Monday, July 28, 2014

The Seductive Charm of Nostalgia

Sacchi Green

Nostalgia is to memory as fantasy is to fact. Or maybe not, but that’s my theory for the moment, and I’m sticking with it. Just be glad I’m going to skip the sort of bittersweet nostalgia that comes with sorting through old family photographs to reduce the stacks to those worth saving when a home has to be emptied of its memories and ghosts, not quite immediately, but inevitably.

So let’s move right on to the more pleasant varieties of nostalgia, whether they tilt more toward actual memories or fantasies of the way things may have been. I even feel nostalgic for times I couldn’t possibly remember, before I was born, but I’ll go into that category later (and share an excerpt from one of the stories such nostalgia has inspired.)

When I tried to decide what period of my life makes me feel most nostalgic, Spencer’s post on Friday about college in the sixties made me realize that being back in college is such a recurrent dream for me that nostalgia must be a driving force. Sure, I dream of high school too, in the universally nightmarish way of not being able to find your locker or your books or the room where the test you couldn’t study for is being held, but that’s different.

When I dream of college, I really want to be there, more or less the way it was, even though the cooperative dorm I lived in was replaced by a parking lot many years ago, and in my conscious mind I know all the changes that have been made because I live close enough to visit the campus easily, and do sometimes, feeling like a ghost but drawn to the displays of plants in the greenhouse complex and certain exhibits in the art museum. I sometimes even dream of having a chance to go there again in something approaching the present, for some special post-grad program or other, but of course with all my old friends still there, and my favorite professors (long retired or passed away,) and the dorm still standing.

I think the appeal is very much a matter of that particular period of my life. So much seemed possible. The college was, and still is, for women only, the first women’s college in the USA (depending somewhat on your definition of the terms.) That didn’t have much to do with why I chose to go there—I had never toned down my argumentative nature in deference to the boys in high school, and it’s not likely that I’d have done it in any college—but the company of women in all their untrammeled intelligence and quirkiness was exhilarating. The academic competition was daunting, and there were certainly extremely stressful times—why on earth did I think I should take calculus when I didn’t need to?—but I did well in my major, and managed to scrape by with a grade average just high enough to keep my scholarship all four years.

I’ve often, in later life, felt real nostalgia for those times when responsibilities were limited to academics, and you could get positive reinforcement from a good grade on a paper, or earning enough by babysitting for professors’ kids to finance the occasional weekend with a boyfriend at Yale, or even something as minor as a winning hand at bridge. Ah, such simple times, or so they seem in retrospect. The Vietnam conflict was impending, but not yet affecting us, though we argued the political pros and cons of foreign policy. The assassination of President Kennedy shook us deeply. Some of us marched on Washington for Civil Rights. We were aware of the problems in the world, and seduced by the notion that we could change things. Feminism was just gaining traction nationally, although we could see it all around us, as with an elderly Professor Emeritus who hired a couple of us to shovel her snow, and gave us a raise when the guy she hired while we were on Christmas vacation charged her more, and she’d be damned if she’d pay a man more than a woman. (Note to Spencer: yes, the sexual revolution was gaining traction, too, but this was just long enough before your time that we couldn’t get prescriptions for birth control pills at the infirmary without flashing an engagement ring, and then only if we were seniors.)

That’s nostalgia for you. I know there was plenty of misery for all of us, but hindsight wears rose-tinted glasses. (Hmm, rather an unfortunate metaphor, but I’ll let it stand.)

Onward to my seduction by imaginary nostalgia. I was born while WWII was still going on, and my parents' memories, the stresses and exhilarations of their youth, the music of the times, seem imprinted on my own memory. “Just give me something to remember you by/When you are far away from me…” No one would want to repeat that time of war, but something about the history has a deep hold on me. I’ve written several stories about that era, and one of them, titled, in fact, “To Remember You By”, begins with the nostalgic reflections of an old woman when her grandson’s wife writes a book incorporating the memories she’s shared about her time as a WAC nurse in England. (Sorry, all the sex comes later in the story.)

Here's the excerpt:

"A movie!" she crowed from three thousand miles away. "They're making a movie of our book!"
"Our book" was Healing Their Wings, a bittersweet, often funny novel about American nurses in England during World War II. My grandson's wife had based it on oral histories she'd recorded from several of us who had kept in contact over the past half-century.
I rejoiced with her at the news, but then came a warning she was clearly embarrassed to have to make. "The screenwriters are bound to change some things, though. There's a good chance they'll want it to be quite a bit, well, racier."
"Racier?" I said. "Honey, all you had to do was ask the right questions!" How had she missed the passionate undertones to my story? When I spoke, all too briefly, of Cleo, had she thought the catch in my voice was merely old age taking its toll at last? The young assume that they alone have explored the wilder shores of sex; or, if not, that the flesh must inevitably forget.
I had to admit that I was being unfair to her. Knowing what she did of my long, happy life with Jack, how could she even have guessed the right questions to ask? But it hardly matters now. The time is right. I'm going to share those memories, whether the movie people are ready for the truth or not. Because my flesh has never forgotten--will never forget--Cleo Remington.

