“Homesickness is a rich and genuine thing, because it reflects the truth that whatever we admire is decaying and slipping from our grasp, even as we admire it.”
Things last for awhile and having passed they leave a residue, a mark we call the past. We regard it as a kind of home, the source of our identity. The pain of trying to return to this home is known as nostalgia, a bittersweet longing for something that cannot be done, a place that cannot be reached. The weather-beaten cliché that you can’t go home doesn’t stop us from trying, and since we can’t do it, we are perpetually homesick.
Such homesickness is a rich and genuine thing, because it reflects the truth that whatever we admire is decaying and slipping from our grasp, even as we admire it. It’s not a depressing prospect. It’s simply true. The world’s very vividness and poignancy results from the momentariness of our experience. The beauty of a living thing springs directly from its frailty, its coming and its going. If we don’t see that, we simply haven’t waited long enough.
Real nostalgia is as much about the algia, the pain, as it is about the nostos, returning home. Real nostalgia is a loamy fertilizer, the brew of decaying life that we walk through in an autumn forest. Faux nostalgia denies the pain and avoids the depth it brings. It can be a smarmy clinging to the past, like the magazine called Good Old Days, which celebrates “the Happy Days Gone By” with articles extolling the virtues of the gramophone and the icebox. It can also be a wallowing in the past and all the wrongs it wrought, a desire to return and settle the score, to remake what we regret.
I recently spent a day in the town where I grew up, a small town in Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. I had not been back in eighteen years. When you’ve grown up in a town and visit after an eighteen-year hiatus, there are no quick conversations. People need to get their bearings. You’re almost scary to them, like a ghost emerging from the shadows. I went into a used bookstore and chatted with the proprietor. By the time I entered another bookstore a block down Main Street, the owner, an old friend, said, “I heard you were in town.” A drop-by lingered into an hour.
My perceptions of the surroundings were gauzy and shifting, and I understood that time really is a dimension. It’s hard to notice day by day, but when you leave and come back it’s unavoidable. The A&P grocery store where I worked is now a bingo hall. The nuns who taught me have been superseded by young teachers in college sweatshirts. The girl’s school where my brothers snuck in at night is an old age home. The delightful English garden next door is two very ordinary houses.
On my way out of town, I drove by the house I grew up in, a ten-room brick fortress with a two-story brick barn in the back. The barn had once been a dairy and when the house was built, everything beyond it was farmland. By the time I lived there, it sat in the middle of a bustling residential neighbourhood.
I was just going to drive by and leave it at that, but I noticed someone working on the barn, so I pulled over and asked whether he owned the house. Indeed he did, a retired FBI agent who had moved up from Washington and was eagerly refurbishing our house. When he found out I had lived there, he was full of questions.
He was particularly interested in who had installed the kitchen, since he just had torn it out that day. I told him it had been my father, if it was the same kitchen that was there when we vacated twenty-three years before. He took me into the barn and there lying around in no particular order were the kitchen cabinets I had grown up with. As I reached for one of the knobs, memories gushed in technicolor. How silly and mundane to remember the thousands of times I reached into the cabinet. Yet they were embedded there, inseparable from the worn varnish.
He urged me to come into the house to look at what he was doing. We entered the kitchen, which was stripped bare, and there on the wall in large carpenter-pencil strokes it read:
Don Boyce Jr.
Nov. 2, 1957
A little time capsule left by my late father. I stood stock still and drank it in, running my fingers over it almost in disbelief.
A few day’s later at my niece’s wedding in Virginia, my brother told me he was there when my Dad wrote this and proclaimed in an authoritative voice, “Brian, some day 50 years from now someone is going to read this and know what we did.”
That little message had been hidden there my whole life, waiting forty-three years to be delivered and to vanish once again. When the past speaks, it says hello and good-bye all at once.