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Entries in nostalgia (63)


In The Picture

The brown sign says "Malabar Farm 9" and on a whim, I pull my car off to the right. I've got time.

This isn't my first trip to Malabar. Years ago, we took a tour there, marvelled at the author's books on the bookshelf, listened to stories of his wife's interior design. We admired wallpaper and bedspreads and looked at ourselves in the ornate mirrors of the Big House. But today my visit is fleeting; I simply stopped to smell the cow poo. 

It's still early; the gardener is weeding the patches of mulch around the flower bushes, just down the steps from where Bacall and Bogey posed for their wedding pictures.

There's a carving of Ganesha over the doorway. I notice that birds have built a nest behind it. Behind me, the green hills of Richland County roll out in waves, the sound of a distant mower revs up from behind a line of trees. The sky is a bright and intense blue, spotted with cotton ball clouds: unreal, like a child's Sunday school project. A rooster crows, a sheep baas. I peer over the fence at the animals in their pens. What a good life they have here in these hills.

"Do you want me to take your picture in front of the cows or something?" says an approaching farmer, lifting his John Deere hat off his brow, smiling his tanned cheeks at me and placing his arms akimbo.

"No thanks, I'm just here to take pictures of the house."

"You don't want yourself in the picture, huh."

But, dear farmer, I want to say, I am in the picture. I'm here in this picture as much as that famous Hollywood wedding is still here, as much as Bromfield atop his tractor. My face is in these hills, this sky. This farm is why my grandparents met. This is where my dad would ride his motorcycle, this is where his sisters would go blueberry picking. My grandparents, buried up the hill and around the bend, are now part of this earth, part of every blade of grass. My story is in these hills, in the dust we're stirring here now, exchanging words next to braying donkeys and clucking chicks.

I wanted to tell him: I am in the picture. I always will be.

Later, on the phone with Dad, I tell him where I stopped today, and say how lucky I think he was to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. On the other end of the phone line, there's a brief, whistful silence, and I think how he'll always be right there in that picture too.

(I first wrote about my attachment to Malabar Farm and Louis Bromfield back in 2006.)


100,000 Fireflies

July 1st, 2013

Last night as I drove home, the sky turned from gray to pink and the fireflies came out. I zoomed along the dusky curves of the country roads, and watched with a knot in my throat as I saw them multiply, lighting and lighting, a low, hovering starry sky over the soybean fields. Prone to hyperbole my thought was this: how could anything be more beautiful? 

This place is a broken record. But it's a repetition of the things I love, and I consider that a worthy litany. Baseball. Fireflies. Corn-on-the-cob. All of the things I missed from my youth and now have present in my every day. 

There are even things I can't remember from growing up here that hold a special new reality for me in my life. In particular: the tigerlillies. At the end of June and beginning of July, they line the highways, their orange heads bobbing in the wind of passing semis. They burst forth near every mailbox, telephone pole, in the roadside drainage ditches.

I don't particularly remember them from when I grew up here, though Mom swears they were always a part of the landscape. Why would I blot them out? Why weren't they as important to my eye then as they are now?

Every litany needs a break in the refrain. Every song needs a bridge.

Last night I ask Dad to relate to me some of his favorite memories of the place where he grew up. He told me about preparing the barn for winter; he told me about the Lutheran church bells that would chime at 5pm to let them know their work day was done and it was time to go home. "You could hear them from pretty much anywhere in the valley. On some days, when the air was right, they'd smack you in the face they were so clear."

These things that we hold on to from our childhood, the things that smack us in the face when the air is right: this is why I still come here and start typing. It's got to mean something.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Unhinged and Lawless

I wrote something for The Daily Dot Opinion section about Internet nostalgia. 

What this nostalgia is now is actually a craving for something that today would be entirely unrecognizable: an approximation of what it felt like back in those early days, to be cruising on the information highway, the tarmac rolling out ahead of you into the horizon, the desert stretching in either direction. It was quieter, more spacious; you knew that if you threw a rock it would take a while to hit someone. Ping. This is what we are looking towards with our animated GIFs and white space: a yearning for the peaceful expanse of Internet 1.0: peaceful, and yet somehow more unhinged and lawless.

