragging the rope of the sled to get me started while another brother raced down diagonally to ram into my sled and send me flying in the air. But this time, it was just me working up a sweat despite the cold to work the sled into some speed before letting it loose down the hill.
There’s a sound a squeal makes in the wide-open cold. It’s empty and full at the same time. It echoes and contains. It washes over and shores up. My son let out such a squeal as his sled zipped down a trail pressed hard by cross-country ski tracks. It sounded like nostalgia, but better. It sounded like nostalgia breaking free from the distance that makes it sad. In that one bright moment, the delicious past met with the present and nostalgia, for once, was not painful at all. From the fallow field of my childhood, an afternoon of bright, glorious, snow-covered fun was turned over and became my own children’s memories.
We went down the hill again and again until the dropping sun and the cold hurried us inside. We dipped through the hole in the fence dragging our sled behind us, our faces ruddy with red and fingers tingling with cold, and back into my parents’ home that still, as it turns out, has plenty of future left in it.
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God's goodness in the darkest places of the world.
Image: Michal Janek on Unsplash