GENE OWEN’S CORNBREAD AND BUTTERMILK: Nostalgia: Magic elixir that turns memories to gold

  • Posted: Monday, July 29, 2013 8:39 a.m.

I never thought I’d be called to the defense of nostalgia, the magic elixir that turns memories into gold.

It’s the soft moonlight that sheds a gentle glow on the past, erasing the pain, enhancing the pleasure, and ironing the unpleasant wrinkles from our past.

Yet, there are people who look upon nostalgia as an ailment to be cured instead of a balm to be applied. Witness this passage in a New York Times article:

“Not long after moving to the University of Southampton, Constantine Sedikides had lunch with a colleague in the psychology department and described some unusual symptoms he’d been feeling. A few times a week, he was suddenly hit with nostalgia for his previous home at the University of North Carolina: memories of old friends, Tar Heel basketball games, fried okra, the sweet smells of autumn in Chapel Hill.”

His colleague, a clinical psychiatrist, figured that Sedikides must be depressed.

As one who has drunk in the atmosphere of the Chapel Hill campus, gazed upon the glory enclosed in the Dean Dome, and enjoyed my share of fried okra, I can understand why Dr. Sedikides would feel nostalgic for the old campus, and I can vicariously taste the sweetness of the mood.

I’ve had the same feeling regarding my own alma mater: Walking through the arch at the entrance to the University of Georgia campus, making the happy trek from Sanford Stadium to the Chapel and ringing the chapel bell until midnight following a Bulldog victory.

The clinical psychiatrist was putting too literal a meaning on the word. The “nost” is Greek for “returning home,” and the “algia” means “pain.” But to me, nostalgia is a painkiller, not a pain causer.

Thanks to a study Dr. Sedikides later launched, we know that nostalgia brings many positive benefits.

It can counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers; more tolerant of outsiders. When couples share nostalgic memories, it draws them closer. In low-temperature surroundings, nostalgia actually makes people literally feel warmer.

My nostalgia has a number of triggers, including music, old cars, old photos, old surroundings, and an interval of solitude away from today’s ubiquitous electronic web.

I was 4 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but the music of World War II always transports me back to a childhood in which violence was an ocean away, Americans were always victorious, and war was always glorious.

“Smoke on the Water,” a song popular during the ‘40s, takes me back to a crude living room with a smoky fireplace and a radio chronicling the heroism of “Hop Harrigan, America’s ace of the airways.”

“You gotta accentuate the positive” takes me back to Beaufort County near the war’s end, where dad was the overseer of a truck farm, where our little farm house was surrounded by fields of vegetables, sometimes worked by German prisoners of war.

“Bésame Mucho” takes me back to the front porch of a tenant shack near Wagener, where my Uncle Grady loved to strum his guitar and sing that song – which my 9-year-old ears interpreted as “Bessie Mae Mitchell.”

“Moonlight and Roses” takes me back to my senior year at Graniteville High School; it was our class song.

“There Stands the Glass,” a country song made popular by Webb Pierce, takes me back to the Vaucluse Mill, where thousands of humming spindles sang it to me as I walked the alleys between the spinning frames earning my 75 cents an hour. But in the fog of nostalgia, my feet don’t hurt, the lint doesn’t clog my nasal passages, and my clothes don’t become drenched with sweat in the 100-degree heat.

“Sixteen Tons” recalls my early courtship of a girl named Peggy, when I gave her Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 45rpm record along with a portable phonograph. “Autumn Leaves” takes me back to the heartache I felt when she broke it off with me, but nostalgia comes to the rescue.

“Unchained Melody” takes me back to the newsroom of the Red and Black, “America’s pre-eminent college weekly,” where Al Hibbler’s 1955 version of the song frequently played on WRFC, Athens. The nostalgia reprised in 1984 when the FM radio on Miss Peggy’s Chrysler Fifth Avenue picked up the Righteous Brothers’ version via WPCH, Atlanta, as we drove away from our wedding to begin our honeymoon at Atlanta’s Waverly Hotel. And “Eric’s Theme” from “Chariots of Fire” quickly became “our song” after it played on the same station as we drove through Statham, Ga., where Miss Peggy was living when I dated her in my 1939 Chevrolet.

As I drive the streets of Graniteville today, I can still see the faces of playmates of my youth, a large number of them now living only in the memories of those of us who shared those years with them.

Nostalgia enhanced my enjoyment of the movie “42” recently, as I relived the old days when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, DiMaggio and Musial were my living heroes, and Jackie Robinson was changing the world of baseball. I heard names such as Gene Hermansky, Pete Reiser, Don Newcombe, Roy Camanella, Eddie Stanky and Ralph Branca – names that once populated the box scores and were as familiar to me as the days of the week. Nostalgia removed the stain on Branca’s memory: The movie portrayed him as a good pitcher – which he was – and omitted any reference to his home-run pitch to Bobby Thomson, which cost the Dodgers the 1951 National League pennant.

I was transported back to the front porch of an unpainted 3-room shotgun off Ascauga Lake Road, where Dad and I would sit and listen to the Old Scotchman, Gordon McClendon, do his play-by-play.

Whenever I feel blue, or insecure, or fearful today, I just pull over me my blanket of nostalgia. The melancholy, the insecurity and the fears go away, and I’m transported back to happy times.

Or maybe I’ve been depressed all my life.

Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@aol.com. For more of Gene’s writings, go to www.wadesdixieco.com.

Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.

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