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Friday, December 5, 2008

Nostalgia

The holidays always make me nostalgic. Not so much for particular days gone by, but rather for the people who are no longer in my life.

Christmas Day growing up always had a predictable pattern. My sisters and I would sleep together in one bedroom, awaken before it was light, and sneak out to add the presents from us to the tottering piles under the tree. We always got a thrill from seeing how much bigger the stacks grew when we added our own offerings. Our grandparents would arrive early, and we would have grapefruit -- cut in half, with the bites sectioned out using one of those special serrated grapefruit knives that have a curved tip. Then we would open presents, which would take most of the morning, since only one person opened at a time and everyone had to "ooh!" and "aaah!" appropriately before we could move on. Then we would have breakfast, which was always scrambled eggs, bacon, and homemade cinnamon rolls courtesy of grandma. My sister makes those rolls for us now, and we keep the very same schedule at our house with our children and their auntie and uncle.

And while the rolls are delicious, and the tradition is lovely, I still miss my grandmother. Her skin almost impossibly soft, with that tissue-like quality I now associate with newborns. Her scent, gently floral, but not really floral, mixed with the merest hint of cigarette. (I've never known anyone else who smoked who had a scent so pleasant and un-smokey.) Her low kind voice, her unobtrusive movements, her stories of my mother as a child, her uncanny ability to have a small coughing fit whenever one of us said something inappropriate and yet hilarious. All of these things I miss, along with her strong and comforting hugs, when I think of Christmas.

But I have other nostalgias too, for people it might seem much stranger to miss. I cannot help but wonder, though, where they are and what they are doing, these people who were once so important to my world, but whom the river of life has carried off down a different tributary.

My college boyfriend's mother. It's true. I have a sense of longing to know what she is doing far more than I wonder about him.

He was never very good for me. In fact, I know where he is and what he is doing in the most basic sense, and I don't really have any interest in knowing a lot more. (digression alert) Though I would like to ask him for my letters back. Is that still done anymore? I know it's an almost impossibly Victorian thing to do, but several years of dating someone English produces a LOT of letters, and I would feel more comfortable if those missives were in my own hands again. When he and I were dating, he had an old picture of himself with an ex-girlfriend that he still carried around with him, on the grounds that they were still friends. But I always felt like he was secretly trying to torture me with how pretty she was, and I always felt mousy when I caught a glimpse of it. Sure, he had my picture in his wallet too -- but shouldn't hers have been gone? I would hate to think some new woman is secretly tortured by the thought that he has a giant box somewhere of love letters from me. And I am more than a little mortified to think what effusions they might contain, which no longer represent any modicum of my feelings for him. So I would like to have them back. But how do I tell him that without being rude? (end of digression)

His mother on the other hand? She was one of the loveliest people I've ever met. She used to write me a long letter on my birthday and another at Christmas (I'd spent a Christmas or two at their house back when he and I were dating), and I always did the same. Even after he and I broke up, I got the letters from her. But then she moved, and I moved, and we lost each other's most current addresses. I think of her every year, and have even tried googling her, because I would love to reconnect with a woman whom I so admired for so many reasons.

In fact, she is one of two boyfriend's-mothers whom in retrospect, I see I liked far more then I ever liked their sons. I'm sure there's a moral in there, though I couldn't say what it is. The other mother is in new Hampshire and for a while wrote a wonderful column for her local newspaper. She was a fantastic cook, a creative soul, a fascinating woman and very kind. She is another I regret losing along the way.

It is a strange feeling, this kind of regret. It has a kind of bittersweetness to it. On the one hand, these people raise up in me such warm feelings of being included in their families, of late-night chats over tea, of togetherness. On the other, there is the tinge of awkwardness to consider: what exactly would I say to them? I do not really have any interest in reestablishing any kind of connection with their sons. Perhaps the bubble of the past is best left unpierced in these cases? Perhaps it is better to continue to think of these women in the golden light of past admiration rather than in the prosaic terms of today?

