Lilacs and Scalloped Potatoes: Going Back for Nostalgic Seconds

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“We’ll be arriving around 10:00 pm,” my father would tell his mom prior to embarking on the five hour drive to my grandmother’s home in upstate New York. But there was more to the declaration than informing her of our arrival.

It also served as a polite reminder that we’d be tired from the drive and would prefer to arrive, chat, unpack, and then promptly hit the sack. In other words, please, Grandma, don’t make us your usual restaurant-esque welcoming meal complete with a full spread of sliced ham, scalloped potatoes, salad, bread, and olives. At 10:30 in the evening.

Even for a candy-eating, cookie-stealing eight-year-old like me, her arrival meal was simply too much.

Still, we’d arrive, her excited expression a stark contrast to our yawning faces. Even bigger than her smile was the selection of — you guessed it — food on her kitchen table, a delightful assortment of meat, brown sugar-glazed carrots, of honey mustard and blue cheese salad dressings, deep bowls of scalloped potatoes and plenty of bread loaves (sesame and plain) waiting to be smothered in butter. We knew this before even seeing anything; the smell of cloves and other spices were instant giveaways that there was food to be had before we even so much as caught a glimpse of her famous cinnamon-candied applesauce.

She no longer lives in that home and sadly, she’s lived to find out that her only child, my father, passed away at the young age of 63 a couple of years ago. These days, she’s no longer cooking food, but instead being served the meals made for her and the others who live at her care facility.

With my grandmother, 2016.

And so it happens that the smell of ham becomes more than a consideration for split pea soup. Today, it’s a memory, one of many bits of welcome nostalgia that seeps in when I think about the people and happenings of my past. One whiff transports me back to that kitchen. If only for a moment, we’re all brought back together by that one inviting memory.

To this day, I can still feel the warmth of her kitchen thanks to an oven that was running for hours. I can see her chestnut-colored dachshund weaving around our feet with the hopes of eating pieces of homemade scalloped potatoes that laps failed to catch. I can still hear the clock ticking in between pauses of stories and laughter.

It’s these thoughts that shake loose the stressful political talk of the day right along with my concerns about finances, a messy living room, and work deadlines. I’m suspended in a cocoon of happy memories, wrapped up and soothed by pleasant thoughts of days gone by. All because I caught a whiff of scalloped potatoes, or spotted a box of them on the grocery store shelf.

The same goes for Caress soap (my father’s mom) or Prell (my mother’s mom).

Any older woman with her hair neatly piled in a bun reminds me of my aunt, a little girl with long braids down to her hips makes me think of my childhood friend, and an English accent brings me back to my fourth grade teacher.

So, why do memories mean so much to me? Why is nostalgia important to anyone, for that matter?

Psychologist Diana M. Raab writes in HuffPost that reminiscing is natural, and an important part of people’s lives. She says it takes us back to less complex times. “Life was simpler in the 1960s, there were no computers, cell phones, or text messages,” she wrote. “The only technology resided in telephones, small black and white TVs and transistor radios.”

Indeed, I’m often reminded of simpler times.

I recently browsed through Pinterest during a particularly nostalgic period, checking out all things 1980s-related (I was born in the 70s). Strawberry Shortcake dolls were followed by sticker albums which were followed by rubber bracelets, all of the images putting my emotions on overdrive. I was overcome by an incredible joy that was somewhat stifled by a yearning to return to pre- iPhone and emoji days.

Simpler times when being Wonder Woman was everything.

The carefree times of trading stickers, clenching my Cabbage Patch doll, and playing house in a refrigerator box came flooding back with every scroll on my phone. I remembered singing with MaryAnn, the two of us using the wooden ends of a jump rope as a microphone so we could belt out the record player’s Air Supply tunes. I recalled my makeshift wax paper holder in the back of my sticker book album, reluctantly trading my banana scented magnificence for a sheet of pickles. I remembered dressing up like twins in the fourth grade, Molly and I trying our best to hide our laughter while convincing classmates of our purely “coincidental” matching outfit choice. Jennifer and I enjoyed silliness in her backyard pool, followed by trips to the mall in our later years.

And I absolutely can’t forget the huge lilac bush that stood outside of my childhood home. Its sweet fragrance wafted through the rooms with an unpredictable delight that punctuated an ideal day of bicycle riding with neighborhood friends. It’s those lilacs I saw day after day, heading to and returning from school, carrying report cards and goldfish and science projects and denim-covered loose-leaf binders. It stood, gently swaying in summer breezes, upon our return from Grandma’s house, watching us as we carried a cooler packed full of leftover ham and scalloped potatoes.

Kindergarten nap time and Light Bright and Girl Scout memories frequently well up inside my 40-something year old self. One part of me longs to return to the simplicity of the past while the other part of me realizes the importance of mindfulness and living in the present. It’s as though remembering days gone by will magically take away the stresses and challenges of today — and it does, momentarily. I catch them and hold on, grateful for the wonderful glimpses of the past these memories provide, yet I’m well aware that they can’t unravel today’s sometimes unsettling or difficult realities.

I suppose yesteryear will always beckon. It’s the tap on the shoulder that reminds me it’s all right to remember, to miss, to smile, to shed a tear. In memories come bittersweet reflections, joy, laughter, sudden realizations, and sometimes — if we are lucky — a life lesson.

And with every new challenge that seeps in as the years pass, the nostalgia deepens. Increasingly, I am my grandmother, talking to others about “that time when.” I enjoy social media posts asking others if they recall what a clothes pin bag looked like or how mom’s meatloaf smelled. I am my mother, deriving more appreciation for photographs from years gone by, displaying more of them in my home than I would have in the past. I am moved by memories, of history class high school crushes and the note passing that came along with it, of playground seesaws, of Dad helping me with school projects, of rolling down a hill barefoot paying no mind to grass stains, animal droppings, or bee stings.

I don’t go about my life today talking to a secret stash of Cabbage Patch Kids in a closet, nor am I grocery shopping while wearing fluorescent tops and side ponytails. I do, however, enjoy a shopping experience whenever 80s tunes accompany me down the aisles — where maybe, just maybe, I’ll purchase a box of scalloped potatoes if for no other reason than because I know it’ll bring a smile to my face.

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