Nostalgia: the bitter and sweet of it all


The 184 columns I have written since 2014 are easily categorized. Occasionally I yell from my soapbox or highlight a worthy community event. Sometimes I even attempt to describe the indescribable: the intricate beauty of the nature that surrounds us all.

Overwhelmingly, however, my articles give voice to the nostalgic musings hinted at in this column’s title. Never having thought deeply about it as a concept, other than allowing it to wash over me in all its soft-focused glory, this week I am waxing nostalgic about, well, nostalgia.

As a retired-but-still-curious language teacher, I checked the meaning of “nostalgia”: a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

At first blush, I immediately identified with the dictionary definition, especially as I recollect experiences in certain places during certain eras of my life. It comes as no surprise to regular readers that I long for my sweet childhood years on River Road, am grateful for important, formative years at Otterbein on my way to adulthood, truly loved an entire lifetime with young people at my own alma mater, felt fortunate for forty years of visits to my second home, an entire world away.

Interestingly enough, the origins of “nostalgia” reach back to Greek and German references to “homesickness.” Three hundred years ago “nostalgia” was actually a medical diagnosis developed from Swiss mercenaries, who missed their native country enough to display severe appetite loss, muscle weakness, and anxiety.

Although “nostalgia” no longer appears in modern medical textbooks, I can glimpse of bit of the etymology in the quoted definition. Part of my sentimentality for the Christmas celebrations my siblings and I shared includes a bit of sadness that those mornings are just not the same now that my parents are no longer with us and we are scattered all over the country. And I totally identify with “wistful affection” for the nevermore days when a good, long drink from the communal garden hose was refreshing, rather than fraught with bacteria concerns.

These days I do occasionally detect a certain bittersweet quality in some reminisces, with equal parts of sadness that the good old days are long gone – although I still thoroughly enjoy thinking about them. Example wise, I sadly doubt that I will ever make it back to Europe, although I savor the grand adventures I experienced there.

Most of us received our introduction to nostalgia when our parents and grandparents told stories from their own younger years. We knew that Daddy helped milk the cows before he went to school and that Mother’s younger brother would dive under the kitchen table for safety from his older sisters hotly pursuing him. I suppose we rolled our eyes whenever they repeated themselves, and yet we felt connected to people all over our family tree.

Many folks, myself included, find pleasurable comfort in remembering a simpler life during long-ago days. Calling up memories of “setting the table” on the schoolground teeter-totters or tying our Sunday School dimes in the corner of our hankies for safekeeping are tiny reminders of a time when the world did not seem to be such a dangerous place.

And I believe that people of any age can feel less lonely when they contemplate memories of distant friends and family members. Partaking of Thanksgiving dressing from my grandmother’s recipe and frequent glances at a cherished, 70-year-old photograph of me with my parents remind me of the strong roots from which our family grew.

Although most of my remembrances – from River Road to Germany and back again – are funny and gentle, I can easily call up a few disappointments along the way: a painful schoolgirl crush here, a bad grade there, losing the county spelling bee during the eighth-grade can momentarily burst my happy bubble before I recall how much I learned from those more-bitter-than-sweet memories.

I have often wondered, however, about my father’s decided preference for times gone by. Like millions of other members of the Greatest Generation, he and his sprawling family lived right through the worst years of the Great Depression before he was stationed in Germany to serve at the Battle of the Bulge – not exactly my version of the good old days.

But considering Doug Larson’s idea that nostalgia “removes the rough edges from the good old days,” I begin to understand. When I run across notations in my mother’s distinctive script on the pages of her cookbooks, when I recognize the fresh scent of sheets dried out on a clothesline, when I conjure up the view from Ingrid’s living room window, when I hear even a few bars of “Cherish” or “Unchained Melody,” my nostalgic emotions allow concurrent memories about the Russians dropping the bomb or the fear of polio to all but disappear.

It is then that I realize my agreement with Emily Dickinson: That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet. And I must also consider another truth. For the generations following mine, today will be their good old days. Yes, these days that stoke our hearts with concern and fear will be the stuff of mostly happy recollections for our current toddlers and schoolkids. Somehow, nostalgia will remove the rough edges of terrorism and nuclear buttons – and our little ones, too, will eventually wax nostalgic about their own sweet, bygone days.

By Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.

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