I think there are different layers of thickness of nostalgia when you visit an old place full of memories. The more often you’ve frequented a location, such as living in one city for most of your life, the thinner the sentimentality, because old, current, and new memories have to make room for each other in the same well-worn space. But if you moved away, and some time has passed since you’ve been back, the wistfulness can have a much higher concentration, arresting you with its intensity. Imagine growing up on a beach and then moving inland for 20, 40 years. A trip back to the sea will capture every one of your senses, each a holding place of memory: the pounding of waves and cry of gulls, the smell of seaweed, taste of salt spray in the air, that expansive view to the horizon, and the feel of sand beneath your feet as the waves race to cover them. As you stand on the shore, all of you remembers.
Thanks to Mother Nature, the beach is essentially the same as when you last left it. Unfortunately, homes that hold our remembrances are often remodeled, filled with a stranger’s furniture and not easily accessed. Towns grow and expand, and sadly become monochromatic suburbia with the same big-box stores and tired restaurant chains. Nobody is dying to visit a sea of parking lots. But we will go to great lengths to get back to any well-preserved space. Familiarity, when revisited only occasionally, is a supreme comfort. Why do you think the line to the ultra-short Peter Pan ride is insanely long at Disneyland? It’s the exact same as it was in your childhood, even if your childhood was 1955. Adults can’t wait to take the dark jaunt back into this preserved memory, now with their own children or grandchildren in hand. It’s a surreal experience.
Most of us find nostalgia to be strongest when we visit the receptacles of our childhood memories, perhaps because they are the farthest away chronologically and because there is something magical that happens when you revisit as a tall adult the neighborhood of your pint-sized youth. Perspective has shifted. Homes and trees and streets seem shorter. The nostalgia for the past is as thick as chunky peanut butter, because you can’t even retrieve the view from your youthful eyes.
I spent the first seven years of my life in North Carolina. Thanks to my mother’s vivid stories, family photo albums I often perused, and my own little journal from that time which my parents helped me write, I have a treasure trove of sacrosanct memories of that space. I have not been back yet. Several of my siblings have made the trip, and shared pictures of all that’s changed since our time there. But pictures aren’t quite the same as touching the place, hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting it. I imagine it will be a powerful, powerful experience for me when I make that journey.
The rest of my childhood was spent in a unique little town in Louisiana. Though my parents were Utah natives, their children were raised firmly in the South, picking up accents, social graces and a taste for Southern foods. Although we siblings have now flown the coop and spread out all across the country, my parents tenaciously hold to the life they’ve established in this historic town. Though we’d like them to live closer, secretly, we’re also glad we still have a home to come back to in our hometown.
Natchitoches (Indian name, pronounced Nak-a-tish) is distinctive and well-preserved, which is why those who have lived here can’t seem to get it out of our blood. Established in 1714, it is the oldest permanent settlement in the entire Louisiana purchase (which expanded from the Gulf Coast up to Canada, almost a third of the continental US). There’s still a Front Street made entirely of bricks, lined with shops and a beautiful riverfront on Cane River Lake. I’d guess there are twice as many quaint bed and breakfasts (like the Steel Magnolias one, home to M’Lynn and Shelby in the famed movie that was filmed here when I was 11) than there are hotels. Kaffie Fredericks is a still-operating general store that opened during the Civil War, selling everything from screws and bolts to Radio Flyer red wagons. When you come back to Natchitoches, the humid air holds you close. Cicadas and crickets hum that familiar background lullaby. The mist rises on the Cane River in the early morning hours as rowing crews slice the water. There’s no other place like it, and thankfully, there never will be.
The double whammy for me in visiting Natchitoches is that my parents’ home is just as well-preserved from my childhood as the town is. I went back with my kids for an overdue visit during their spring break a couple of weeks ago. The bedroom we slept in is just as my younger sister left it, the toys are all old school, and the cereal bowls and Tupperware cups are the same ones I sipped out of 30 years ago. There’s the same creak in the stairs. The old upright, out-of-tune piano. Photographs of family that line the living room and hallways. I hope that as my kids come to Gramma and Grampa’s house, they eventually realize they are stepping into everything it means to be a Wood. Games and ice cream every night, a daily walk along Williams Ave., standing on the porch in the middle of a good old Southern thunderstorm, playing in the shade of the pecan grove in the backyard while keeping an eye out for fire ant hills…this is us.
I’m sad that it’s been hard for me to take them back more often, as there are no direct flights and it’s a three-day drive from my current abode. But the difficulty makes being there more novel. This time, we flew into Houston since my brother lives there and made the 4.5 hour drive to Natchitoches. Arriving home from a different direction than I normally come, traversing a highway I haven’t seen since I was 18, nostalgia nearly bowled me over by the time we pulled into the driveway. And then the initial walk into the house, the museum of my childhood…I had to lay down for a while to still the overwhelm. Once recovered, I made every moment of our short visit count by doing the favorites: you make the pretty drive to Kisatchie National Forest along slow back roads for a hike and a picnic, play at the park down the road, eat meat pies at Lasyone’s after a walk along the riverfront, give hugs and warm hellos to old friends at our tiny church, smile and point out where my Dad used to work when we drive past the Louisiana School, connect with dear high school friends, and walk amidst the ghosts of the past at nearby plantations.
Occasionally, I do something new I’ve never done before, like go with my Mom to visit her 100-year old friend Carol, who lives independently in the oldest house in the parish (Louisiana’s unique way of naming a county). How did I not know before that in some yards, as you dig to plant bulbs in the fall, you unearth broken pieces of 300-year-old pottery or arrowheads? That the captain’s home (the one she lives in, with antique furniture) once served as a bordello? Or the famed fireworks during the Christmas Festival are a real headache to those who live right across the river from downtown?
Not everything is rosy. Going back with adult eyes means you understand more of what flowed right on over your head in the naiveté of youth. The small-town mentality is charming but limiting. Signs for businesses are worn and weathered; the lack of competition means standards can be lower than what you’ve gotten used to in bigger cities. Recent budget cuts for education leave facilities in stark need of a fresh coat of paint; schoolyards have fallen into disarray. The wealthy bourgeois class still runs the town and the poverty-stricken African American community across the tracks never gets a leg up. And there is still the silent stain of slavery in the blood-soaked soil–it speaks to me, hauntingly, every time I get near the plantations. Though painful, you realize you can still love something without embracing its imperfections.
The very word nostalgia is a combination of two roots: “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” It is a melancholy for the favorite parts of your past, with that pain-pleasure principle you feel when giving a muscle a good stretch. If you are longing to reconnect with a place or memory that is important to you, go and touch it, if at all possible. Drive slowly down the lane of the past, take in the sights and colors, eat the comfort food that brings you back, stop and smell the azaleas. Wake up to the birdcalls of your youth. Fill the repository of every sense’s memory again…restore the link to those things that made you you.