Some of us are sentimental and some of us are not. Sometimes there are very good reasons for putting the past behind us. Sometimes treasuring the past can enrich our lives and contribute to a sense of place and purpose
Nostalgia can encourage an attachment to keepsakes and memorabilia. I’m not talking about people who simply like to collect things, or those who suffer from the poorly understood affliction of hoarding, though if we live long enough, our accumulation of keepsakes might begin to resemble hoarding to an outside observer.
When it comes to sentiment I’m somewhere between the extremes, but with one foot firmly planted in the nostalgia camp. If it is possible to inherit a tendency towards nostalgia, I know exactly where I got it.
I remember relatives from both sides of my family who filled their homes with memorabilia. Both of my parents treasured their keepsakes. As they got older and began to lose family members to time, their collections swelled to challenge the available storage space with inherited items.
For most of their lives my folks made sure that everything they kept was carefully preserved, labeled and neatly stored away, but as they got older they began to realize that their collection was beginning to get a little out of hand. My dad would laugh and say “One day when I leave this house I’m going to come up out of that basement and lock the door behind me, and then it’s going to be somebody else’s problem!” If you live long and are lucky enough to be able to stay in your own home, see if the same thing doesn’t happen to you. Gravity gets much stronger as we age (I’m sure it’s not a matter of us getting weaker), and when you apply aches and pains and sickness to a steep flight of stairs, the antique quilts and handmade furniture stored in the basement and in the attic just don’t get as much attention as they once did.
Every new generation reaches a point where the halcyon days of youth can seem more compelling than what we face in the present, but I will always wonder if the generation of my parents was more sentimental than other generations because of the hardships they endured. Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression, when country folk who lived without ready access to goods and services, or money to pay for them, learned that you don’t throw away anything that might be useful. They also learned the value of things that modern Americans tend to take for granted. My aunt, who had all the money she needed when she was old, kept a drawer full of plastic bags and rubber bands that she would not throw away, because they were useful.
A large part of my dad’s collection was his WWII memorabilia. He was a combat veteran who served in the navy during some of the most intense campaigns of the war. One of his most prized possessions was an old periodical with a picture on the cover taken in Tokyo Bay on VJ Day, 2 September, 1945. Near the end of his life when he struggled to speak, he could still point out his destroyer, the USS Kalk, among the Allied ships escorting the Missouri during the official surrender of Japanese forces.
It was a cruel irony, but thankfully a short-lived one, that the little strokes known as TIA took away my dad’s “gift of gab,” as he called it, about six months before he passed away. He was a storyteller from a long tradition and a legendary talker among family and friends. On a family road trip to Canada he once talked non-stop across the entire state of Ohio. By the time we crossed the Michigan state line, even my mother’s indomitable patience was wearing thin when she very quietly said to him, “Can’t we just listen to music for a while?”
As a teenager, I would roll my eyes when my dad would say, “I’ve probably told you this before, but I’m going to tell it again.” As an adult accompanying my senior dad on many outings, I did penance for my youthful impatience, watching how people would react to the old man who had just cornered them at the coffee shop, intent on telling a story. There is no doubt in my mind that veterans are the most patient and respectful listeners on the planet. Dad’s “Tin Can Sailors” hat attracted quite a few conversations, and not once did a fellow veteran show any sign that they did not have all the time in the world to listen to one of the last of the Greatest Generation telling his story.
My folks have been gone now for several years, and their stories, (along with their collections of keepsakes) live on with me. I’m grateful that I realized something very important while my parents were still alive. Their collection of memories, the telling and re-telling of stories – these were not foibles of old age. They were part of an effort to keep their memories intact, and to preserve a sense of self in an ever changing world.
Think about it. Over time everything that we hold dear, everything that is familiar, changes or goes away. We can find ourselves lonesome in a world of rapidly accelerating change, and if we live long enough we watch our friends and loved ones disappear on our way to becoming truly alone. (Our nursing homes are full of people who have nothing and no one familiar left in their lives.) Our senses begin to betray our understanding of the present as we lose the context of the familiar. Our memories of the past can become more real, and more comforting, than what we think we see around us.
My dad told stories and collected old tools. My mom kept quilts and photo albums. It was an effort to preserve the rich tapestry of their lives, to bring forward into the present a reckoning of the past. Their efforts carried a hope that the memory of the lives they lived might somehow survive into the future. They knew many years ago that I would not be giving them any grandchildren, so the stories and the treasured objects were a way to pass on their legacy. I intend to share some of those stories here.
If you are fortunate enough to have older people in your life, take whatever time is necessary to listen to them. Their stories are more important than most of your desire-driven agenda. Like me, you may wake up one day to discover that someone you love has grown old, all of a sudden, when you weren’t looking, or when you were too busy to notice. Hindsight is not universally comforting. It can be like seeing the answers to a test that you can’t take over again. I hope I passed the test. Perhaps I’ll find out one day, when I’m an old man telling my own stories.