Nostalgia For a Past That Isn’t Mine
Two of my favorite dog breeds are schnauzers and Weimaraners. Whenever I see either breed as I’m walking down the street I smile, recalling memories of a sloppy dog tongue licking up custard or that time Uncle Sidney woke up to a leg covered in dog pee and everyone laughed. They’re warm memories, purely happy ones. The thing is, though, I don’t know that I’ve ever actually interacted with a schnauzer or a Weimaraner myself. You see, those happy memories are not my own. They’re memories of my parents’ childhood dogs: Misty and Wimpy. But I’ve inherited the memories.
A specific dog breed, that one episode of The Simpsons, the smell of a bowling alley… these bits are enough to conjure a memory. Moments can be crystallized in one detail. Regardless of whatever else was happening in her life or in the world at the time, my mom’s memory of Misty eating custard is a warm one, a purely happy one. There is nothing more powerful than a good memory. It can transform the past so much, it can wrap you up in warmth in the present.
Sometimes the memory can be so strong, it wraps up the people who weren’t even there to live it. A memory that you weren’t there to live originally yourself is just the best. There are no remnants of reality to taint the vision of the past created for you. I don’t know about the storm clouds in the sky that day at the custard place, or the argument my grandparents were having that my mom tuned out. No, all I know about is how adorable Misty’s face looked smothered in custard. And that’s enough to make me smile.
Nostalgia is contagious. The stories that people choose to hold onto are special; they meant enough to last all these years, and so they have the power to get passed to others. Secondhand nostalgia provides a specific kind of warmth and comfort — it’s already been cared for all these years by someone else.
I’ve become nostalgic for a past that isn’t mine.
It happens when I see a Weimaraner. It happens when I eat custard. It especially happens when I look at pictures of Hollywood in the 1920s, or listen to Joni Mitchell, or watch old clips of Gilda Radner on SNL. There are certain pieces of nostalgia that have transcended the people who lived them, and even their direct descendants. Pieces of pop culture like this have become a part of a collective nostalgia. It’s been etched into all our memories and because it belongs to all of us, it’s easy to access.
But still, the strongest memories are the ones that have been passed down through blood. I look at pictures of my dad in his twenties, his arm wrapped around his college buddies, and I feel that warm pang of nostalgia. I look at those pictures and not only do I see his joy, but I so clearly see my own smile. I read my grandfather’s writing and find metaphors I thought I’d written myself. I listen to recordings of my mom, and my own voice rings so clearly.
As I see my own smile or hear my own voice in my family’s past, the memories resonate even more. I see the nuance of the moments: the crack in a smile, and the way my mom’s recorded voice sounds a little fake when it gets really high-pitched… just like mine does. I start to notice the grey areas within black and white moments. Because the truth is, I do know about the storm clouds at the custard place and my grandparents’ fighting. I know about all of it, just like I know about my own struggles. They’re the struggles that are interwoven with my countless warm, happy memories. A warm, happy memory is nice, but what’s even more powerful is a memory that reveals the whole picture. I am nostalgic for a past that isn’t mine. The happy memories keep me warm, but even stronger are the nuanced, messy, truthful memories that help me understand myself.
Sometimes the past brings us all the more in touch with the present. Perhaps it’s that combination of happiness and longing and revelation that the Greeks were referring to when they came up with nostalgia: “the pain of homecoming.”