A student asked me recently what the term “nostalgic candy” meant. I explained that it meant candy that is linked to a period in time—a time in the past that many people associate with other aspects of that period, such as general stores that sold candy for a nickel and featured old men playing checkers at a small wooden table, drinking icy cold Cokes in little bottles that had been nestled in an old, red Coca Cola icebox. The question and the answer, though, got me thinking about nostalgia and pondering how to define it exactly. I’ve certainly experienced it enough. Like most people, I am nostalgic about past times, places, and people. I would characterize the experience of nostalgia as a longing for something from the past that was precious, often triggered by certain objects, scents, sounds, or places, and involving a mix of pleasure and pain because that experience cannot be completely recovered.
One of the places that can immediately put me in state of nostalgia is an old chapel near the house in which my mother and her eleven brothers and sisters grew up. It’s called Hayes Chapel, and it’s a place full of memories of spiritual times with family. Those memories are precious to me because they were pure and rich … but simple. My grandfather, Oscar Floyd Moon, preached there occasionally, one of the few preachers of that era and region who did not fully engage in what I call “fire and brimstone” messages. That is, he didn’t yell and stomp and swing the Bible around much, but he did cry sometimes. Some people are put off by those old-timey preachers, but I’ve always thought they had a unique representation of what it means to experience God. Even now, when I’m in another church or listening to the radio, and I hear the rhythmic, emphatic message of one of those preachers, I’m taken back to Hayes Chapel and a voice saying, “Oh, can’t you hear God calling, brothers and sisters? Can’t you hear him saying this might be the last time you hear his voice? Don’t you want to come to Jesus today, while there is time? There’s room at the altar for you.” This was the last part of the service, the part called the “invitation,” and it was always accompanied by the singing of an old gospel hymn like, “Just as I Am.” I would sing along, verse after verse repeated as the preacher hoped and prayed for people to submit to God’s calling. Sometimes it went on too long, but now when I think of it, I remember fondly the sound of an old worn piano and my mother’s voice beside me. Those were precious times, and Hayes Chapel will always be a nostalgic and lovely place to me. If it is the sounds of Hayes Chapel that stand out most clearly in my mind, it is scents that make me nostalgic for my mother.
Shortly after my mother died, I began to note with increasing clarity the different scents that brought her to mind. Macaroni and cheese, for instance, was one of her best homemade dishes, and though hardly anyone else’s mac and cheese can compare, just the scent of melted, lightly browned cheese and noodles coming out of somebody’s oven makes me think of my mama’s recipe and the times she served her specialty at home. Another scent that immediately reminds me of Mama is wintergreen. She always had a roll of wintergreen mints in her purse, and it’s funny … I didn’t like the taste back then. I preferred my own selection of spearmint or something else. Now, it’s the first kind I reach for on my way out of the drugstore. It’s a simple way to bring her back for a bit. I can do the same thing by washing my face with Noxema, her favorite old standby for removing makeup, or by picking up some dusting powder like Emeraude, when I can find it, or when I put on CoverGirl makeup and breathe in the clean freshness of it. These motherly scents trigger vivid memories. I’m happy every time I discover a new one. It’s a slightly sad happiness, and I think that’s the true essence of nostalgia.
Like longing and happiness, a little pain is a necessary component of nostalgia. I can’t get back the years when my daughter was a toddler. I can’t hear her voice saying, “Hold Jilli” when she was just learning to talk, or watch her paint at her easel with the primary tempura colors, in her plastic apron, making me a flower and a sun to help it grow. I can watch a video, and that’s good, but sometimes just holding the memory in my mind is sweeter. She’s twenty now, and long past falling asleep in my lap, but I can recall distinctly the last time she did that, when she was four. I remember knowing, somehow, that it was the last time. She was growing up, and part of loving a child is accepting that and letting go. There’s a poem about teaching a daughter to ride a bicycle that is the perfect expression of nostalgia to me. It’s Wyatt Prunty’s poem “Learning the Bicycle,” and it features these poignant lines:
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she’ll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.
There it is. Prunty’s put his finger on nostalgia. It’s about distance and following and letting go of something or someone … but finding a way to hold on, too. For Prunty, the act of writing that poem was surely a nostalgic process. It was a claim on a moment in time that he wanted to keep vivid, fresh, and accessible in the mind and senses, if out of reach in reality. I think he also knew that he would be bringing back a lot of daughters to their parents, each time they read his poem.
As for me, when I want some people and places back, I can drive to Hayes Chapel (even if it’s just in my head), sing a few lines of “I’ll Fly Away, oh Glory, I’ll Fly Away,” pop out a wintergreen mint, or go get my daughter’s old Pooh bear and hold him for a while. Sometimes, I just get in the car and drive, especially on a summer’s night with the window rolled down, which seems to be a great space for me to think and remember. If I’m lucky, one of my mother’s favorite songs will come on the radio, and I’ll sing her a promise: You’re far away/from me, my love … but just as sure, my my sweet thing, as there are stars above, gonna say, gonna say, gonna say … someday, we’ll be together. Yes, a little nostalgia is good for the heart and soul.