Nostalgia & Me
Posted December 28, 2009on:
Back when I was working on my second history book, a colleague and I walked into the “girls room” of what had been the Campus School at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. With the campus school closed, Morris Hall was the education building on campus.
I’m not sure of her exact words, but my colleague noted the smells of the soap and brown paper towels. Immediately, they brought back memories of the boys’ bathroom down the hall at Old Bonhomme Elementary School in suburban St. Louis. A few intrepid girls had the guts to enter the kingdom of the boys’ bathroom to check it out, but sadly, not me.
I was still willing, however, to peer into the boys’ bathroom in my elementary school years if the door happened to be open. I was nosey enough to want to know what goes on in there and perhaps catch a boy in mid pee. I never did see such action, but a young gal walking by could dream.
I didn’t take that dream with me after Old Bonhomme Elementary School when I entered West Ladue Junior High School or Ladue High School. I don’t recall stories in those bathrooms other than some girls smoking in them. (Not me, of course.)
The elementary school memories came flooding back as I watched a segment on nostalgia (remembering the past) on the CBS Sunday Morning program. It turns out research has shown that smells bring back memories faster than any other sense. And in the Midwest the smells that bring it back the fastest are farm animals. Not in my part of the Midwest, however. I was born and raised on a suburb, not a farm.
What’s interesting is that nostalgia was once considered a form of mental illness that Ed Brown described it this way: (http://bms.brown.edu/HistoryofPsychiatry/nostalgia.html):
“From the late seventeenth through the late nineteenth centuries, what we might call homesickness was a disorder that doctors and patients took quite seriously. Like shell shock and PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome] a diagnosis of nostalgia could result in a soldier being discharged from the army. Like anorexia nervosa, nostalgia occasionally resulted in death. It was a serious disorder, as long as social and intellectual circumstances provided a lens for seeing it. When those circumstances changed, nostalgia, like hysteria in the late nineteenth century, evaporated.”
Heck, my life and career as a personal historian are based on nostalgia. I love the stories that my clients tell and, of course, no matter what I’m writing about on this blog, there are stories to tell.
One time I decided to call my Aunt Irene, the last remaining sibling on either side of my parents. Aunt Irene told me that as the youngest of nine children she and my dad had to go upstairs to play in the evening. They liked to act out the parts in Shakespeare – one of the few books the family had in the house.
She also told me the story of the dinner table of their youth and how if a child did not push in his or her chair, this youngster had to come back and pull out and push back every chair at the table.
“These people,” she said of those living in her assisted living building, “never push in their chairs.” She was slightly disgusted by such a transgression in decorum.
I came downstairs immediately after the phone call and told my husband the story of the chairs. He pointed to mine at the table – it was out, of course. Decorum? Me?
We look back at our lives because it is fun and also because it can be helpful. Think of George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful LIfe,” which you surely saw this past week or two. We can look back and think about what might have happened if we had not been on the planet.
Even therapists describe reminiscing on the good – and even the bad – of our lives as helpful because we realize we’ve gotten through difficult things before. We can learn about our strength, coping skills and will to survive whatever challenges we have (including breast cancer).
There’s no question when I interview people, there is a therapeutic value to it – even though I have no training in therapy or psychology. These folks sometimes release stories and feelings that have been bottled up. They also realize their strengths.
And we usually laugh. A lot.
In several of my life-writing classes, I’ve had students who have remained quiet and not shared until suddenly they feel the strength to do so in the last session. The entire class cheers for them.
Call me crazy if you must, but this blog is my therapy. I love remembering these little tidbits of my life. It feels good and reminds me about who I am.