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Nostalgia

Reflections on Nostalgia

Nostalgia.

In the movie Midnight in Paris the main character, Gil, was made fun of for being so enamored by nostalgia. Some of the other characters made it sound like something to be shunned. They turned their noses up at the concept, as though the word itself stunk of death and disease.

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Gil’s character, in the novel he was struggling with, was the owner of a nostalgia shop. Gil himself loved nostalgia. The whole premise of the movie was about his love for Paris of the 20s. He was drawn to that era because of the renaissance of the creative world that converged upon Paris in the roaring 20s. It was, as Ernest Hemingway said, A Moveable Feast to be in Paris in this era, one of its many heydays. Gil himself, by way of a certain magic that one can truly imagine is an authentic part of the streets of Paris, gets whisked away to the Paris of the 20s while meandering the streets of the city at Midnight.

The whole movie centers around nostalgia in a way. As Gil’s obsession with the past has him writing about it in his novel, it also has him longing to be a part of that past…so much so that it actually happens. He’s in the 20s meeting all those famous bohemian writers and artists in the clubs of Paris. It’s when he meets Adriana that his love of nostalgia gets put to the test. Just as he envisioned Paris in the 20s as the perfect era, Adriana insists that the Belle Époque in the same city is by far the best era. She is a woman of the 20s, hankering for the past. And it goes on and on and on…this love of all things behind us. Thus is the power of nostalgia.

Just seeing candy from our youth, or catching an old movie from our teen years can do it…have us burn with a desire to slipstream back into those glory days we left behind. Or maybe, like Gil, we can get drawn up into a past that was even before our own time. It’s easy to slip into an old classic novel and imagine ourselves in those times taking place within the novel’s pages. We forget that diseases ran rampant, that there was no electricity or email or internet. We just long for the smell of a wood-smoke fire and tinker toys. 

I swear, I get nostalgic every time I watch a movie older than this decade. Moulin Rouge sends me! But so does Home for the Holidays. The last ten minutes of that movie, when Charles Durning relives a moment in his life with Holly Hunter (his daughter in the movie), telling her about how she was a fearless kid watching planes take off at the airport? I cry every time. He tells her this two minute flash from the past, and you can tell his whole life is transported to that blip of time and he yearns to go back for just a moment—with every fiber of his being–just to get that rush of pride once again. And in the end, he says, “I wish I had it on film.” Christ, what a bonding moment. The whole movie is glorious, but those last ten minutes or so…nostalgia! Boy oh! It makes you long for childhood.

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Nostalgia makes us forget all the bad things, doesn’t it? Sweeps them away. And it is, as Charles Durning’s character mentioned, just tiny moments caught in our memory for the rest of our forever.

I remember a Sunday when I was maybe seven or eight. Not the whole Sunday, mind you…but just a one-minute glimpse of it. I’m standing in front of the storm door. It’s one of those rare days when the big front door is left open. It’s cold outside, but almost stifling inside. It’s around November, I think. The snow isn’t falling yet, but you can almost see it swirling in the air. It’s late afternoon. The Sunday roast is almost ready. The windows in the door are filled with steam and I’m looking outside.

There’s noise in the kitchen as my mother moves expertly about, from counter to sink to stove to fridge. She’s almost ready to scream that supper is ready. I can smell it all; the turnip, the carrots, the potatoes, the roast. I always hated the roast…but I also always loved its contribution to the aromas.

There’s a din somewhere else in the house. With 4 boys, there always was. And maybe a TV fights for attention somewhere else. I’m just standing at the door, looking out. I start to draw on the glass with my finger, making stick figures in the steam. For some reason, I move closer and closer to the glass until my lips touch it. And then I taste it. It’s impossibly cold, compared to the swirling heat coming from the kitchen beside me. The contrast of the cold on my face and the comfortable warmth of the Sunday Roast day is like a warm blanket enshrouding me with a sense of wonder and peace. I stand back to see the imprints I’ve made on the glass.

When the shout finally erupts from the kitchen, and all the scrambling noises of the rest of the family making their way to the supper table signals the end of my quiet little moment of reflection, I take my hand and swipe away all evidence of my time spent at the storm door.

I run to join the others. And that’s where the memory stops. Nobody else is really a part of the memory. It’s just me and the steam and the smells and the outside threatening to penetrate the heat of the Sunday house, as evidenced by the shrill coldness locked inside the glass of the storm door. A blip in time and then it’s gone.

We all have those moments–those memory pockets–that immediately incite the feeling of nostalgia in us. They can be memorable moments because of their importance in our lives, or they can be memorable just because. I remember the taste of that window, and the way the glass filled with steam. I remember the way it felt to run my finger across the glass. Hell, I even remember rubbing my wet hand on the front of my t-shirt after swiping away all the evidence. But most of all, I remember the longing that keeps bringing me back to that moment in quiet times inside this impossible future. A whole life has been lived since that day. I couldn’t even tell you a thing about that day. Zip. Nada. But when it scurries across my memory like a skittering vole popping up in a vast field of wind-blown grasses, it comes to life all over again. I am there.

Nostalgia. It’s so powerful. It brings the dead to life. It’s such an incredible tool in the writer’s toolbox, too. Such a great manipulator of emotions. I die every time I come across it in a good book or movie. I think maybe it’s time to watch Midnight in Paris again, or Home for the Holidays. Either one is a perfect example of an exceptional use of the nostalgia device. Midnight in Paris literally punches you in the face with it. But Home for the Holidays is a silent sneak-up attack. It manages to take us all back to our own childhoods, our own dysfunctional functional family dynamics. Both movies are Master Classes on the use of nostalgia in fiction, TBH.

That is all for today.