The Middle Distance, 7.12.13: Words for Nostalgia

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Photo by Sean Cayton

There is a joke about a young man entering heaven. As he approaches the pearly gates, he sees a group of angels bound in chains. The young man asks St. Peter why and St. Peter replies: “Oh, they’re from Tennessee. We have to lock them up on Friday to keep them from going home for the weekend.”

I don’t pine to return to Tennessee after more than 20 years in the Rocky Mountain West, but I miss certain things about it daily. Out here in the middle distance, I am plagued with frequent nostalgia, listed as a disease common to Tennesseans in the Civil War. Indeed, nostalgia has long been perceived as a disorder, since the term was first coined by a Swiss doctor in the 17th century to diagnose the mental and physical pain of soldiers longing to return home.

So I was relieved this week to read in the Science section of the New York Times that not only is nostalgia not a disorder, it has benefits.

According to Dr. Constantine Sedikides, a pioneering social psychologist living in England but frequently nostalgic for his North Carolina homeland, “nostalgia makes us feel a bit more human.”

Dr. Sedikides is careful to distinguish between nostalgia and homesickness, noting that one can live forward while looking backward. He speculates that most of us experience nostalgia at least once a week, if not more frequently, usually in response to an unsettling experience.

Nostalgia hits me when I am wishing for a slower, more relaxed and less scheduled existence. The Southern home, an author once said “is full of people just staying for a while,” and admittedly that is something I long for.

Nostalgia hits me most often when I am struggling for words. In that instance, I am drawn to remember the sounds of my old cousins’ and aunts’ and uncles’ voices, the phrases and words they used just sitting around talking. Most of them are dead now, and their peculiar idiom gone with them, but I can still hear them when I try. I love their stories and even more, I like the way they talk.

My father used to tell the story of what a bad little boy he was. “When Mama wasn’t looking,” he said, “I’d bite my little dog Topsie’s ear. Then Mama would feel Topsie’s ear to see if it was wet and I’d be in a world of trouble.”

My mother’s people, a huge clan of middle Tennesseans who were kin in one way or another to practically everyone in Montgomery County, were country people and straight talkers. They dished about old age and infirmity with a matter-of-factness I envy. The last time I saw her, my cousin Louise said, “I had three people on walkers at my Christmas Eve dinner.”

Referring to a friend, Aunt Bernice told the gathered family: “She was eat up with cancer. Dr. Toth just cooked her inside …”

The conversation turned to hair, a measurement of how well or not a woman had kept herself up. My aunts and cousins had permed and teased helmets of hair held together by generous applications of Aqua Net.

“I haven’t had mine done this week,” said cousin Dorothy, patting the flattened side of her head.

“Bettye,” she said sweetly to my mother, home for a visit, “Your hair came out real pretty.”

Everyone knew my mother had the best hair of them all. “Ain’t a school bus yellow?” Aunt Bernice scoffed and everyone got a good laugh.

But their favorite topic of conversation was gruesome tragedy, whether it befell complete strangers or someone they knew. All heads leaned forward as a cousin recollected something she’d read in yesterday’s newspaper.

“I saw in the Leaf-Chronicle where that man fell off some scaffolding and died,” she said, shaking her head. “That was a long way down. Yeah, he’s dead.”

Uncle Frank one-upped with his description of an old Army buddy’s terrible car wreck.

“That car was split in two – one side went off the road that way and one went off the other. His wife was throwed out onto the road and got run over by an 18-wheeler right there on the Interstate.” No one could top this one. Dead silence ensued in homage to the sheer horror of the story.

“He like to never got over it,” said Uncle Frank. “Well, really, I don’t think he ever did.”

On a cold day, says the good doctor’s study, nostalgia can literally make people feel warmer. When words fail me, I think of those voices and find my own.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


4 Responses to The Middle Distance, 7.12.13: Words for Nostalgia

  1. Ms. Lin says:

    As fellow refuge from Middle Tennessee I know what yer talkin’ about.
    I do find people here in Colorado looking at me funny after I have innocently uttered some phrase common in those parts but not in these

  2. florasforum says:

    From southeast Missouri (a stone’s throw from Arkansas) I miss the green landscapes, and the imaginative language most. Many phrases survive from earlier times (England), like “Mind your p’s and q’s.” We said it not knowing it meant pints and quarts. One of my daughters gives me a hard time for saying care-a-mel (caramel, Southern) instead of car-uh-mel, and Care-i-be-an for Ca-rib-ean–until she learned there is different pronunciation in different parts of the country.

  3. Liz Arnold says:

    I happened upon Steel Magnolias on a movie channel recently and so enjoyed listening to the drawl and language of those “southern” women. They talked about everything from hair, to death, to who’s husband was cheating on who, and though I am not from the south, I bet their portrayal of those lives was pretty accurate.
    Kathryn, Ted had many of those idioms you speak of. He also had especially funny ways of pronouncing words like, cement, police, umbrella – all with the emphasis on the first part of the word!
    My mom used to slip into her Virginia accent when she was talking to her brother on the phone. I remember thinking she was someone I didn’t know listening to her drawl on the phone with him.
    Thanks for the fun column this week!

  4. Sarah says:

    I’m nostalgic and homesick every day for Scotland, but also rooted here by great love of good people. I’m trying to cure myself by writing about what I miss. I love this article Kathryn – ghosts whispering archaic phrases in our ears long after they have left us.


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