Read more here.


I'll Put Away My Pride

Yesterday I found myself at my parents house with a few minutes to spare before we headed to dinner and a hankering to play some Christmas carols, and so I started digging through the sheet music that lives in a cabinet in the living room. 

I found the old Whitney Houston sheet music I asked for one year for Christmas, along with an old Joan Baez song book that probably belonged to my mother. Deeper down I found Jacques Brel, "Softly, As I Leave You," old violin practice books, and then, buried beneath Phantom of the Opera and The Carpenters was my favorite of them all: the 1988 Chartbusters song book of "the hits of today," its cover missing and its pages worn. I did not attempt Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car." I did not attempt "Tell It To My Heart" or "Devil Inside." Instead, I sat down and began to sight read the one song I remembered best: Aerosmith's "Angel."

My fingers dragged through the notes. I lingered way too long on certain chords on my way to reading the next one. I was the piano playing equivalent of a stutterer, struggling to get chords out like words. Awkward and embarrassed. Falling down stairs. From the other room, I could hear J sigh. 

I'm not telling this story to lament over my lapsed piano skills. Instead, it made me think about two things. First, how when we were young it was okay to do things you were unsure of, like struggle your way through a piece of sheet music, but as we get older, the expectation of success looms too large over our heads (have you read Danielle's piece yet? if not, why ever not?). You should know how to do this by now. You should be accomplished. But why should we bow to that expectation? It's okay to try the things you're not very good at, or think you might not be very good at. Of course it is. As I my lumbering fingers found each note, it didn't sound perfect, but every once in a while (*beat* don't make it tough, I'll put away my pride...) I hit them just fine and the song was mine to sing. 

And the other thing: I was going to feign embarrassment over sitting at a piano in my parents' house, playing sheet music from 1988. But I'm really proud of this. It made me laugh. It made me remember all of the stupid things I loved in 7th grade, like sheet music, or the London Fog men's fedora I wore to orientation, or baseball cards, or doing the running man; they all made me so happy. They didn't make me popular: they made me happy.

This is the part about nostalgia that I find the most comforting and misunderstood: it doesn't matter what it is that makes you happy, or makes you laugh, or makes you cry. The thing is not the thing. It doesn't matter where it turns up when you're 36 and bored and come across something that makes you laugh remembering what it felt like to be 12 and terrified that you weren't ever going to feel the emotion they were singing about in that song, terrified that loneliness and heartache were what love was going to be like. It only matters that when you hear that song, or when you find yourself hacking your way through it on a piano you haven't played in years, picturing yourself young and naive and wearing a London Fog fedora as you strut into a gym full of pre-teens: that you always laugh, that you always smile.

That you laugh until you cry as you sing it: ba-ee-ay-ee-bay...

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Revisiting the Porch Swing

Hooo, boy. Remember this? That whole incident was nearly three years ago, and I'd entirely let the idea of it go, until this past weekend, when I was digging through boxes of my stuff hauled up from my parents' basement, and found the original photograph. My old friend, there on the porch swing, hair in his face, slightly out of focus, smoking that cigarette. Just as I'd remembered you. The photograph itself (even the negatives, which still have yet to turn up) wouldn't have been proof enough for me, but there are other photographs developed in the same batch, pictures taken of my friends in class at high school—THESE are proof enough to me. 

I took that photograph. I took that photograph. I did. 

I'm still grateful for the questions the incident raised, but there's a real satisfaction in knowing I'm not crazy. Digging through this box of mementoes, and seeing confirmation of things that had come back to me over the years, real and tactile proof of memories—letters from old friends, mix tape track listings, directions to a house in the country written on a piece of paper torn from a memo pad—it's distinctly comforting. I did live this life I've remembered; it's not fiction. Here is proof that it happened, that I existed. 

How long my memory's coffins—this plastic bin, these bleepity-bloopity digital notes—will hold on to this existence: that's anyone's guess.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.