Sometimes I Do Miss It

Our book club recently read Laura Moriarty’s book, “The Chaperone,” which follows the life of middle-aged Cora, a fictional character who accompanies the teenaged Louise Brooks (a real person who was a silent film star back in the 1920s) on a summer trip to New York City so Louise can try out for the Denishawn School of Dance.  I won’t bore you with the all the details, but it seemed to me that the theme of the book was Cora gradually learning to shed many of the prejudices, social restrictions and strict morals of the early 1900s to grow into an more open-minded and accepting person.  In other words, Cora begins to embrace many of the more modern attitudes we have today, which is of course, a good thing.

I would never want to go back to the days of racial segregation, when it was illegal to be anything other than heterosexual, before women had the right to vote, or when polio, tuberculosis, and a host of other diseases  were far too common.  I don’t miss cooking before the invention of the microwave oven, and as much as it annoys me, I can no longer imagine living without my cell phone.  But I have to admit that there are still a few aspects of “the good old days” that I actually do miss.

I miss the days when it was safe for children to roam the neighborhood, riding bikes and playing with friends, and when games were the products of their imaginations rather than structured leagues, organized and run by adults.   I miss the days when television sets had only a few channels, because then I wasn’t tempted to waste quite so much time watching it.  (Which is why no house of mine will ever boast a “home theater.”) I miss the days when people often sat on their front porches in the evening, chatting together and watching the world go by.

Ann and Ruth on bikes

While I certainly appreciate air conditioning, I also miss falling asleep at night while listening to the sounds of crickets and cicadas, and the sweet smell of the occasional cooling breeze that came in through our opened windows.   I miss the excitement of getting an actual letter from a far away friend or relative, and how eagerly I would open it, read the contents, and then carefully tuck it away for safekeeping.  I know emails are more convenient and much quicker, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I was actually excited to get one.

Of course I am aware that our world has changed for the better in many, many ways, and I appreciate that.  But as an introvert who has never quite mastered the art of multi-tasking, and as someone who really values having a bit of peace and quiet each day, I also believe that some of the changes I have lived through have made the world a bit faster-paced, a bit more intrusive, and a bit more impersonal than I would like it to be.  I don’t want to abandon the modern world, but I admit that there are times when I wish I could just take a break from it, at least for a little while.

Precious Memories

Martha at EasterThe church I grew up in and attended when my children were young is closing at the end of this month, and today they had a special “heritage” lunch as a final gathering for everyone.   It was enjoyable, if somewhat bittersweet, to spend time with so many old friends, and see people I knew as little children all grown up with kids of their own.  They had five tables filled with old photographs that people could take if they wanted, and I spent a lot of time sorting through the photos, searching for pictures of my family.  I was thrilled to find lots of photos of my kids, but I was shocked by how many people either didn’t look at the photos at all, or picked up a photo of a member of their family, looked at it with mild interest, then put it back down again, knowing that all the unclaimed pictures were going to be thrown away.  How could they not want those pictures of their grandparents, their parents, their sons and daughters?

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand people not wanting to bring home more “stuff.”  By the time we’ve reached middle age, most of us already have more material possessions than we need or want, and our main problem is how to get rid of it, not how to add to our collections.  But in my opinion, there is simply no such thing as too many photos of family and friends, and the older they are, the better.   I may fill a donation bag with clothing every time my closet gets full, but if I run out of shelf space for my photo albums, I just know it’s time to add another shelf.  Because photographs are a recording of my life up to this point, and that’s not something I’m willing to let go of.

Martha Mollenauer (2)The way I look at it, that’s my history in those photo albums.  Those old family photos remind me of where I came from, and just who I came from.  The pictures of me growing up remind me of all the different stages of my life.  The photos of friends remind me of how many good people I’ve been lucky enough to share my life with, from the time I was a small child right up to today.  And the photos of the pets I’ve had, the houses I’ve lived in, and the places I’ve visited are all reminders of my own life’s journey .

I don’t keep the photos because I’m trying to live in the past.  I’m perfectly happy living in the present, even with my middle-aged face and body.  It’s just that I sometimes enjoy looking at pictures of family members who are gone, or pictures of my children when they were babies.  It brings back memories of a different time in my life, and those memories are special to me. And I believe that they’re certainly precious enough to keep.

Moving Forward

IMG_0040Sometimes I have a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, especially during the holidays.  I decorate my Christmas tree with antique ornaments, and my house with Santa Clauses, nativity scenes and other knick-knacks mostly from the 1950s.  I have lots of old family photographs and have used them to create memory albums, carefully noting the name of each person in the pictures.  So I definitely get the attraction of living, at least now and then, in the past.

I also know that the past has shaped me, for better or for worse, and that who I am today is mostly the result of everything that I have experienced so far in my life.  When something provokes a particularly strong memory, it can seem as if the past has reached out and touched me, like when I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” and am instantly transported back to a fun night out with my college friends.  The same thing happens when a perceived slight can make me feel like a solitary child on the playground, watching her best friend linking arms and walking away with someone else.  Whether good or bad, it can feel very real, even though it’s just an illusion.

By the time we’ve reached our middle age, I think most of us have learned that life really is a journey that moves relentlessly forward.  Returning to the past isn’t a choice, whether we want to or not.  We can’t return to the days when our bodies were young and the world seemed full of endless opportunities.  We can’t change what we’ve done or not done; we can’t take back our mistakes; and we can’t erase any damage that was done to us.  The past is over and done with, and the only we we can ever revisit it is through our memories.

All we have, and all we ever will have, is the reality of our present and the hope of our future.  The past may have shaped who we are now, but the present is what we can control.  And I think that’s a good thing, because the present…our actions, our words, our choices…is what will determine our future.  Which means that, even at this point of our lives, we still have quite a bit of control over what our life will become.

We may be middle aged, but if we are lucky, we still have many miles to go on our life’s journey.  I have come to believe that the best plan is to look ahead and search for that spot on the horizon where we want to be, and point ourselves firmly toward it.  Because we are always moving forward on this one-way journey, and the direction we take is ultimately up to us.