I am a sentimental old fool. I never shun an opportunity for a decent wallow in nostalgia. Since the departure of both my grannies, this predilection for wistful yearning has grown. The house is punctuated with bits and pieces inherited from my grandmothers (and by punctuated, I mean the sort of punctuation designed for pause – commas, semi-colons and full-stops. I can’t walk along the hallway without having to stop and cast a bit of sweet yearn over a pretty blue pot or a ruby glass vase). I guess that those of us pre-disposed to nostalgia will only find it increases as we get older and the years fly faster. At this rate I’ll be a snivelling mess by fifty; my children will avoid being near me in case I clutch ahold and never let go.
Sometimes, such as when things change (children to school, children changing schools, jobs, houses etc etc) I’m nostalgic for last week, the weekend, yesterday. Last night during offspring I was wistful for the good old days of Dr Chris, not because it was the season finale but because we all know that show is well past its glory days. Often I wish for the days when my babies actually were babies – yep those same days I whinged about ceaselessly and thought would never end.
We’re funny old things us humans aren’t we.
Mostly though, childhood memories are the triggery little trip-wires. Little things, things that were once inconsequential. Those old telephoned with the big dials, for instance, the ones that tethered you and your secret conversations to the most poulated parts of the house. The smell of pencils, the feel of velvet, the sound of a seagull. And always I’m wistful for a time when cyberspace wasn’t a thing, when the biggest risk to our welfare were the teenagers on the bus (“whattayalookinatshrimp?”), a time when we thought rubbery cheese slices and polyester were wholesome and good.
I wonder whether the hallmark of a happy childhoood – regardless of how happy or otherwise the present may be – is frequent nostalgia. The other night, when I went outside for firewood, the smell of the smoke from the chimney brought me to a sudden stop. I stood still, breathing cold air suddenly warmed by faraway memories. And for a minute, with the stars above me and my little dog looking concerned at my side, I thought I might cry.
Happy tears. Although nostalgia was once an affliction of the sick, a harmful, sometimes fatal form of homesickness (the word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek words ‘nostos’ meaning ‘homecoming’ and ‘algos’ meaning ‘ache’), it is these days most often seen a pleaseant experience, if a little tinged with sad. It is defined (on that internet dictionary thingo) as a “wistful yearning for the past, its personalities and events”.
Smell and touch are evidently common triggers of nostalgia, as these stimuli are processed via the emotional part of the brain. Our new load of firewood is reportedly peppermint gum, known for its slow burn and low ash. The scent of it on the fire is not peppermint but something much warmer, more like an incense, perhaps like the smell of the cathedral pews I sat on as a Church of England schoolgirl; perhaps like the homefires of childhood; it’s hard to say. Whatever it was, there was truly an ache for something long gone.
The same thing happens when I catch the perfume of my tiny daphne plant, taste dry ginger ale, or feel the first hint of spring arriving through an open window. Music can be just as evocative; play me “You’re the Voice” by John Farnham and I’m straight back on Orford Front Beach with my first boyfriend in my pink striped bathers, my breast buds and my Ken Done sunglasses. I can feel the sun on my (factor eight covered) skin and the skip of my teenage heart.
Nostalgia is apparently often characterised by a ‘memory bias’, which can cast a golden light on the past and have it looking better than the present (hence sitting in a cold cathedral for hours evoking warm memories. Although nothing can make those godawful sunglasses look better can it?). Regardless of bias, it has significant effects on our choices. The design of our house and its fixtures, our garden, the way I do my children’s hair, the things I put on the dinner table, our wedding invitations, the words I use, the teapot I buy, all guided, in part at least, by nostalgia.
And sometimes, if you can’t find the source of the stirring in the memory archive, there is mystery too. A little déjà vu thrill of the unknown. What if that memory isn’t mine? What if it belongs to another time? Another life? Those kinds of nostalgic full stops create a whole new paragraph in my thoughts. Not a very scientific paragraph.
Science does say that nostaligia serves important functions. Things like mood improvement, physical warmth, comfort, self-worth, well-being, psychological growth and existential meaning. Overall, so long as you’re not debilitated by homesickness (oh that terrible ache) psychologists have decided that nostalgia is generally beneficial.
Anyway, despite the supposed increase in physical warmth, I did get cold, out there with the chimney puffing out wist. So I went in, back to the sleeping children and kitchen smells and the fireside, back to a present that will one day turn golden with nostalgia and curl at the edges with time.