Sometimes it seems to me that my whole life has been a series of goodbyes.
I left my first home in South Africa before I can remember. And I have left it and my loved ones there many times since. Parting is ever more bittersweet as the years go by; my returns have been fewer and farther in between, and each time I have gone back there have been changes in the family and places I hold dear.
My childhood was filled with arrivals and departures; I experienced many wonderful adventures across the globe, but also many farewells. Many, many forever farewells.
I can still remember the smell of the aviation fuel and hot tarmac as we trod on Sri Lankan soil for the last time, all those years ago. That country, at once so foreign and so familiar, had been my home for most of my remembered childhood – and I was caught up in an indefinable melding of joy and sadness in that departure. We were returning to a place of greater comfort and the embrace of family, but we were leaving the land in turmoil – not knowing if we’d ever return; knowing that, if we did, nothing would be the same again.
Those airport smells, even now, bring back so many memories of places I have been and people I have loved. It is said that that the sense of smell is, in fact, the most evocative of nostalgia.
Nostalgia – this is one of those words I far prefer in French: nostalgie. Instead of sounding like a Victorian complaint, it somehow sighs off the tongue with a kind of whispery sensation reminiscent of the feeling itself. Because nostalgia is, by definition, ephemeral. It enters, encircles your heart, tugs at happiness, and is gone.
I felt it just the other day. We were having lunch in a heritage building and as I walked through a hallway I detected the scent of old wood and some fragrance forgotten but locked away in the recesses of my memory, and it took me right back into the home of my paternal grandparents. Tears sprang to my eyes before I could stop them, and for a moment my heart was leaden with grief for a time and place to which I can never return, for those people in whose presence I always felt safe, and loved, and special.
Another time the smell of a hand soap at my parents-in-laws house in Auckland transported me to a happy memory of a holiday in Holland with a special aunt and uncle; another beloved aunt had given my mother a vial of scented hair oil (such a beautiful perfume!) and I remember her dripping some into my long brown hair before I wafted downstairs for dinner, feeling so grown-up (at about age eight). With that first squirt of the soap it felt like I’d stepped into a time machine – so potently did it evoke those memories – and I rushed downstairs to ask my mother-in-law where she had purchased it. From then on it was the only soap I would buy, and I found myself often raising my hand to my face to breathe in the comfort of that familiar scent.
There are plenty of other things that can be guaranteed to bring on a bout of nostalgia, too.
- Mist reminds me of a little town in Belgium; it was a foggy fall day when I first visited and fell in love with this romantic place. Now all misty days are ‘Bruges Days’ to me.
- Clear blue skies on a cold, dry day bring me right back to my mother’s hometown in South Africa and all the sights, smells and people I remember from my visits there.
- Tastes & scents – too many to name/specify
- Colour: there is a very particular pink that is symbolic to me of comfort and coziness; I think that it was the colour of my bath-towel at my grandmother’s house.
Nostalgie is, no doubt, as strong a sensation to many people as it is to me; but most particularly, I think, to those whose lives have been characterised by change. Impermanence has been more a part of my life than constancy, but I do not say this to elicit pity. Nostalgia is a part of me, and I would not know myself without it. Indeed, I feel that it is a blessing to breathe in these memories and to dwell in them for just a moment as they become real to me once again.
There is great comfort in the past because, of course, it is known. And no matter how many great and exciting things we might have planned, the future is still unknown. It is this desire to cling to the familiar that causes ex-prisoners to yearn for a return to their lives behind bars; to some, it may prove easier to forfeit freedom for a cloistered cell than to live with the uncertainty of the outside world. Other people may feel it as a yen for ‘the good old days’.
But I wonder if nostalgie is more than just a wistful longing for a return to the familiar. I wonder if, at a deeper level, nostalgia is actually a yearning for the heart’s true home. For, when we feel nostalgic about something isn’t it often because the place, person, or time about which we reminisce gave us a sense of being home? Isn’t nostalgia actually a kind of homesickness for a connection, a comfort, a sanctuary that we have known at some time in our lives?
And if our hearts – and our souls – are longing for a return home, then there is a truth on which I can hang my hat. This life is not the end of our story. Maybe that sense of homecoming we experience with nostalgia is but a taste of what’s to come – an echo of our soul’s true home – and a reminder of the One to whom we really belong.
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.