Polishing the Mirror

When I was very young, the stories of older people fascinated me. My grandmother’s stories were so vivid that listening to her seemed like traveling back in time.

Nostalgia smooths the rough places in our personal history and polishes the mirror of reflection until the image may be somewhat distorted, but most of us remember a period in our lives that was somehow sweeter, simpler or richer in some measure than today.

Growing up in the Southern Appalachians in the late 19th century was anything but easy, and by modern standards creature comforts were few, but my grandmother always cherished her childhood memories, and as long as she was able, still enjoyed visiting the old homestead. She was blessed to be able to do that.

Not everyone has an idyllic childhood of course, but most of us do in the western world. It is the nature of parents to do everything in their power to create a bubble of innocence and safety around their children, and Americans have been fortunate in that this has been easier to accomplish here than in most places.

Nostalgia has been a close companion lately as we make ready to sell the family home my brother and I lived in from pre-school to high school and beyond. Our mother left this earth in that house, and our dad stayed there almost as long. I was married under that roof, and there were many firsts there, as well as many “lasts.”

The firsts are easy to identify, but It’s a hard turn of fate that we are so frequently blind to the lasts until they are irretrievable: The last time our mom opened a carton of homemade vegetable soup; the last time Dad climbed up the stairs from the basement with a jar of new honey fresh from his hives; the last time we loaded the station wagon for a family vacation at the beach; the last supper together around the kitchen table before school and work pulled us apart; the last Christmas when we were all able to be home at the same time, and the last sound of the screen door slamming with its distinctive tone.

There has been a lot of reminiscing lately between friends and classmates, and I suppose it’s only natural that we, like our ancestors did and our descendants will probably do as well, tend to value the past over the present as far as the quality of the time we spent growing up. I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, but I’ll make it anyway.

If you count 20 years as a generation, at least two of them here in America were blessed with a charmed existence for the children of that time. There were wars, but participation was voluntary for the youth who chose to serve. There was crime, but we wandered the neighborhood like Wally and The Beaver, more at risk from being late for supper than from anything we might encounter in a place where neighbors knew each other and all the neighborhood kids.

Those of us who grew up on or spent time at the farm were even more fortunate. We all spent more time outdoors. Our bodies were healthier. We were less fragile. We knew how to do things, to make things, to invent games and activities on the fly with parts of our brains that must surely be atrophied now in the glare of so many pixels, even among those of us who should know better.

Few of us are lucky enough to hang on to the place where we grew up as long as we have. Not many of us would even want to. Our ambitions and our technology spread us far and wide like the seeds of a dandelion. Those of us who would like to remain in the old neighborhood, too often now are betrayed by changes we don’t understand and don’t like. The reasons are economic, and they are social, and they do not speak well of a nation and a culture which has allowed it’s neighborhoods to become places where children cannot roam freely without fear.

My family was fortunate. We had a choice to leave, though reluctantly. So many do not have that choice. And what we leave behind is, for many people, so far and away better than where they live now, that they are willing to send their own children into the unknown for even a remote chance at a bubble of childhood innocence and safety that is not torn by chaos and want.

God save them all. But only so many drowning people can cling to even the sturdiest of vessels before it goes under, and we have crossed the Rubicon into an era which will reveal to us all just how seaworthy our vessel really is.

That’s too big a map for this very personal journey, and the question is too complicated, as to how we lost the will and the way for our cities, towns, neighborhoods and farms to be places where our kids can stay, and where they would want to stay: Places that families can pass on to the next generation; places where people can put down roots.

Still, though what we have shared here may ring true, we do know that it is entirely subjective. On a trip to Driftwood Beach recently, my wife and I grieved at the changes to the shoreline over time, but a young friend on her honeymoon thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. My grandmother believed that her childhood was blessed. My father was convinced that my generation was missing out on so much he enjoyed while growing up, and he tried to gift us with many of those experiences while they were still possible. My friends and I shake our heads at the kids of today, most likely with replicas of the expressions our parents wore.

Growing up is decorated with firsts and littered with lasts, and we each learn to experience time, to capture it for a while, and finally to surrender to it in our own way. It is my firm belief that the more moments we embrace, the fewer our regrets will be, and the easier it will be to let go when it’s time to let go. I can almost regret, however, not having one more cup of tea, sitting in that rocking chair in my parents’ bedroom, soaking up the spectacular view of the sun going down in the west, but as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, someone else will enjoy that view.

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