Nostalgia is not just another “algia”, like neuralgia or fibromyalgia. It is fun until it is not. Imagining the good old days right now could be dangerous to the truth. While February may have been better than April in this year, February was also not as great as we imagined it was. I prefer social distancing from nostalgia.
Some define nostalgia as the longing for a beautiful past that never was. We sneer a little at nostalgic people and think they should perhaps just “get a life.” Live in the now, not the then. Older people, like me, are particularly talented at nostalgia. We have two or three stories that we like to pull out regularly.
Growing up in Kingston in the 1950s was a hothouse for nostalgia. “Before the bridge” was one of those favorite topics that German immigrant families like mine would discuss endlessly. The bridge finally opened in 1957, but not until we had discussed it to death.
These conversations about the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge happened over and over on Sunday afternoons. Everything was better before the bridge. Before the bridge there was no traffic. Before the bridge there were better bakeries. The bread was always better in the yore of these afternoons.
Later, after 1970, the demolition of the beautiful post office in midtown Kingston rivaled the bridge conversations. “Remember when you could go into the post office and feel a little uplifted, like in the old country, with something beautiful around you?” That sentiment would be repeated in the round. The more beer people drank, the more they would long for the old country, the good bread, the good buildings. And yes, it was a stunning building, demolished for a fast food joint. I was long gone from Kingston when fast food replaced beauty, but that doesn’t mean that my family, when visited, had moved out of the good old neighborhood of nostalgia.
My family of complainers fled the old country for the new country, by way of Tannersville, where the story is told that one of them stole a horse to go down to the big city of Kingston and caused the rest to have to vanish as well. Even the horse matter is fondly remembered.
Today as we ache for the good old days of February 2020, it is a good time to give nostalgia a bit of a dust-off. What does it really do for us? What do we long for when we long for the old days? Or the old ways? Is it just that we knew what was then in a way that we can never know what is now, now, or what is next, next or before it comes?
If you were to tell my family, the Osterhoudts, about what Kingston is like now, with all the good bread, the beautiful view of the Catskills coming across from Rhinecliff, the farm stands of Migliore with the fantastic greens, the housing stock improved, “uptown” sort of saved, the Strand strutting its stuff, they would be gobsmacked.
Nostalgia is ramping up again for the old normal. BUT: I remember February 2020. A woman, it was decided, by a kind of fiat, could not be president. The British and the Brexit deal were going to ruin the economy. Someone was blaming the Chinese for an unknown virus—which no one bothered to prepare for. Climate change was off the table. The kids did go to school and fewer of us were on unemployment or needing our payrolls protected. But still, February 2020 was not divine. It was February.
Nostalgia is indeed the positive remembrance of the way things never were. There have always been troubles; the stuffier we get, the fonder our memories become. The day will come, even with this virus, when we will look back on it and forget the long afternoons that seem to go nowhere fast. We will tell a story about how heroic we were at boredom and isolation and untouchability. For now, before we miss today, how about enjoying it on its own terms of mixed up mixtures, mixing us up for life? For now, the bread is the bread is the bread.
Donna Schaper was born in Kingston, New York in 1947 when people wrote letters and went ice skating and had three channels. She is now Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church, where the Good Work Institute had its first meetings. She grows a great tomato at her place upstate and walks the Appalachian trail for fun.