Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Nostalgia allows one to completely cover  the past in billowy gossamer  clouds and examine  it through  a misty sepia lens. We have kodachromed and polaroided our collective pasts to the point where history and legend and fantasy collide leaving little evidence of what was real.

But history is a funny thing too. Turns out, the recollection of history  is coloured by perception and experience and culture and personality. I may have experienced the exact same history as you, but our retelling of that history may be vastly different.  One may look on the past with regret or sorrow or anger, while another wafts in the past's nostalgic glory. 

I look at nostalgia as a coping mechanism. Nostalgia can bring comfort where stark history devoid of any romanticism  can cause angst and grief. Nostalgia is the warm fuzzy blanket in the middle of  history's darkest hours. 

All of nostalgia is not bad,  as all of history is not unpleasant or worthy of Armageddon inducing adjectives. Nostalgia is cathartic and fun. History can happily coexist with nostalgia to provide balance and reason and context.  And besides, my husband has three degrees in history, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to completely snub history. But I digress. 

Nostalgia is what makes it cool to reminisce about vintage wood side-paneled station wagons without dwelling on the absence of air conditioning or seat belts. Nostalgia allows our memories of first dances or junior high gym class to be cloaked in made for TV images from Happy Days or That '70s Show instead of the painfully real and terribly awkward realities lurking in our own mental  home movies. 

Wistful nostalgia has its place. Sometimes, though, we allow that wistful wishfulness to paint a picture that is far less than accurate. In doing so we run the risk of diminishing with a single brush stroke what was real. And true. And maybe not quite so pretty. 

I hear often those who grew up during and just after World War II talk about the good old days. And yes, much of what was iconic of the late forties and fifties was wonderful and full of hope and promise.  There was a war going on then too. And a mass relocation out of cities and into suburbs that increased inequity in housing and basic social services.

My husband's grandmother lived to be 100. She lived through two World Wars,  Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, The Cold War, The War on Drugs, The War on Poverty,  and the War on Terrorism. She watched as transportation morphed from horse and buggy to package delivering drones.  She saw the eradication of smallpox,  but lived long enough to see measles and whooping cough return with a vengeance. She birthed two children at a time when the maternal mortality rate was just starting to decline because of the advent of sulfa drugs and penicillin.  And yet the nostalgia continues.

I am reminded of The Merry Minuet  written by Sheldon  Harnick and made popular by the Kingston Trio. The full lyrics are widely available, but I will only post a few here.

There are days in my life when everything is dreary
I grow pessimistic, sad and world weary.
But when I'm tearful and fearfully upset
I always sing this merry little minuet:

They're rioting in Africa
They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls...

They're rioting in Africa
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

This song was written in 1950s and had its heyday in the 1960s. I must note the absence of references to sock hops, and soda shops, and clean cut teenagers mowing manicured suburban lawns.

Perhaps nostalgia provides us with the ability to time warp back to when our parents agonised over the state of the world leaving us free to ride our banana seated bicycles until our Moms and Dads were assured by Walter Cronkite  'that's the way it was', releasing them  to focus on whether it was meatloaf night or tuna noodle and could we get finished in time to watch Gunsmoke.

I remember with the absolute clarity of any typical  eight year old the day a cease fire was declared ending the Vietnam Conflict in 1973.  What I remember is every single family on our tree lined street came outside as church bells pealed in celebration. Dinner was forgotten and were allowed to run and play and frolic instead of being reprimanded for putting our elbows on the table or not eating all of our peas.  The waning light surely made it difficult for me to notice the tears streaming down the faces of my parents and their neighbours. Ah, the memories.

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