Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Bittersweet Pain of Nostalgia

Grandma and Grandpa in their basement antique shop in Lincoln, NE

Parsing through old photos I've scanned onto my computer, I feel a pang of longing for the past that stabs my heart and kicks me in the gut. I am looking at pictures of my grandparents back in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I lived for a few perfect years when I was young: my grandpa's antique shop in the musty basement of his house, a group shot of my cousins, aunts, uncles, my great Aunt Esther standing in my grandparent's rose garden in the backyard, my youthful 30-something parents, my younger brother and sisters as babies, me and my older brother still cute and unaffected. I see these images and I am suddenly there, a child surrounded by a large, loving extended family.

My father moved us to California when I was eight, to take a teaching job, a million miles away from Grandma and Grandpa. I cried as we headed out of town, feeling as if a limb was being amputated. We would visit 'back home' once in a while, for a family reunion or a special anniversary, but it got harder and harder to make the trip.

Sometimes I think about going back to Lincoln to find my grandparent's old house, a place I remember as Utopian: concrete lions at the base of the front porch stairs, water melons and roses growing in the backyard in the summer, a lovely porch swing I long to go back to and often do, in my mind, when I can stand the bittersweet pain of being there again. I remember summer nights with siblings and cousins, catching fireflies while my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents sat on the front porch (excuse me while I wipe my eyes). We don't have fireflies in California - an entomological shortcoming in my book, if there ever was one.

Me (on the floor looking bewildered) with my older brother holding our baby sister, and some cousins - probably at Christmas which we always spent with the whole family.

A few years ago, when my husband and I were looking to buy another home, we walked into an old house that smelled of ripe apples and wood. I nearly swooned. I was immediately transported back in time to Grandma's house and filled with such longing I couldn't keep back the tears (our realtor politely ignored my reaction). I fell in love with the house, wanted to walk into it everyday and smell that smell, feel those feelings (I am, without a doubt, a glutton for punishment). I often buy apples and put them in a bowl for the sole purpose of smelling them as they ripen and rot. We didn't end up buying that house, and the house we live in now has many years to go before it has that lovely aged, lived-in scent I love so much. I will probably be long gone by the time it does.

I looked up my grandparent's old address online. The house is still there, but I don't think I'll ever go back to see it. If just thinking about the house creates such emotion in me, I think that actually seeing it again would either be a huge disappointment (reality is a poor replacement for our idealized memories) or I would have to be scraped up off the ground after a complete emotional meltdown.

I once read that when we feel nostalgia, we are actually longing for heaven. I like that....

My brother and I with our grandparents, most likely after church on a Sunday
Circa 1958'ish

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