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The Big Role Nostalgia Plays in My Life

How to move into the future when the past is still very much alive.

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illustration of beer bottles, jacket, and speaker
Elizabeth Gu
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I’m waiting in line for a prescription in the overly air-conditioned CVS. I’m masked — we all are — and I’m uncomfortable, shifting foot to foot, irritated and cold. I notice a song whining at me over the store sound system.

A zombie-instrumental tune tugs and nags for a few seconds; I recognize “Angie,” by the Rolling Stones. I lean into my pandemic-depleted reserves of patience as the pharmacy clerk moves so very slowly. I give in to the song, and I drift and remember, and I nostalgize.

Yes, it’s a word.

“Angie” came out in 1973. I was 17, and the boys in my circle of friends sang my last name, “Gangi,” to the tune of the Stones song. It became a thing, and it continued to be a thing the next year at my university: I was Gangi to the boys — new boys — and they, too, sang my name in stoned, singsong voices. A decade later, my beau borrowed a guitar from a street performer in Washington Square Park and serenaded me with the song, also substituting Gangi for Angie. Reader, of course I married him, and of course, in the confounding, disappointing way of things, he’s now my ex-husband.

CVS Muzak notwithstanding, many scientific studies show that songs from one’s past trigger nostalgia in mind and body.

The song is heard, snapshot memories flicker, temperature rises. Weirdly, nostalgia kicks in more intensely in cold environments, like the frigid CVS, a discovery made by University of Southampton researchers in 2012. Blood flow increases. Anxiety decreases. Reward signals juice the brain’s limbic system. We go all warm and fuzzy. And I do, too, mostly.

If you dig a little, you’ll find that the original etymological underpinnings of the word nostalgia are a little less warm and fuzzy. The word breaks down into “nostos” — homecoming — and “algos,” which means, well, pain, grief, distress.

No wonder there’s a part of me that resists boomer-related nostalgia. I don’t reread books, I don’t rewatch movies, I don’t revel in television show theme songs from my childhood. My high school’s Facebook page gives me eye twitch the few times a year I sneak over there. I have a cousin who posts vintage family photos across social media, including of my gorgeous parents, and little me.

I can’t scroll away fast enough. I’m so committed to moving along at a good clip that I wrote a novel (my debut, published when I was 60) and called it The Next.

My new novel, Carry the Dog, spans an arc from the late 1940s to the recent past. Bea Seger is almost 60 as the novel opens, taking stock of her life, as one does. She has a complex history backdropped by both rock and roll and photography, cultural markers for boomers.

Because I use music extensively in both novels, to clarify a moment in time, to signify mood and to push the plot ahead, I’ve created playlists for the books. While the Stones and Bowie, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, the Woodstock lineup, Joni Mitchell are referenced in Carry the Dog, I’m disinclined to listen to my own playlist. It’s all so … retro.

And yet here I am, identifying myself with it, presenting myself as stuck in the past, maybe old, which I don’t feel, despite the reality of the mirror. This is the dilemma my protagonist, Bea, faces, too: how to keep moving into the future when the past is still so alive.

Another trigger is, of course, scent. The olfactory and the amygdala (our neural system for processing threats and fear) are in constant contact. Scent imprints on the brain, the brain files it away, and half a lifetime later that scent encountered stirs up Proustian moments — memories of a time or a place, the flickering images, the warm and fuzzies.

In 1993 my parents died suddenly — bing-bang-boom as my dad would have said — he in March, she in June. I was left with the house I grew up in. Grief is a thing you try to stow away. But it’s always there, like lost love or once-endured physical pain, an absent presence to be met again and again.

My then-husband and I worked over the course of one hot August weekend to clean out my childhood home in anticipation of selling. Finally, on Sunday, we sat on the dirty living room floor, maybe-probably having a couple of beers. I say “maybe-probably” because I don’t remember. But when I taste beer now, I flash on that day, and saying: “Did we do the closet?”

The closet was the width and depth of a casket. I stepped in and hugged as many hanging coats as I could reach around. I embraced scratchy wools, faux fur, crackling leather, a nylon quilted work jacket of my dad’s with, yes, Gangi embroidered on the chest. I stepped back to set them on the floor so I could go through the pockets before boxing them up for Goodwill.

My vision narrowed. I felt clammy and sick to my stomach. I could hear my then-husband say my name, my first name, but the sound came from a long way away. I backed out and blacked out under the enormous weight of the mingled essence of my parents.

Cigarette smoke, Joy by Dior perfume, Old Spice, lipstick and autumn leaves, somehow the garage, somehow the kitchen, all of it captured and held by the coats. Thousands of odorants are encoded in the nose and caught by industrious olfactory receptors and recognized by the blooming nostalgia-keeper, the amygdala.

I inhaled my mother, my father, and then my brain told my mind they were dead. That, quite simply, knocked me out.

For me, nostalgia is grief’s access point. When I hear “Angie,” there is the girl I was, where is the girl I was? There are the boys, now older men. There is my then-husband and our failed marriage. There is Gangi embroidered on my dad’s jacket. I get nostalgic when I taste beer or smell wet wool or autumn leaves.

When nostalgia barges in, I struggle to stay standing because I remember what it felt like to come undone, buried under a pile of coats. But I also know that although scent and song bring grief, grief is love in a different form. I hope to meet it again and again.

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