Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Power of Nostalgia

"Optima dies...prima fugit." The best days...are the first to flee. Willa Cather opened her novel My Ántonia with that Latin line from a poem by Virgil. The novel is infused with the power of sentiment and the changing world of the prairie as lived out and remembered by Jim Burden. Yet Cather isn't a sentimental writer and that can be a difficult feat when writing of the past. Usually when a book or movie is criticized as being too sentimental or nostalgic, I'm all over it. I never find too much of either to be a bad thing. Perhaps that is why the Christmas season can have such a delightful ache and longing to it. Even ad exec Don Draper in Mad Men, a television show I have watched on occasion, captures that feeling about nostalgia and its overt power in advertising: "It takes us to a place where we ache to go again." Exactly.

I don't know if you watch CBS Sunday Morning (or tape it as we do) from 9am-10:30am each Sunday but every week I find so many relevant stories: from the folksy to the topical. It's as if, for a brief time each week, the regular news format has been suspended or even upended into that nice soft underbelly of culture and information that you'd like to see more often. Topical stories are addressed but mostly it is the kind of piece on reinventing Sundays, or some odd festival or turkey-calling, or this recent segment on nostalgia in our culture that just bring me back, week after week, for more. There are also really humorous bits and movie reviews. [And I have to admit to having a secret nerd crush on Mo Rocca. I would even consider "tweeting" just to follow his hysterical "tweets" on Twitter–and I hope he becomes a regular on The Joy Behar Show because he is the kind of snarky, funny guy I can't get enough of (or often find) in life (and his panel-sharing with Sandra Bernhard the other day just proves that they need their own show). His humor hums with contemporary cultural references, those of the wry variety that sometimes you have to really listen for–what else would you expect from a former Harvard Hasty Pudding Club president?]

Historically, nostalgia has helped a culture to sustain itself during hard times or transitions. As an architectural historian, it fascinates me that there was a huge revival in architecture and furniture styles throughout the nineteenth century, a time of great modern and industrial revolution and cultural changes in Europe and America. So we embraced the past, ancient past: Egypt, Rome, Asia and other cultures influenced the styles and tastes of growing empires. Even the Gothic style became secular. Later in that century we actually revived the Colonial, a revival that still morphs and changes from an era in our history that still resonates after two centuries. Handmade craft became big again in the late nineteenth century, a decided reaction to the industrial age of mass manufacturing. I would argue the same is happening now as a backlash to our technology and computer age: we embrace artisan crafts and breads, small-scale wineries, food grown and sold from small local farms, comfort food and comfortable homes. We crave local, vintage, primitive, retro, old, "new old" and historic. Human yearning is a powerful thing but what is it, exactly, that we are looking for? IMAGE from the book Time Wearing Out Memory–Schoharie County by Steve Gross and Susan Daley [W.W. Norton: 2007]

We've also been returning home as a culture: in our hearts, minds and lifestyles. This nesting trend has been going on since the late 20th century and as much as we create a post-modern home, we draw on old prototypes while infusing our homes and families with new conventions. It can be hard to filter stuff out and there is a backlash with some people to modernity: whether it is anti-feminism, our school systems, the trappings of a modern world. I straddle both worlds but can understand why many women want to be home again or, if they can't because of family economics, they feather their nests as best they can and "think home" whenever possible. It is a fascinating trend. Regardless, "the good old days" were never as great as we think they were but there is tremendous power in a memory or scent or photograph. And nostalgia is good for us: look how it helped people during the Great Depression and World War Two in movies like It's A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, where the ideas of home and never leaving it become powerful themes. PHOTO–My mother in her pink post-war Akron, Ohio kitchen, Christmas, c. 1964.
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NOTES on my Mother's Kitchen (or where my B.A. in Art History and inherent detective skills are actually put to good use or in which Catherine takes a really long aside–if you don't want to read it, scroll down to the next set of "+ + +"): If you click twice on the image of my mother in her kitchen (or any image in my blog entries), it should enlarge for you, because the details are of interest. We know the photo was taken at Christmastime because my Mom is wearing a Santa Claus apron (that I haven't seen since). Note the G.E. box (probably a new toaster opened that morning), with what I believe is a roll of Contact® paper right next to it. The Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Betty Crocker Cookie Cookbook, both mainstays in my mother's kitchen (and likely wedding presents–I also learned to cook and bake from these cookbooks), are in the corner. There is also the pink dishwasher front, the white Colonial Revival-style curtains with plants in the window, and the pink Pyrex® bowl (but I have no idea what my mother had in those jars!). The refrigerator, not pictured and neither is the breakfast nook in this small (probably 10x10) kitchen, was also pink as were many utilitarian features, like the soap dish. There is a trivet on the wall, to the left, which had a pink-ish design on it and was used as a decorative hot plate (trivets were big in the 60s). On the side of the cupboard is a fly swatter (if it is pink, I can not tell), alongside the folding metal towel rack.

