In the June/July edition of the Juniper Berry Magazine I had the distinct pleasure of having an article of mine, ‘Growing Up In Elmhurst,’ published. In the August/September issue I wrote ‘Surviving the Turbulent 1960’s.’ As these opportunities were given to me, I naturally became very interested in the magazine, and began to look into some past issues, as well as its history. I especially enjoyed the before and after pictures; showing how streets and neighborhoods looked so many years ago as compared with today. I also observed the meticulous and painstaking process it takes to put the magazine together. The words, “reminiscing, memory and recollection” came to mind, but after careful thought, I believe the real word that sums up the Juniper Berry Magazine is Nostalgia.
The word nostalgia comes from Greek compounds that when translated mean a pain or an ache to return home; to relive the past. It is a yearning in our heart to take our mind back to a place and time that at this moment is safe, secure and peaceful.
To feel ‘nostalgic,’ is often romanticized in movies and books. The term relates to only pleasurable emotions, thoughts, images as well as smells and tastes. Our memories are a very powerful part of everyday life; whether we are conscious of them at the moment or not. They can influence the decisions each us of will make.
As an example, music is a powerful source of recollection. Have you ever been at home or in your car and a song plays and you may immediately be taken back to the time and place where you heard that song for the first time? You think, were you alone or was someone with you?
How about a smell like that of a bouquet of flowers, a roasted turkey? Sounds strange, maybe silly, but they do make a point. They may jog memories; perhaps back to a very cheerful family gathering on Thanksgiving Day. We can recall the flowers we took one last scent of before the door we were standing in front of opened and a very special girl gave us a reassuring smile that has stood the test of time. She may have moved on; yet how we felt at that moment from so long ago still lingers. I can’t smell a cigar without thinking about being at Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium; where everyone seemed to smoke at those ballparks years ago. Time may have passed us by, but the scent of flowers, a cigar, Thanksgiving Day and the look in that girl’s eye will last forever.
This all reminds me of a story told to me at least 25 years ago by a co-worker. I never forgot it, and I hope you’ll understand why. We were employed at an accounting firm on 52nd street between Park and Madison Avenue. I worked on the 11th floor; the accounting department. There was nothing fancy on this level; it was a place to roll up your sleeves and shuffle though papers. My friend Kate worked high above on the 17th. It was on this floor, as well as the 14th, 15th, and 16th, where Certified Public Accountants and executives had offices with plush carpets, expensive paintings, and all the amenities of home. My work required me to venture up ‘to the heavens’ several times a day. Of course on the elevator ride I had to straighten my tie, roll down my sleeves, and put on my suit jacket.
I met Kate on the elevator leaving work one day. She stood out immediately. At five-feet, 10 inches tall, with two or three inch heels, it was a treat to be standing beside a tall woman. At six-feet five inches tall, it was a rare pleasure for me and I told Kate this as I introduced myself. We became very good friends despite the obvious glare from a dazzling diamond engagement ring on her finger. I respected the ring and its meaning, so Kate and I immediately put aside any awkward feelings and started a nice friendship. I would meet her fiancé on a few occasions and he seemed like a really nice person. Of course as a single man I didn’t pay him much attention; I guess it’s just a guy thing, nothing personal. After all why should I care? Was I jealous? No. I was dating someone very special at the time. Kate said her fiancé was a great guy so that was good enough for me.
As Kate and I got to know each other we shared stories about our early days; where we grew up, what schools we went to, on and on. I vividly recall one time when we had taken a walk up to Central Park. The winter had finally come to an end. The fresh smell of spring; a new beginning, was in the air. It was that afternoon when Kate really opened up and told me about her childhood and growing up without a mother. After all these years I can still see the sad look in her eye as she began her story.
Her mom passed away from cancer when Kate was five years old. She was raised by her father, two grandmothers, and an aunt and uncle; fortunately she lived in a loving home. About a year after her mom’s passing, she started to resent her dad because he never told her about the seriousness of her mother’s condition. Her family hid it from her because she was so young; it was certainly understandable to everyone, but not to Kate. I knew her as a strong, confident woman, and as she told me her story I would imagine she had been a strong and determined child as well.
Looking back Kate remembered her mom being in the hospital but didn’t know why; she only thought and wished that she would be coming home soon. When she did, Kate’s mom stayed in the bedroom; Kate was told to play quietly while her mother rested.
The resentment, which Kate said she kept to herself, lasted until her teenage years, when she finally began to understand how difficult her mom’s illness must have been for her entire family; especially her dad and her mom’s mother. Kate felt guilt and shame for her selfish thinking over the years. She thought about her grandmother. A parent should never have to be witness to the death of a child; yet it happens.
