I saw a friend of my grandma’s on the way to my eyelash appointment, and I wondered if he knew she’d died. Daniel used to help out at the social club for the ill and the elderly, but ‘friend’ is still the most eligible word. He’d been in our home, in the doorway of Nana’s bedroom. He’d helped with her coat. They’d linked arms down the front garden path, and onwards to the mini bus.
Daniel has a sharky face. He’s a young man with a 5 o’clock shadow and mild autism. I’d seen him around before, when Nana was too ill to move or socialise, when he still had a gawkiness that satisfied his hanging about the elderly. I wondered if he still worked with old people, or if he’d found something he better suited. If he had, then his days with Nana had to have been a simpler time. He was older now. I knew better than to think that nostalgia hadn’t poked him.
My sister and I are 19 months apart. Together we shared a childhood full of 20th century memorabilia; Britney Spears and Destiny’s child, Hey Arnold and The Wild Thornberrys, barrier-less train stations and those other buses; things that remained as they’d first been built, CDs, DVDs, and skinny dolls, a lot of plastic things and sepia tones. It’s a collective, historical nostalgia that makes your eyes twinkle. It’s not the dangerous kind. Buildings are gone, people are dead, you cannot return there to live.
Personal nostalgia is harrowing in comparison. The word ‘nostalgia’ is part ‘nostos’– to ‘return’ in Greek, and part ‘algos’– pain, also greek. It journeyed away from its association with ‘homesickness’ in 1979. Now it’s widely known as an elating feeling, as something romantic; it should be, both romance and personal nostalgia are delusional by design.
When I used to live at Nana’s in South East London, I wasn’t especially fond. Later, I wasn’t ecstatic about commuting to and from Battersea for work. My stints in retail were hateful times. My New Cross years were some of my most difficult. My memories, however, are diffused, excessively bright, and very colourful. The frequency of my work dreams in particular tell a similar story. And, perhaps worst of all, I miss who I was in each of those episodes. I’m not old, but I miss my youngness, but more obviously, I miss my ignorance.
Those were my glory days. They were a bit awful, but less so, it seems, than the uncertainty of 25 and up. Things are ever-changing, impermanence is more obvious to me today than it ever has been. It’s like catching the sun move. And there is no ‘normal’ anymore, but there are two lies. One is that normal is unquestionably familiar, and two is that you can, and should go back. The buildings are still there after all, the people– mostly, the habits, the comfort of what is known– arguably right where you left it. But you are the issue.
Daniel, a little less fidgety, a little less wreaking of unsureness, could not return to the old people’s club. My grandma is dead, as I suspect many of the others are. But Daniel is just as gone. The past is one dimensional, and the you who could bring it all to life is no more. You can of course, go where you used to go and want what you used to want, all in search of that old feeling. But the source of that old feeling varies. Somewhere else, I’m 50 with a good life, wishing for this very moment.