If you’ve read my memoir, Under The Birch Tree, you’ll learn that as a young girl, I was a walker, circumnavigating the yards that surrounded my home as if to plot memories with every footprint. And to this day, I walk, traversing the woods along curvy earth trails marked by bumps and dips, or meander through the neighborhood, pivoting on smooth asphalt through square blocks.
Each travel is different. And it’s not necessarily because of seeing something new—a felled house, one for sale, music wafting through open windows. But how these sights spur moments of nostalgia that bring me back to a home place where comfort and familiarity are like sought after gems, sparkling bright, to lighten these darkened, troubled times.
One summer afternoon, I approached plumbs of smoke hanging in the sultry humidity while taking a walk. The cloudy air didn’t seem to be from a barbecue, a nearby chimney, or a landscaper stirring the dry earth. The puffs billowed, grew larger, then shrank. Some danced in circles, twirling in unison. The old two-story wood and brick house, standing precariously with peeling white paint and exposed gaps in the brick’s mortar, became clearer as I passed through the distraction. The screen door swayed, despite calm air, as if ushering out spirits remaining in the house’s vacancy. Encompassing the lot, a black wrought-iron fence, squiggly bent in some spots, was faded to dark grey in the weather-exposed areas. The aging house would succumb to the bulldozing machines, splintering wood and dissolving bricks with every knock to the house’s foundation.
Upon the release of the roof by the first grab of the demolisher, I peeked into the lives of past generations where exposed rooms flashed with the evolution of changing times—bold colored walls to calm neutrals, the floor’s shag carpet to hardwood, old furniture replaced with something contemporary. And then I thought of the home where I grew up. Each room housed activities of my youth, from reading books while sprawled on the yellow and white shag carpeting in my bedroom, to standing with Dad in the living room while listening to the sounds of the big bands with the red carpet underfoot. The flooring anchored us and our places to be. As memories of spent decades lie breathless, I thought of who may have kept busy in those rooms—young families, empty-nesters, elderly who aged in place. How well a house, made of rooms and a family serves us with memories and comfort, of giving us a place to be, of home.
One late spring morning, I headed out for a walk and noticed how tall he had gotten. Davis, now a teenager, young adult, really, still with a mop of bright blond hair long under a baseball cap of his youth, sauntered up the driveway for one last photo of the home where he grew up, recording a flashback of memories made from the only home he knew. It was just a few months earlier when “For Sale” read in white letters on a blue painted sign sidled up against an overgrown Japanese pagoda tree in a corner of his front yard. The sign didn’t stay up for long as the house quickly sold.
I remembered when I had met him many years ago. His plump mother used her hip as a landing for her toddler’s rump as they stood in the open doorway of their new house.
“Hi, I’m Nancy and welcome to the neighborhood,” I said to her, glancing over her shoulder to see stacked boxes.
“Well, hi there, I’m Diane,” she said in a southern drawl and wide smile. “And thank you. This is Davis,” she said, giving the little guy an extra bounce on her hip. “His big brother Tom is behind me . . . somewhere.”
Seemed so quickly the boys had discovered their world, venturing on bikes from their driveway and into the street, pedaling those growing legs. And then Jenna was born, joining the family of two brothers. I was reminded that Easter was coming by the giant colored eggs that dangled from the young pagoda tree and smaller eggs hidden in the tall grass and bushes, ready to be hunted. It was a Christmas for children when colored lights set their house aglow while Santa stood tall in the yard, and large paper snowflakes patterned their front windows. Basketballs replaced bicycles as their father anchored a basketball hoop to the garage’s shingles. I would wave at the boys when passing them on my walk, noting their athleticism as they reached for more possibilities. Soon, Tom’s red convertible was paired next to his father’s red Camero in the garage. Jenna, no longer a third brother, but a teenager with dyed blue hair joining a pack of female friends.
The children, older now, have found their ways into the world when there is no longer a reason for lights or snowflakes or Easter egg hunts. Sports cars either. Their father fixed up the house with fresh paint, new siding and gutters. He fixed the drainage out back. He tried to make what was old, new. He dismantled his house, placing years of family possessions—a white bookcase, two stuffed chairs, an end table and lawnmower—next to the curb where they remained lifeless until a passerby would quickly grab them, when they would begin a new life too.
I was Jenna’s age when the only home I knew was sold, when my possessions, too, were dispersed to another life. Sometimes nostalgia brings us to a bittersweet place where fond memories are tinged with sorrow at having to leave behind a comfortable familiar.
Setting out for a walk one day in autumn, a soft orange glow dotted the brown canvas, a small one-story ranch house that looked like a postage stamp, stuck small in a larger lot among aged tree trunks, mostly slender with peeled bark of tired limbs exposing the grey and peaceful white of the tree’s extensions. The beacon of light from inside the house cast dark outlines of him, waving his hand or snapping his wrists. I’ve walked passed this house many times, welcoming slivers of nature’s sounds yielding to the notes of a clarinet and the jazz compositions wafting out of slit open windows. I would search for the music’s origin, peering through the slender front window of the house to see his student of music in silhouette playing a clarinet. I recognized the long slender shape of the instrument held close to the student’s face and rich tones coming forth because I, too, once played clarinet.
Years later, the musical hours shortened and though I would peer inside his house in search of him, I could no longer spot his silhouette. The jazz music was fading. Then it stopped. I would only see him wearing a navy cap and dark khaki pants, a blue zip-up jacket with hands in his pockets, protecting his musical hands that once fingerprinted holes along a wooden clarinet or fingers wrapped around wooden drumsticks as he hobbled a few steps to retrieve his newspaper. He would then stop, look away, and seemingly forget why he was at the end of the half-moon driveway. Then he would turn and walk back.
The roof broke, the walls tumbled, and windows cracked the soul of his music. But when the dust settled, the music was set free.
I could still hear the jazz tune clearly, of high notes and drumbeats, of him playing a musical story. Though I missed what I could count on when walking passed his house—notes of pure rhythm exhaling through slits of small open windows, wafting out into thin air—his music lives in the clouds that hang over his home, his place where he connected through music, and created emotion through sound and was shared unknowingly with a passerby who always slowed to listen to the music of the day.
I’m taken back to a time in my youth when making connections with my father eluded me, but when learning to play the clarinet and standing on red carpet in the living room next to my father while listening to Benny Goodman, I was sure of these connections.
Nostalgia arouses in us happiness, yearning, or even sadness when it returns us back to an earlier time in our lives. These emotions are powerful enough to shift our current emotions. It is said that as our emotional states change, our psychology changes and as a result our perspective changes too.
Through a lens of nostalgia, life is pumped into a kaleidoscope of memories made from long ago. Nostalgic moments connect me to my youth while encountering plumbs of a demolition, the sale of a house, and music while on a walk one day. Nostalgia brings me back to home, where light can shine brighter on these worrisome times.