The air is redolent of all things inviting: brown sugared yams, buttery potatoes and the sweet tang of cranberries; tender fowl, golden rolls in a generous mound. Mincemeat, pumpkin and Dutch apple pies cool in the kitchen under the slightly opened window, which ushers in a gust of crisp air.
The dining room and table stun. Tall white candles draw the eye to the center of the long orchid tablecloth; an elegant flower arrangement brightens the room from atop the buffet. Each of seven white china plates, delicately rimmed with rosebuds, marks the preferred places of our family members. Crystal goblets offer a melodious ring when I run my damp finger around the rims. Music beckons, perhaps an Aaron Copland symphony resonant of a gentler, happier America or stately Brahms.
My mother wipes her hands on a floral apron. “Come to the table.” We hold hands and pray, then eat and talk. It is very good food; it seems to taste even better because it is the holidays and everything is beautiful. The conversation is congenial and calm. The pie seems made in heaven, each bite a notation of love given and received.
And so it often was, growing up in the family home decades ago. My parents are now gone but I recall the traditions easily, and the people with an abiding love. But it does not come back to me like a Thomas Kinkade card, bigger and more vibrant than life. And I do not pine for those years, the meals prepared and people gathered in a certain civilized manner, the atmosphere charged with all that familial bonds awaken, both memorable and forgettable. I don’t mourn for the past.
In other words, I am not prey to nostalgia.
The dictionary tells us nostalgia is a longing that is bittersweet, a melancholy tinged with a gauzy remnant of cheer. It is a longing for things, places and people long behind us. Nostalgia is a form of homesickness and creates a revered experience for many. Clearly, it originates from a powerful need.
But for me, nostalgia is an artificial filter, causing one’s memory to pause and re-route to a place and time that never quite existed. It is easier at times, perhaps, to ressurect the past and recall it as the one time and circumstance that was without fault than to live with what we have. We want that safe, wise, all-inclusive moment because it feels as we think life should feel, must feel: fool-proof and unshakably right and good. We want to savor again every piece of homemade pie. And we want the reassurance that all this will be available next year and the next, if only in the secret drawer of our childhood or youth. It is like an equation we can count on no matter what–but in exists only our mind’s eye, in our dreaming and desire, not in actual fact.
I suspect nostalgia keeps us tethered to a past that may not even have been what we think. Maybe some will insist “then” was somehow more attractive than “now”. But can’t it keep us set apart from the current time, these people, this moment-in-the-making of possible wonders? And could it be a sign of an impoverished soul to keep recreating a perfect (nostalgic) slice of life?
So: imagine now a smallish dining room off a smaller kitchen. The heavy oak table is decked with a tablecloth–the same one my mother used, it’s true. Many small candles encircle the top of the old oak table, and a trail of light flickers in the living room where more candles radiant a generous glow. Brought by each Thanksgiving dinner invitee are pots and platters and bowls filled with food to please all appetites. Deserts line up like lovely prizes on the kitchen counter. There are recyclable plastic eating utensils artfully laid out beside the disposable plates. The table is so full that I have to make room for glasses and cups as I brew coffee and tea. The Martinelli bottles are frosty cold and a daughter smiles at me as she pours sparkling apple drink.
In the living room are seats enough for about seventeen people; more people sit on the floor. We balance our plates and swap stories. We remark on our uneven lives, discuss our culture as we see it, books and music we love or ponder, projects people are working on, even the nature of God. Laughter and sated appetites cushion the growing darkness. Faces older and younger are illuminated by candle light. Something spills and towels are brought to the scene. One grandchild fusses at another. The music is likely not heard; it is drowned out by the lull of human cacophony.
I stand back. Here is a place full of something good, a gathering of people of different politics, skin color, heritage, dreams, needs. We weather times that sneak up behind us to dump bad news; times that break open promising opportunities; times that whittle us down and refashion us into something more, richer. Times seemingly built of ordinary days and nights, only to surprise us again. And during festive celebrations we rest here together, the group changing as one leaves, another joins. The circle moves and breathes like a patchwork creature made of care. And the messiness that accompanies it is beautiful to me.
It is on the far, far side of artifice or perfection, this motley crew of my family, and my place is nothing fancy. The food is simple and enjoyed as a complement to our talk. The rituals are a mix of new and old, as well as flexible. I prefer it that way, not the way of the past, no matter how good it looks in retrospect. I, along with many other folks, already had those moments; that happiness mixed with life’s hardships has come and gone. Nor do I need a projection of what might be one day. The future is only a moment away, but yet to be.
It is this time I am living, this moment I am given to become intimate with and believe in, share with the others. I long for nothing but this day, this life, and all that each one can bring, no matter what it is. I am already home, here, now, and it is the genuine article, the only one I will offer when you come though my door.