Monday, April 18, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: On Nostalgia

"Nostalgia, it's delicate, but Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. Goes backwards, forwards, and takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called "The Wheel," it's called "The Carousel." It lets us travel the way a child travels, round and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved." - Don Draper, Mad Men Season 1, talking about a Kodak Carousel that displays images invoking nostalgia.

Maybe because the news seems so dour lately, or perhaps it's part of aging, but I've been feeling nostalgic for more simpler times. In this CBS News story on nostalgia, Lemoyne College psychology professor Krystine Batcho observed that when something brings back memories, people are more likely to focus on people than items. "The things that people are most nostalgic for in their growing up years were simple things like having dinner with Grandma...or going camping -- as a family... Even if it's just getting together to have a simple meal, getting together to pray or whatever those experiences are that bring a family closer to one another." Something to remember during these trying economic times. People, not possessions, the soul remembers.

Looking back on my childhood, I recall simple "things": scratch and sniff stickers, my pink Smurfette lunch box, or earning prized Looney Toons eraser heads for getting enough gold stars in the third grade. But so much of what I remember are experiences, like...

Eating cherries and raspberries in an old farmhouse in Switzerland. We spent a lot of summers there as a child.
Making mashed potatoes with my grandfather, and eating them off of my grandparents' pretty blue plates in their home in Switzerland.
Sitting in a garden with my grandmother in Switzerland.
Dancing around the living room with my big sister to records.
Going swimming in the summertime.
Playing with our two cats.
Going sledding with my mom and dad in Van Saun park in winter, and making a snow man outside.

A new crop of enthusiastic sledders in Van Saun, on the same hill I went down as a child.

I think about smells too. One of my favorites, still is, is honeysuckle in the summer. Freshly mown grass transports me to a warm, sunny day in late June sitting in class longing for the lazy summer ahead. I think as adults, we should all get one summer off. Wouldn't that be nice?

The CBS article mentioned, "Nostalgia can be a lot about geography. So, if you grew up on the east coast, the smell of flowers made people nostalgic for their childhood. In the south, it was the smell of fresh air. In the Midwest, it was the smell of farm animals. And on the west coast, it was the smell of meat cooking or meat barbequing." Since I'm a vegetarian, good thing I grew up on the east coast.

What are you most nostalgic for? Don't life's seemingly simple pleasures and experiences sometimes seem the ones the memory most longs for? Isn't the memory trying to remind us what is most important in life?


  1. Hi Catherine, scents are very powerful signals that stimulate the mind finding memories long forgotten. And tastes, like wild raspberries, and sounds, like bird songs too. I grew up in New York but had moved to Miami for 2 years. During the trip back to NY in spring by car, the flower and moss scents and bird songs became more familiar as we came north to things I again found familiar and beloved. Thanks for this nudge to the memory!

  2. Hi Jennifer. Thank you so much for sharing your memories. Isn't it funny what a scent, a bite of food, or sound will evoke? In the charming Disney Pixar film Ratatouille (a cherished food film), the bitter critic Anton Ego is transported to his childhood at the first bite of ratatouille, which so nourished his soul when his mother made it on rainy, dispiriting day, so much so it softened him at once. I love how we can time travel this way.

  3. Don's little speech about nostalgia gets me every time. It's one of my favorite scenes.

    I tend to be a very nostalgic person, and I have SO many sensory memories. The smell of bread baking. Freshly mown grass as well. Roses (my mom's an avid gardener). And little things, like the way my mom smelled when she would come into my room to kiss me goodnight. I purchased a new eye makeup remover solution a couple years ago, and upon opening the bottle I became SO nostalgic for my childhood. A few days later, I realized that it smelled like my mom...she must have used the same kind. I've never switched brands.

  4. Hi Cate. It's one of mine too.

    I recently sprayed on Yves Saint Laurent's Opium perfume at a Macy's counter because my mom always wore that growing up and we'd get it for her for Christmas. Roses, bread baking - what comforting smells.

    Karen Carpenter sang in the Carpenter's "Yesterday Once More" of a song on the radio appearing like a long lost friend and suddenly melting the years away. So many ways to go back in time.

  5. As a young, elementary grade, school boy in an all-boys school, I used to keep to myself during the 2-hr lunch break on any given school day. Problem is, I had no permission to leave the grounds because that required an adult to pick me up. I packed my lunch everyday and consumed it in about 5 minutes. I preferred not to join a group for some idle chat or to play some games. Instead, I walked rather aimlessly around the campus, lost in my thoughts, looking for a private bench among the hedges, running my fingers along steel railings, thinking of my home, and all other things. I would create small and large loops to walk alternatingly by the day, perusing little details along the route like plants, rocks, doors, empty classrooms, glass trophy cases, etc. You might say that even then I was a lone wolf. I am nostalgic for those times and places in my childhood. Like Henry Miller with the streets of Paris in the 1930s, those hallways, alcoves, staircases, windows, garden benches, other such seemingly mundane objects became my daily friends and companions. Heck, even years after, they still fill my mind. It wasn't just what was real and tangible, but also the introspective thinking that went on in my mind during a 10-month school year. This was in a Benedictine school in the Philippines, and so it isn't easy to make the trip, to visit my old companions. Nowadays, when I meet a boy who seems quiet,reflective, and a bit withdrawn, I want to reassure him that all is okay.

  6. Hi Ted. Thank you so much for sharing your memories. Perhaps your time as the lone wolf made you the contemplative, reasoning thinker you are today. Certain experiences I had (like being bullied) I think influenced me to become more compassionate, especially toward animals, who I think our society for the large part bullies and thinks little of the cruelty they impose.

    It's remarkable that we are such a "stuff" driven society – spending so much time acquiring, organizing, storing and inevitably disposing of (hopefully through responsible means), but so much of what we flashback to are people, scents, sounds, experiences (even the more lonesome ones that form us). If my life flashed before my eyes, I wouldn’t be thinking of all my possessions.

  7. I love that Mad Men bit.
    First thing that comes to mind is ice cream :)
    And our family's Sunday outings/search for the best cone. I was the one sent in to fetch them and then my mother 'trimmed' mine for good measure.
    Weekend stays with my Austrian grandmother were a treat, though not in Vienna but they felt very European amidst all her antiques...
    I loved going by myself to the corner drug/candy store and walking home with my penny candy treasures. I think those were my first travel adventures on my own.
    Terrific post Catherine and great links for more sitting around dreaming...

  8. Thanks Carol! And what an adventurer you became! Thank you for sharing those flashbacks.

    Such simple delights shared by all here: the taste of raspberries, the maternal smell before being tucked away before a good night's slumber, a solitary walk, an ice cream cone. When I saw an ad in a jewelry store window for a diamond that stated "for life's cherished moments" I think instead of what's been stated in the comments here.