By Wayne Allensworth
Some readers have occasionally criticized my writing for amounting to “mere” nostalgia, which is apparently supposed to be a bad thing. To that I plead guilty. Americans have long been conditioned to think of themselves as living in the land of tomorrow, a tomorrow without any yesterdays.
I look back to a past that never seems distant to me, as dreamlike as it can be.
Without those memories, I don’t have an identity.
I wander down a long hall in my home and look at the pictures.
My young parents on the porch of a whitewashed duplex they lived in after they were married on Valentine’s Day in 1953.
It’s easy to dismiss the sense of warmth I get as nostalgia, but I never have dismissed that old time feeling, not ever. I praise nostalgia. I bask in its warmth and sweet sadness.
A series of snapshots: My father building our little house. The frame goes up, then the walls. Then the completed house with its gray siding and those brick flower beds appears. Alone it stood, at first, pastures all around. The unpaved road that ran by our house. My parents planting trees. The trees growing, flower beds blooming. Then the last picture: Gigantic live oaks canopy the yard. The mimosa trees I had climbed as a boy were gone by then. Momma and Daddy standing in the driveway. Soon, the house would be gone, demolished after my parents left. Losing that place was like losing a family member. Wherever I had gone in the world, wherever I was living, that little boxy house and all those big trees that covered our yard from the punishing sun of summer, trees I had climbed as a boy, that little house was always home to me and always would be. I can’t forget that and remain myself. I remember.
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
Thomas Hood knew what I know: He wrote of trees dark and high, trees whose tops seemed close against the sky. But that, he wrote, was childish ignorance, which says something favorable about imaginative innocence. Hood longed for the joy he felt now past:
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.
The sense of childish wonder can never quite be repeated as you grow older. When every day is a discovery, and every experience is new. When every game is exhilarating, and all the small sorrows of childhood seem eternal, the sensation of being alive, of living in life is electric. I think that’s why so many of us have a longing for those days and those sensations. For discovery, the uncovering of experience that is growing up, that is inherent in the first time. Falling in love, making friends, tasting food that seems like manna from heaven. Seeing the waves wash in on a beach, a deer bounding across a meadow. That first time. That depth of experience can’t be replicated when life starts accelerating. Time takes wing and flies, as they say, not slowly passing us by like a meandering stream that you can capture, and that captures you. Work and routine, the everyday chore that is day-to-day living, overtake us as a matter of course, and those keen childhood senses are dulled. It takes some effort to revive them. Some effort and some luck.
I suppose it has to be that way, lest we be overwhelmed by the questions, by the mystery, by the awe and frustrations of Being itself. We have to work and carry on. We give life to the next generation, and take some joy in that, even as we know that we must sacrifice them, in a sense, to life. So we start filtering out the not immediate, the not pressing. The things you have to try and stand still for, though standing still itself is an illusion. Things that require our attending to them. Life can become a series of snapshots when you try fleetingly to halt the race, and look, and momentarily feel again. Then it passes even as you experience it. Because you have to keep moving.
But every so often, on some stark winter’s day when the sun comes through the clouds, and beams of heavenly light cut through the mists…when you stand on some high place and it seems all the world is before you…when your child is born…when you see an old friend… when something breaks through the fog, it’s back–the dull and deadening scales of routine fall from your eyes. And that sensation of being alive, not just breathing, but living, that awareness long cloaked in dreary routine comes back, however fleeting.
Thank God for it. It’s a gift.
That gift makes up for the pain and struggle that must be, that can’t be some other way, so that we can recognize the triumphs when they come, the joy when it strikes us, the small successes that keep us going. And those memories are the core of our identity. Remember that. Living in a moment is the becoming of memory, because nothing ever stops, so living in the past and living in the moment are one and the same for people who haven’t lost their minds. Time may be relative, and so with life. Motion is built in. The future is the path set by the past. Life isn’t an either-or proposition.
Live and remember so you can take that next step.
A family portrait circa 1964. Sepia toned. All of us boys wearing our suits. Momma in her dress. Daddy with a tie, an infrequent adornment for my carpenter father. And in the background, you can see the shadow of the camera. My parents weren’t happy about that. But the portrait went up. The three boys and their parents. We had a portrait made with a shadow in it that looks like a camel’s hump. My parents weren’t happy about it, but there it is.
Grief and sorrow and happiness and joy are all affirmed by nostalgia. That kaleidoscope of our emotions represents the many facets of our existence, the circle that encompasses all. The warm fire and the chill inside us, at once heavy and light, burdensome and liberating. Not all memories are happy ones, but there is something to be longed for in sorrow as well, since sorrow is the result of having lost something, and that means that which was lost was once gained. Now remembered. It’s good to remember, even if it is painful.
I think my great grandmother’s funeral was the first I ever attended. I remember walking by the casket and seeing her sweet face, so matronly, so full of loving kindness in life now stilled in that deep slumber of death. And I missed her so. As Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, I missed all of her nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love that had no slight or trivial influence on that best portion of our lives. We called her grandma. Her saintly shadow was always over us, covering us like a warm blanket in that wooden house set up on cinder blocks in Houston’s West End, where every step shook the floors in an almost imperceptible announcement of our presence, and the porch swing hung and creaked, singing its rusty songs as we swayed in it. And Poppa! My great grandfather. His suspenders. Smoking his pipe, telling stories. The mounted deer heads and antlers on the walls, the gun rack behind his easy chair.
Prose is a fine servant, but a poor master. For that, only the poetic will do.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad. (Remember Me, Christina Rossetti)
No. I want to remember. It’s needed. It’s wanted. I feel more alive, not less.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.