“I saw something on the internet; I’m not sure if it’s true, but people were drinking milk out of plastic bags.”
“Oh yeah,” I said to the teenager sitting across from me, “I remember that. Sometime around second grade, I think it was.”
“Why would people do that?” he asked in astonishment.
I shrugged. “Budget cuts, I guess.”
The whole group of teens was now gaping at me as if I had just recalled riding through town in horse and buggy. The moment quickly yielded to more pressing matters, just another reminder that I am quickly becoming what they would call an “older person.” They grew up in the age of smart phones and President Obama. I remember when cell phones and the Internet were new things.
I’m sure drinking milk from a bag at school exists on some list of “25 Signs You Grew Up in the 90’s” or “10 Things Only 90’s Kids Know.” It’s one of the little ways we reminisce with our peers — the only other people who truly “get it.”
Nostalgia is a complicated emotion, eliciting both joy and sorrow. The fond memory of times gone by is coupled with the sad knowledge that such times have passed. There is the feeling that something precious has been lost. Whether the past really represents a “simpler time” or not, that’s often how we remember it. To go from postmodern complexity to an earlier period of simplicity seems as impossible as un-frying an egg.
The world around us has always been changing. Over 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus observed that “a man never steps into the same river twice.” The river is not the same as it used to be, and neither is the man. But the irrefutability of this observation does nothing to lessen its emotional blow. No wonder Heraclitus is known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”
While change remains (paradoxically) one of the only constants in human life, the rate of change does vary. The greater the rate of change, the greater the weight of nostalgia. And the world seems to be changing at an ever more rapid rate.
I recently happened upon a Facebook page dedicated to the history of the Roanoke Valley. For thirty minutes or so, I scrolled through other people’s photos and memories, most from before I was born.
A typical post: “Does anyone remember Garst Dairy?”
Comments: “Best chocolate milk ever… My dad worked there for forty years… Delivered milk to our house every morning. Those were the days…”
A post about Lee Theater on Williamson Road had over 425 reactions and 244 comments like these: “Mama took us to see Mary Poppins there… Admission was a quarter… Had my first date there. We were ten years old and watched the Swiss Family Robinson… Saw Audie Murphy movies there. They let us get up on stage and dance occasionally. Those were the days… Met the Jackson Five there!… A Streetcar Named Desire… The Sound of Music… The Rocky Horror Picture Show… Sad that it ended up being an adult movie theater in its last days…”
Another asked: “Does anyone else remember shopping at the Roanoke-Salem Plaza?”
Comments: “My parents took me there in 1972 for my 13th birthday. After lunch they bought me a birthstone ring… My great aunt worked at High’s Ice Cream… I took dance lessons from “Miss Hellen” there… Leggett’s and Lerner’s, where my mama layed away our school clothes… Such a pretty, peaceful area. I suppose a mall like that wouldn’t do well nowadays… It was a real neat little mall, the courtyard was like a little town, but when the crime got bad they had to block off the rear entrance and it went downhill fast…”
This post was shocking to me, as this particular shopping center has fallen into such a state of disuse that it is commonly used as a parking lot to shuttle people to nearby events. “Quaint” and “pleasant” are the last words I would use to describe it.
My family lacks deep roots in the area, as both my parents are from out of state. I didn’t grow up hearing about how Roanoke or Salem used to be; thus, most of this history is new to me.
I’ve recently taken to driving through the neighborhoods of Roanoke instead of bypassing them on the interstate. Each street has a story, almost every block the site of some business that has either changed or closed. I love studying the old brick edifices and wondering what they used to be. I am currently reading Truevine by Beth Macy. This tale of racism in the Jim Crow South is also a treasure trove of local history. I had no idea that the library I drive by almost every day was established by an African-American woman in the 1920’s with the blessing of the Catholic Church (which owned the land at the time), or that the historic black neighborhood of Gainsborough once attracted the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Knowing this history helps me to appreciate this area so much more.
Closer to home, every drive through my hometown is a trip down memory lane. Businesses like the Salem Ice Cream Parlor, Mill Mountain Coffee, Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy, and Mac n’ Bob’s occupy not just a segment of the local economy, but an important place in the local psychology. I walked or biked to these places as a kid. Now I take my own kids there.
I’m lucky to be able to share so much of my childhood with them, but not all has been preserved. The arcade where I used to play basketball and laser tag is now a Lowe’s. The field behind my elementary school used to feature grazing cattle; now it is crowded with luxury homes that make the hill look small. When Ridenhour Music closed its doors about a year ago, there was palpable pain and regret. The building is still there: empty, its windows papered over.
The changing landscape is just the most visible sign of the changing times. The bonds of family and community have frayed. We seem to be more isolated and divided than ever – adrift on a tide of what some have labeled “liquid modernity”; old institutions have declined, and things are changing too fast for new ones to even have time to develop.
I must confess an additional level of sadness as I reminisce about my own childhood and read the recollections of others. Will today’s children be able to indulge in the same nostalgia? So many of the small businesses that used to anchor our communities have been replaced by big, soulless chains. Who really cherishes memories from Ruby Tuesday, Walmart, or Check-Into-Cash?
The forces of globalization and other economic challenges have made mom-and-pop businesses an ever rarer sight. They have been replaced by businesses that are more efficient perhaps, but lack character. Their managers follow the dictates of corporate headquarters, unlike the owners of the past who could form real bonds with their customers. Gone are the small-time carnivals and amusement parks that used to draw local crowds. Instead people drive to Busch Gardens, or maybe Disney World when they can save up the money.
Will today’s kids get to reminisce about playing tackle football with the neighbors in someone’s backyard or hanging out at the coffee shop? If not, will Snapchat conversations and Minecraft provide adequate substitutes?
In this age of omnipresent electronic devices, almost every moment is frozen, photographed, and posted. Our apps even come with ready-made filters to add layers of faux-nostalgia, encasing the events of the past few minutes with the glow of soon-to-be-memories. But will all this hyper-documentation make it easier or harder to recall these moments? If we never fully commit to the present, how do we remember it as past?
Despite all these questions, there are traces of hope. There was a moment a few days ago when I saw my son and his friend walking back from the creek behind our house. Two boys playing after school, they were accompanied by our five-year-old neighbor, whose curly hair bounced along as she strode in her usual purposeful, tomboy way. Who knows what they were up to? Like most things, it seemed to involve some plan bordering on “mom-wouldn’t-want-us-to-do-this-but-she-doesn’t-have-to-know-the-details.”
I didn’t have time to snap a picture on my iPhone. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I just delighted in how cute they looked and how happy I was that they were doing exactly what kids their age should be doing: playing – preferably in unstructured, minimally supervised ways.
In ten years, the boys will be off at college. The girl will be in high school. Just a decade will have passed, but they will be so much older, so different. I hope they meet up sometime, maybe at a football game (where the cheers are almost guaranteed to be the same) or Mac n’ Bob’s (where the calzones and chicken tenders will also be the same), and remember how they used to scheme and play together, all the fun they had. Maybe they’ll recall all the lost treasures they dredged out of that creek, a veritable time capsule in itself. I’m glad they’re having a real childhood, one that will afford them with real memories.
Perhaps the only thing sadder than nostalgia is the thought that current generations may never get to fully share in its sweet sorrow.