“The Greek word for "return" is . means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. . . . In Spanish comes from the verb (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan , itself derived from the Latin word (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss). In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there.”
From Ignorance (2002), by
In the summertime, nostalgia ripens like the sweet corn in the fields and the garden's fat red tomatoes.
The hum of the cicadas on a slow summer afternoon takes me right back to the lazy summers when I was a kid. Those summers often felt like torture to me. Outside of the routine of the school day, I felt that I would die of boredom. That, or the heat and humidity of
Texas in the summer
would strike me dead if I ventured outside my air-conditioned house.
In hindsight, though, what I would give to recapture that sense of an infinite day ahead of me to fill with lazy endeavors: stretching out on the hot spikes of Bermuda grass in the backyard and watching the ants carrying their treasures; sitting in front of the TV watching endless cartoons and sitcoms; reading a whole novel (or two) in one day.
Or the freedom to break up my lazy days with more active, often pointless, pursuits: diving for pennies in the city swimming pool; taking barefoot walks on my tiptoes to keep the bottoms of my feet from burning on the hot sidewalk; riding my bike to the 7-11 for an ice-cold Sprite or a package of Now and Laters; skipping rope for hours on the driveway; reaching through the neighbor’s fence to pick wild dewberries for pie.
(I’m not alone in that summertime nostalgia. Fellow writers from Zee’s Writing Studio have shared a mosaic of summer memories at the Painted Parrot.)
Even though I have been cycling around in my childhood memories quite a bit lately, I am finding myself a bit wary about nostalgia. A friend asked me at lunch on Wednesday if I was nostalgic for the 1970s, the decade of my childhood. And my instinctive answer was an emphatic, “No.” (And not just because the ‘70s was the decade of gauchos and elephant-leg jeans and other fashion disasters.)
I am suspicious of nostalgia, of peering at the past through rose-colored glasses. It can be a false memory, a lie. It can mislead.
Nostalgia is the ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a fat old Dutch woman that I see on the shelf of an antique store. I recognize it as the same cookie jar that sat on the counter of my grandmother’s kitchen. But the nostalgic cookie jar is filled with homemade cookies. It is solidly domestic, nurturing and loving. It represents an ideal of womanhood that remained intact until the 1960s. That is the lie.
That sort of nostalgia would blind me to the memory of the empty cookie jar on the counter of my grandmother’s small kitchen. Because it is the emptiness that is truth.
Why does my grandmother even have a cookie jar on her counter? She never makes cookies. She gives me and my older brother and younger sister Mexican Gamesa cookies from a big cardboard box: gingerbread circles with icing so shiny it looks plastic, pink wafer cookies just this side of stale. I know she loves us and wants to give us treats, but the cookie jar is merely decorative. Aspirational. Maybe it is a remnant of a past that my great-grandmother lived; a symbol of a future that was taken away from my grandmother by my grandfather’s abandonment, by divorce.
In my grandmother’s apartment, aluminum foil and thickly lined drapes cover the windows and block out the sun. They close off the apartment in a low hum of air conditioning. The walls of the apartment are yellowed from nicotine and grease and worry as my grandmother sits in the brown vinyl chair and watches TV, alternately taking a drag on a cigarette, flicking ash into the ashtray, and chewing on her fingernails. The real cookie jar, and not the nostalgic one, is covered in a thin film of dust, grease, and nicotine.
Nostalgia wants to give me grandmother the icon, a false knowing. Maybe my memory wants to feed me a sweet picture because the truth of her death, of her permanent absence, is too painful. Because at its root, nostalgia equals loss. To feel nostalgia, we have to have lost something. Nostalgia is the pang of memory, a wanting to return to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. It is the suffering of an infinite journey, the emptiness of Penelope and Telemachus in
Ithaca forever without an Odysseus.
The pain that nostalgia brings with it comes from the always not-knowing, the ignorance that I will forever carry with me. My grandmother is far away, and I don’t know what has become of her. No matter how many memories of my grandmother I retrieve from that cookie jar, she can’t ever be returned to me. She has taken part of me with her, a part that I can’t know completely without her.