As for the old loves themselves, the vast majority of them do not raise in me the slightest curiosity. There are reasons, after all, that they are exes. They are memorialized in old journals, at which I am sure I would laugh if I ever opened their pages. Or cry, perhaps. The tears of long-ago humiliation. The tears of memory. But, in no cases, the tears of regret. I am thankful that I carry around with me no "what if?" no wondering. I know that by miles and miles, the man I married is far and away the best man I ever dated (in fact, the only man I ever dated that my friends uniformly liked, which certainly has a moral to it, and one that is easy to see).

And yet there are a few old crushes about whom I do wonder. They are not the ones with whom I had long relationships. Indeed, they are people with whom I never had a "serious" relationship at all. Perhaps that is why I wonder about them. There is not the weight of heartache, the power of love, the bitterness of love gone wrong, the emptiness of longing, or any other strong emotion associated with them. They were the light flirtations, the not-quite-just-friends, but never boyfriends. They were the ones who were fascinating and sweet, who shared late-night dorm conversations or summer rambles in the woods. I do not feel nostalgia for the what-might-have-been. Rather, I am curious about the what-they-became. I do not want to know them again; I simply want to know of them.

But I feel there is some impropriety in finding out. I don't particularly want to talk to them or see them, but I am curious to know the rest of the story. Did they take that round-the-world trip? become journalists? settle in a small town? end up off-Broadway? For a person who spends her life immersed in stories, who is perhaps overly-sentimental, it is hard to leave people behind without knowing what happened next. It is difficult to reconcile the once-fierce ties of friendship with the present empty question-mark.

For eleven months out of the year, I don't think about these things at all. But as Christmas cards start arriving from friends I haven't heard from since last December, and I go through boxes of ornaments many of which are associated with specific Christmases past, I cannot help but recall all the people I once held fondly who now have disappeared into the world. An email exchange (were I even to find their email addresses) would surely look like this: "Hi. Remember me? I've been wondering how you are." "Of course I remember you. I'm just fine. It's been a long time! How are you?" And that stilted awkwardness would do nothing to resurrect a warm friendship, and thus it seems pointless.

So I sit and do nothing. I do not reach out because I do not know what I would say if my outstretched hand miraculously grazed once-familiar fingers. Instead, I reminisce, like some old lady in a rocking chair, sipping coffee, thinking back to the young and foolish days twenty years ago, smiling quietly to myself at the enthusiasm of that folly, and recalling the heady scent of summertime and darkness, the sound of crickets, or the swish of walking through snowdrifts and laughing at the stars.

8 comments:

OHmommy said...

Oh gosh, I feel the same way about the holiday cards rolling in and re-connecting with old memories and such.

I do tend to think a lot more about past connections this time of year. Lovely post.

CaJoh said...

This reminds me of something my wife told me in that people come and go in your life— you may not know why they came, or why they left— but they were there for some reason.

Some people may not be as nostalgic as you and may not want to look back to their past. But, I agree there are times that I too am curious what those people who "fell off the face of the planet" are doing now.

Chocolate on my Cranium said...

I do the same thing. Only it happened a couple months ago when cleaning out the office and I found a box with all my old yearbooks, letters, photos, etc. Since then I have reconnected with several friends and others have found me. Kind so funny how htat works sometimes.

Tooj said...

I think a vast majority of people wonder....for all the reasons you mentioned. I also think that most of us understand the impropriety you mention as well. It seems wrong to want to know, especially when we're happy with where we are, and satisfied with our decisions. I try to slide past these wonderings. It would help if I didn't remember dates and numbers so well...I always stop and pause on birthdays.

Ree said...

This is a lovely post sweetie. And now you've got me thinking about all of the people I miss. I must do something about finding them (some of them anyway) again.

Hairline Fracture said...

Such a lovely post--I think it's so sweet that you liked those ex-boyfriends' mothers so much that you wish you could reconnect with them.

Fawn said...

I think you and I are twins. Except you're so much more eloquent than I am. Hmm, come to think of it, perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part. But every paragraph of this post made me think, "Oh, me too!"

This? "...the heady scent of summertime and darkness, the sound of crickets, or the swish of walking through snowdrifts and laughing at the stars." This makes me swoon.

*swoon*

Jaina said...

I found preschool friends on Facebook when it first came out, that was so cool.

 

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