"The things they carried..." Mom and I were just talking the other day about moving and boxes–many of ours are still in storage from our move two years ago–and how she moved several unpacked moving boxes from Akron, from our old farm in New Hampshire up the road to her new house several years ago. What is unusual about that is these boxes were from our Ohio house, packed in 1974 and kept in the barn for over 30 years, and likely full of things like trivets and pink kitchen things and seldom-used but well-packed wedding presents. Who knows? I do know that I have nightmares that the same thing will happen to me if we don't build our farmhouse soon...complete with attic, cellar and many pantries.

The linoleum floor of our pink kitchen, which I wish I could show you, was black with white and pink and gray confetti flecks thrown all over it in a random explosion. While crawling on that floor, I often pondered the vastness of space and time while looking at it. Being a highly visual child, I imagined infinity as a great wall on the other side of all of that confetti and blackness and remember asking my mother about what was beyond that wall: "Infinity goes on forever," she said. "Well, it must stop somewhere!" It was an exasperating thought but I guess it was the kind of "atomic" post-war pattern that could induce the philosophies of a three-year old. PHOTO–That's me in our pink Akron kitchen, at about two years old (c. 1964), probably trying to score some cookies.

Last summer a Norwegian historian contacted me about the image of my mother in her kitchen, that appears elsewhere in another blog entry at In the Pantry, for an exhibit called "Fiskeboller i karri" (Fish in curry) designed "to show that Norwegian culture (as any other culture) always has been affected by the rest of the world." They passed on the image, however, after permission had been given from my mother, because it was "too subjective" a relationship between the photographer (likely my father) and the subject (subjectivity must be very hard not to find in any shot of a woman in her kitchen, I should think!). I'm still scratching my head about that. PHOTO–1960s play food, like what I had in childhood, purchased last year on eBay for reasons and impulses I do not understand.

I remember this photo being taken, c. 1965 or 1966: my distant cousin Nancy Turner, whom I've only met a few times, and I are playing in my own pink kitchen under the basement stairs of our Akron home. The pink "appliances" were made of sturdy cardboard and the "food" in the foreground was made of hollow thin painted plastic. (I bought some just like it on eBay–that great nostalgic "attic".)
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I suppose the solution to too much sentiment and nostalgic pining is living more in the present: taking each day for what it is and making memories by living in the moment. I try to do that, every day, but the pull of the past is a powerful thing. It's striking the balance in my life that is the hardest reality. I have boxes of photographs and even more digital images (and carousels of slides–oh my) to go through this year: to organize, copy, catalog and share (from my immediate family and past archives from my extended family). It is something that has to be done: for myself, our children and other family members–even for some kind of elusive posterity. I almost dread the process because I know, with each image, I will dwell in memories and recollections, some painful or bittersweet. I also know that the process could easily overcome me: "It takes us to a place where we ache to go again." PHOTO–Ham awaits Sunday dinner preparations at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in New Gloucester, Maine, August 2006.

So here's to a New Year: a clean slate, a time to reevaluate and remember but also to look forward and reinvent. I will really try not to let the simple glories of the daily life I lead escape from my grasp by living too much in my past (blogging helps this more immediate need to document and reflect on the day-to-day). The novelist Thomas Wolfe, who often wrote of memory and longing, said: "Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to desire to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you?" It's just the human condition to do so and we are, after all, a complex species made of mostly water, intricate strands of DNA, and an invisible and highly individualized soul energy. But our unseen chords (and cords) of memory bind us to each other and to who we are: once in a while, we just have to play them. PHOTO–A close-up of some of my green vintage collection, as styled for a photo shoot for The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses [Gibbs Smith: 2007] at our former historic home.


angela said...

Oh Catherine, how I love this! It is so very timely for me. At my dad's funeral, when I was able to get up and speak, I said "I thought that if this unimaginable day would ever come, my dad would have died from nostalgia...." It oozes in my family's blood and I am so missing my compatriot, my partner in relishing the good ol days. He had some of the green glass you collect. If I find it, it is yours. I know it will be loved.

Catherine said...

Angela you have been in my thoughts since the start of the holidays. I lost my beloved Dad, too, and too young at the age of 66, just before Halloween (his favorite time of year) and only days before my 40th birthday in 2002. His memorial service in Akron was filled with the organ music he loved and he was so nostalgic about his past (but rarely let anyone know).

I can't imagine not having the heartache of sentiment and longing in my life! Otherwise, what's the point if we can't feel and taste bittersweetness once in a while?

Blessings and thanks to you,