In the summer of 1943 the air was sometimes so thick with sex you could have spread it like butter and it would have melted, even on cold English toast.
The intensity of youth, the urgency of wartime, drove us. Nurses, WAC's, young men hurled into the deadly air war against Germany, gathered between one crisis and another in improvised dance halls. Anything from barns to airfield hangars to tents rigged from parachute silk would do. To the syncopated jive of trumpets and clarinets, to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Accentuate the Positive," we swayed and jitterbugged and twitched our butts defiantly at past and future. To the muted throb of drums and the yearning moan of saxophones, to "As Time Goes By" and "I'll Be Seeing You," our bodies clung and throbbed and yearned together.
I danced with men facing up to mortality, and with brash young kids in denial. Either way, life pounded through their veins and bulged in their trousers and sometimes my body responded with such force I felt as though my own skirt should have bulged with it.
But I wasn't careless. And I wasn't in love. As a nurse, I'd tried to mend too many broken boys, known too many who never made it back at all, to let my mind be clouded by love. Sometimes, though, in dark hallways or tangles of shrubbery or the shadow of a bomber's wings, I would comfort some nice young flier with my body and drive him on until his hot release geysered over my hand. Practical Application of Anatomical Theory, we nurses called it, "PAT" for short. Humor is a frail enough defense against the chaos of war, but you take what you can get.
Superstition was the other universal defense. Mine, I suppose, was a sort of vestal virgin complex, an unexamined belief that opening my flesh to men would destroy my ability to heal theirs.
My very defenses (and repressions) might have opened me to Cleo. Would my senses have snapped so suddenly to attention in peacetime? They say war brings out things you didn't know were in you. But I think back to my first sight of her, the intense gray eyes, the thick, dark hair too short and straight for fashion, the forthright movements of her lean body--and a shiver of delight ripples through me, even now. No matter where or when we met, she would have stirred me.
The uniform sure didn't hurt, dark blue, tailored, with slacks instead of skirt. I couldn't identify the service, but "USA" stood out clearly on each shoulder, so it made sense for her to be at the Red Cross club on Charles Street in London, set up by the United States Ambassador's wife for American servicewomen.

Now there’s some nostalgia worth having. Even though I have no right to it, except by way of imagination.




  1. Sacchi:
    What a beautiful passage!

    I get the part about being nostalgic for times in which you didn't live. They are untainted by reality.
    I don't see any topic ahead about feminism. I would love to hear your thoughts on the past, present and future. Maybe you should just go off track on a future topic.

    1. Spencer, the feminist movement has been through so many permutations and internal schisms that I'd just as soon not try to work my way through the tangle. I was so busy raising a family and managing a business that I pretty much missed the "second wave" and subsequent developments. It seemed so simple back when Betty Friedan spoke at my college saying things that seemed obvious, and even more significant was the example we had of women who had gone before us forging their way to prominence in science and the arts and all areas of academia. How could we not be feminists? But progress, and there has been progress, can bring complacence, and labels like "feminist" can be co-opted and denigrated. I still consider myself a feminist, but the closest I get to politicizing it is in contributing to progressive women running for Congress.

  2. "Nostalgia is to memory as fantasy is to fact." What a great summary! Except of course that memory is not at all guaranteed to be accurate.

    I've read at least one other story by you that took place during WWII. It was incredibly vivid and believable.

    Sometimes I'm nostalgic for the Victorian period. You can probably tell if you read any of my stories set during that era.


  3. Have to ditto Lisabet's comment about "Nostalgia is to memory as fantasy is to fact." That line stopped me in its tracks. And the 'rose-colored glasses' bit worked just fine.

    While reading your excerpt, I was stunned by the number of quotable passages:

    -The young assume that they alone have explored the wilder shores of sex; or, if not, that the flesh must inevitably forget.-

    -Because my flesh has never forgotten--will never forget--Cleo Remington.-

    life pounded through their veins and bulged in their trousers and sometimes my body responded with such force I felt as though my own skirt should have bulged with it.

    -Humor is a frail enough defense against the chaos of war, but you take what you can get.-

    AW, hell. The whole thing could be used for promotion blurbs. Great, lyrical stuff, Sacchi!

  4. I like your analogy up top—I'm going to roll that one around in my head for a while.

    Weirdly, I often get nostalgic for high school despite knowing I was frequently miserable then. Your nostalgia for college makes a great deal more rational sense.

    I also like your point about imaginary nostalgia. There's plenty of seductive power to certain historical narratives, especially when they come without the complexity that must have been present at the actual time.

  5. Sacchi, I hear you about the seductive power of the era of WW2. My parents met in university just before the U.S. entered the war in 1941, and their wedding photos from 1944 show him in the uniform of a U.S. Navy lieutenant (boyishly handsome & shockingly young-looking - OMG, did they really send such young men to war?). My mother was never in the military, but for her wedding, she wore a blue suit that resembled a uniform, dressed up with a corsage. When I was growing up, my parents used to slow-dance around the living-room to "String of Pearls," a popular song of the 40s. So I've always associated that war with the kind of sexual intensity you describe.


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