When I was a child, I remember sitting with my mother as she hate-watched The Waltons. Mom twirled the ice cubes in her Manhattan, and took a moment to note that the Great Depression was uncheerily named for a reason, and that reason was that everyone (save rich people) was poor. She liked to point out that being poor was not fun. Also, that all that barefoot walking around that the Walton kids indulged in probably led to hookworm infections. The hookworm is an intestinal parasite, which meant that even if the Walton family had enough to eat, they’d starve. Etc.
But what stuck in my mother’s craw about The Waltons mostly was the sentimental tone of the show. Like there exists a magical past that was filled with happiness that we could time-travel back to.
Mom wasn’t merely unsentimental–she was anti-sentimental. She believed that people should be clear-eyed about their pasts, otherwise they were bound to continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
Anytime I find myself indulging in any form of sentimentality, I hear my mother cackling at the Walton family (“Good night, John Boy!”) as they wished each other a good night at the end of each episode.
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but my family moved around a lot, mainly because my father, like a lot of Americans, confused movement with upward progress. He thought that he could chase down happiness. This is an American trait. We ended up in Florida, which is filled with happiness-chasers. Florida attracts immigrants from all over the damn place, most of them confusing boiling heat and a lack of winter with paradise. And paradise equals happiness. Got it?
My childhood was better than the one the actual Waltons lived, I have to think. Polio had been cured by then, for instance. Indoor plumbing took care of hookworms. Also: shoes. There was no Great Depression. We had hyper-inflation and WIN (Whip Inflation Now!) buttons. We had a series of incompetent or corrupt presidents, and a slow drain of money from the working class to the wealthy that continues today. Such is life. You can try out voting if you don’t like that. See if that works out.
Think of memory as a barn door that opens wide when you’re experiencing times of extreme joy or fear, and nearly closes up during ordinary life, or when you’re bored. Your brain is designed that way by God. Blame Him. Your brain wants be able to either recreate that extreme joy, or figure out a way to prevent whatever was causing your fear. It wants to suck down every detail during extreme times… and create a map to joy or away from fear. Rollercoasters take advantage of this. So does 24-hour network news. These memories become cement. They’re stuck in there. As time goes on, they are often sweetened a bit, or a lot, to make them palatable. Sure, it’s an ugly blob of cement, but if I plant roses all over it, I’ll be able to stand to look at it, and after a while, I may even enjoy having to look at it.
I sometimes run into people from my past who invite me to be sentimental about a specific time in my life. I was in the Army, for instance. The Army is designed to be memorable thanks to heavy weaponry and sudden death. Old soldiers take those memories and, because they’re stuck with them, turn them into something better… something nice, even if they aren’t nice. The old soldiers want you to indulge in the niceness fantasy with them. Like: Wasn’t it all fun? Didn’t we have the best time? Because you don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of unfun memories, do you?
I went to a small Catholic high school in Florida. My graduating class had maybe 90 people in it. About 15 years ago, I made the mistake of moving back to Florida for a couple of years. My mother was dying. Florida was too-too familiar and horrifyingly alien at the same time.
I ran into someone I’d gone to high school with. He was offended that I didn’t recognize him, or his name, which he repeated to me several times, each time more incredulously. I’ve since reforgotten his name. I was working as a newspaper editor/reporter and he was a cop. We had lunch, and he named a bunch of people from high school. I didn’t remember their names either. He gossiped about them for a while. He invited me to remember the good times I’d clearly not had in high school.
“You really don’t remember any of this stuff, do you?” he asked, shaking his head.
“Nope. Should I?”
I’d learned enough about civility by then to wait until I got into my car, safely out of earshot. And then I cackled.