The years went by and Kate grew up to be a very intelligent and caring young woman. She was able to let go of the bitterness; yet every now and then she felt very sad because she had so few memories of her mother. It became a void, a hollow space inside her; yet that all changed on her 21st birthday. Kate had just finished college and was given two gifts; one of them being a brand new car. It was a car Kate loved; she couldn’t wait for weekends so she could drive off on another new adventure. She had studied hard in college and her family felt she earned something very special. Yet, to Kate, the true, unique gift she received that day was a lot smaller.
Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, painstakingly and very quickly put together a photo album just three weeks before the big day. As she later would tell Kate, she rummaged through the basement and attic looking for pictures, but along her search, she finally found something very old and very dear. It was something her grandmother had tried to find for a very long time; almost giving up hope of ever coming across it. That’s all her grandmother said, and Kate began to wonder what she was referring to. She had no idea what this mystery was all about; yet the emptiness inside her was about to fade away.
Kate told me how she flipped through the photo album pages and couldn’t recall most of the pictures of her early childhood, like when they were taken, especially the ones with her and her mom. Once again, she was frustrated. It wasn’t until the last page that was noticeably, and curiously, a little bulky when Kate’s memories had awoken. Her grandmother watched with a huge smile as her granddaughter turned to that page. Her hand covered her mouth and Kate, seeing her grandmother, had an overwhelming wave of déjà vu sweep over her.
Instead of a picture in the album, Kate saw the top half of what she immediately remembered as her favorite childhood outfit. Kate began to cry as soon as she saw the different colored polka dots on the top half of a white dress. The dress was torn when she was four and she never saw it again; but apparently her mom saved the polka dots for her.
She hadn’t thought about the dress since her mother died, but now Kate suddenly recalled that at three and four years old she wanted to wear the dress everywhere; especially to Church each Sunday. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Memories of her mom awoke. She could hear her soft sweet voice saying, “Kate I don’t want our friends in Church thinking you only have the one dress. Wear this one.” Kate remembered doing as she was told that day.
As she sat with the photo album on her lap, surrounded by her family, she looked at the polka dots and the nostalgia of the moment started to run through her mind more quickly; the flood gates had opened. More and more hidden memories returned. She told me how years ago she sat in her living room with her mother by her side pointing at one polka dot after another. Kate yelled out the colors. “That’s yellow mommy, that one is red, blue, green and pink.” Kate could see the smile in her mother’s eyes, her beautiful blonde hair. Suddenly she could smell the perfume her mom wore. On those days when her mom was in bed and Kate was told to be quiet; Kate now remembered curling up in bed with her mother.
She smiled when she recalled her mother’s laugh and the way she self consciously placed her hand over her mouth as her laughter grew louder. She glanced at her grandmother whose own hand now covered her mouth; like mother like daughter. Kate closed her eyes and saw tears of joy roll down her mom’s cheeks. I think the way Kate told me this story, so eloquently and contentedly, is why I will always remember it. I could see and sense she was finally at peace with herself.
Kate kept the car she had gotten on that 21st birthday for several years. Time passed and she started to make more money; she also was engaged to be married. The car had a lot of miles on it so Kate decided to trade it in for a new one. Even though I lost touch with Kate over the years, and that first car of hers is long gone, I’d bet my last dollar that she still has the photo album and looks at those polka dots every now and then. If she has any children, grandchildren, they have been, or will be, told an exceptional story. All of these memories had always been with Kate; it just took something so unique and yet so simple, as a torn polka dotted dress that her dying mother thought to hide away for her little girl.
We all dream of better days to come; however they are just dreams. The world has become more frustrating; a fast paced and complex place to live. Our minds bombarded with senseless information, but with nostalgia we can go back and pull out those instances where we are convinced of magnificent days, months and years that are gone; yet only in time, not in our memories. I guess you could say it’s like having our very own time machine. On that spring day in Central Park I watched on as Kate took her walk back in time; with tears of pleasure in her eyes.
These private recollections become a haven where we can take ourselves in a moment of stress or just an instant when we feel the need to smile, to laugh or even to cry tears of our own. They’re always with us if we just watch and listen. Some day we all may very well have an extraordinary moment from years ago come alive, so be prepared, and look out for your own polka dots. The Juniper Berry magazine has enthusiastically and unselfishly helped create a special way to feel nostalgic, and I’m sure put smiles of delight on the faces of its readers.