By KATELYN ROBERTS
While on Facebook the other day, I received a notification from my friend Mike. His profile picture appeared to the left of his witty comment and I clicked on the thumbnail to get a closer look.
That had been his picture for awhile now, and I could tell it was a childhood portrait. When I clicked to see the full-sized image, a brief thought of how cute he was crossed my mind, but I was quickly overtaken by a deep sadness.
I looked into the child in the photograph’s eyes and compared them to Mike’s eyes now. I started crying.
Mike is not the type of person to make me cry.
I’ve felt this way looking at my own childhood photo albums but I wondered why a friend’s baby picture, especially one as insignificant as an old coworker’s, could also make me sad.
I dug deeper. Why does childhood nostalgia make us sad?
When you’re a kid, you’re not intentionally painting memories to make yourself sad later in life, and that’s the joy of being a child: being able to take every sweet, careless moment for granted.
Well, those fond memories get bundled up and shoved into a treasure chest in your mind.
They later come out to strike you with a bittersweet, wistful sadness.
I asked some Tucson friends what sort of scents, objects, sounds or memories brought them back. Some of their replies included:
- Joop Cologne
- Maltese puppies
- The hour before the sun sets in October
- The smell of citrus blossoms
- Cedar wood
- A-Ha’s “Take on Me”
- The sound of snow crunching
- Root beer floats
- Reading books during the early hours before the sun rises
- Strawberry Shortcake dolls
- Scented pencils
- Grandma’s makeup
- The elementary school library
- Darkroom fixer
- Dove soap
- Freshly-mowed grass
- Little League
- Bath and Body Works Cucumber Melon
- Smoking pipes
- Antibacterial soap
- John Denver’s “Rhymes and Reasons”
- Orange and purple Halloween lights
- A skateboard’s wheels rolling over cracks in the sidewalk
- The New York City subway
Anything can take you back, particularly picturesque objects like fireflies or a sunset.
For me, it’s my mom’s sundresses and the smell of fresh dill.
The duo reminds me of my mom hanging out in the backyard with us, gardening, or calling us inside to try on the matching dresses she sewed us.
I find myself yearning for a past that feels comfortable and normal.
For many of us, being a kid was lonely, even frightening. Why would those with tough childhoods want to go back?
You’ve heard it before: “Things were better back then.”
I always figured people referenced the past as “the good old days” because it had less technology and simpler pleasures. Or, they were blurring out the hardship and remembering the good stuff, as we all do.
In my research, I found many online forums about the topic. A number of people admitted to even having addictions to nostalgia.
Nostalgia is, after all, a concentration of all the good memories we’ve collected. That sounds like a drug to me.
But that is between you and your therapist.
Apparently, if these folks, myself included, were around during the 17th through 19th centuries and fell into a stupor of memories, we’d be diagnosed with a psychopathological disorder.
The Swiss physician Johannes Hofer created the word “nostalgia” in 1688 by combining the Greek word “nostos,” meaning “homecoming,” with “algo,” meaning pain.
It seemed to be most common in soldiers missing their home and children missing their mothers.
In “The Future of Nostalgia” by Svetlana Boym, the first people stricken with the disease were those displaced during the 17th century like “freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help working in France and Germany and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad.”
Boym described nostalgia as a disease of an afflicted imagination.
The melodrama of deeming nostalgia an illness sounds crazy itself, and should be filed away with other ridiculous ailments of the past like “women’s hysteria.”
According to “Dying of the Past,” Michael S. Roth’s study on nostalgia in the 19th century, nostalgia as an illness was considered so serious that some soldiers even faked it.
But there is a helpful lesson in this research.
For me, nostalgia is my biggest kryptonite. As soon as I sense the feeling coming, it cripples me into a somber daydream.
While my sister will patiently listen to me dwell on the past and even interject with her own memories, we eventually cry it out, snap out of it and continue to live our lives.
Just as baby Mike grew up and was replaced by 40-something Croc-wearing Mike, many moments we hold onto from the past will change, age or decay.
And that’s life.
It’s OK to be afraid to face something from the past. It’s OK to miss something from the past.
Luckily, this is the 21st century and we won’t be electrocuted, tortured, shamed or covered in leeches for it.
But too much of it won’t get you anywhere. Living in the past is easy. Facing the unknown is not.
Childhood nostalgia is my fear of the unknown, my apprehension to take steps into my unwritten future, my search for comfort.
After all, we find comfort in the familiar.