Romanticizing the Past

In season one, episode thirteen of “Mad Men” Don Draper refers to nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” You’ve felt it haven’t you? That moment when your heart feels like someone is squeezing it. The memory of a place, a person, a moment in your past suddenly washes over you, leaving you with one foot in the present and another in your past. Conflicting emotions of happiness and another feeling you can’t quite define course through your veins. Is it yearning? Is it pain? Is it regret? Is it nostalgia?

Romanticizing the Past

A family outing to the local carnival, an 80’s cover band, the smell of hotdogs and cotton candy. The sounds of the rides, the screams, the laughter all take her back to another carnival in a distant time and place. She remembers the lights, the happiness, the feeling of awe in her surroundings. The stuffed animal prizes seemed larger than life, the smell of popcorn filled the air as it filled her lungs. As she stands in line, her two-year old tugging at her leg asking for popcorn, she inhales that same scent and is suddenly that young girl again in Jordache jeans and home-made off the shoulder sweatshirt, hair pulled back in a banana clip. She reaches in her back pocket for the strand of ride tickets she and her friends bought on their way in, when she promised this would be the year she braved the ferris wheel. Except her pocket is empty, a feeling that spreads as she sees herself once again in the present. The present her, the present carnival, doesn’t seem to match the past her, the past carnival. She’s suddenly left with the same sensation she experienced earlier when she stared at the strange reflection in the Fun House mirror. It was her, but it wasn’t her. She could see herself in the reflection, though the image was distorted.

The one that got away. He’s always thought of her that way. As happy as he is, married with three beautiful children, a small part of him sometimes wonders what if… He remembers walking her home, holding her hand, how she always made him laugh. Seeing her waiting for him at his locker never failed to brighten his day all those years ago. She filled a room when she entered, a vision of perfection. Twenty years later, he sees her enter the room once more. Their eyes meet, and as she walks over to him he’s torn between his memory of her and the reality of the woman before him. As they try to catch up, jokes falling a little flat, he can’t deny he’s happy to see her once more. Yet, as he looks at his wife, the woman who truly fills the room with her presence, he no longer sees his high school sweetheart as the one that got away. 

It’s Friday night, family movie night, and the girls beg their parents to watch the latest Disney movie, Teen Beach. Mom agrees, but throughout the movie keeps telling her girls how reminiscent it all is of Grease, a movie that told the same story and was way more entertaining. In her opinion, Teen Beach is a poor imitation of Grease – from the plot, to the characters, to the costumes and the set. The following Friday night, mom pulls out her dusty, old copy of Grease and subjects the family to it. Approximately twenty minutes into the flick she raved about, she finds herself wondering why the colors don’t seem as bright as she remembered them, the characters aren’t as lovable, and racing for pink slips seems to be lacking some of the thrill and excitement she recalled. 

The childhood snack they can’t wait to introduce their kids to, feeling like they have missed out on something so delicious they would be depriving them if they didn’t rush out and find a box before the shelves are clear. They gather everyone round the table. As their children hold out their hands expectantly, they bestow upon them the coveted treat. After the first bite they wonder if there’s been some mistake. They take another bite, and wonder if the lunchbox treat they used to look forward to always tasted like a piece of sponge. The look on their kids faces confirms it.  Did someone change the recipe?

Can you relate to any of these scenarios? How often do we romanticize the past whether it is in the form of a movie, an event, a past relationship? We hang on to a past feeling which is just that…in the past. We take our trips down memory lane, remembering the good times, trying to conjure up the same feeling of long ago, when it truly has no place in our present. The memories may bring us comfort, and they are definitely part of our present selves, but trying to relive them somehow always seems to leave us unsatisfied. Is it because we are romanticizing the past, giving it a glow that wasn’t really there to begin with or is it simply that each experience, each moment is meant for that single moment in time?

19 thoughts on “Romanticizing the Past

  1. Just reread this again… looking through your posts I may have missed. Though I read this one… this sentence really hit home for me today!

    we are romanticizing the past, giving it a glow that wasn’t really there to begin with or is it simply that each experience, each moment is meant for that single moment in time?

    What wisdom in that!

  2. It’s a weird and almost scary thing to realise how wrong memories can be. And as you prove here, nostalgia can make colours too bright and people too nice. Sometimes, nostalgia is a nice feeling, in some way, but once it drags you in, yu get sort of lost in memories that aren’t correct anymore…

  3. Leah, this has definitely happened to me. I think in some ways it’s a sign of growth and that fact that things change. I know I’ve had the scenario where I’ve introduced my kids to things and they were pretty uninterested about them! I think it’s also about losing my sense of what’s ideal, because it never is that same ideal for someone else. Great post!

  4. The best way to keep the past romantic, is to keep it in the past. This is why the present isn’t cast in vintage wallpaper. It only becomes beautiful over time.

  5. I have those feelings with a lot of my past except one memory. The local fair. I loved it as a kid. Ride after ride, all that junk food. But now when I go, I think, what did I see? It is so small, everything is so high priced. LOL

    1. Yes! The local fair doesn’t seem as big of a deal as it was when I was a kid either. Everything seemed larger than life, and now it seems so small and unimpressive. ha ha! To see the world through a child’s eyes once more…

  6. This one really hit home perfectly.
    The line ; Giving it a glow that wasn’t really there to begin with…especially!
    And then the question… maybe the great moments are meant just for that moment. Thank you fir writing this!

    1. I think some great moments are truly meant just for that moment in time and have no place in our present. And, sometimes it is easier to recall it with that “glow” around it rather than admit it really wasn’t all we want to believe it was.

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