You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

23 Snaps Photo book

My lovely 23 Snaps Photo Book…

The other day, I was asked to produce a baby photo of my youngest child, and I couldn’t. With a wave of nausea, I realised that every moment I have recorded of my youngest daughter’s life, has been digital. And I haven’t been organised about it either.

I sat on the floor with the defunct hard drive that contains the Biscuit Thief’s baby pictures. The connection needed to access the photos is not compatible with my latest computer. Other photos are on a PC that no one, apart from cavemen, use anymore. The rapidity of change in digital technologies is blisteringly clear in the difference between the photographic record of my teenager’s life (born 1996, box of photos in the attic) and that of my second child (born in 2005, diddly-squat in the attic). This problem is big, and it’s getting bigger.

So I’m worrying, I’m worrying about history. But I’m also wondering about whether it matters that I haven’t diligently archived my family’s past. There were, after all, generations before photography, video and audio recording and we can only guess what our ancestors looked, moved and sounded like. Is my lack of a tangible record of my children’s past any worse than the edited histories we have received down the years? Whole chunks of information and images have been discarded over time, deemed unworthy of preservation on (usually) racist or sexist grounds. History has always been selective, and the recording of it highly subjective.

I’m thinking that we live out a strange dichotomy. We think we are in an era of information saturation; that we are recording everything, enjoying this weird intimacy over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels. But actually, none of it is tangible… “all that is solid melts into air…” said Marx of modernity. This intimacy is fleeting, a firework in the night sky, a brush against a stranger. There is a disconnect between what we share, what is evanescent and what has permanence. History feels precarious at the same time as being collectively experienced over social media.

My memory is lit up by palpable things; like my father’s handwriting on old birthday cards, or my aunt’s silk dress, still mapping the contours of her body. Nearly six feet tall, she must have been an elegant woman with exquisite taste to own such a dress. My great, great grandmother’s engagement ring reveals that the central diamond, cut in Europe, was at some point removed from its original setting and cast in another in New York in the late 1800s. It tells me more about her life than a photograph. Yet I long to see her, to know her face. I yearn to know whether it is from her that I get my freckles and strawberry blonde hair. I wonder about the quality of her skin and the way her mouth naturally set when she was unaware anyone was looking. Only a photograph can show me that.

Thinking about all this has inspired me to get my digital act together and create tangible histories by printing off photo books for my children. In search of solutions, I tried out 23 Snaps, an app and website which allows you to upload photos to a central server and share your photostream with invited guests. You, and anyone else you invite, can compile and order beautiful printed books, all from within the app. A friend of mine recommends Photobox, and every six months or so, she compiles and prints off another photo album. There are other services such as Jessops and Snapfish but I have yet to find a good way to preserve video. Any ideas? I’d love to know what works for you… how do you log your life?

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The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

6 Vintage Children’s Books That Formed My Views on Motherhood

One of the things I love most about being a mother is rediscovering books from my childhood and enjoying them all over again with my daughters.

My childhood books were my dream catchers ~ my world view was woven from their threads. As we didn’t have a TV until I was in my teens, these vintage classics provided me with an entire cultural landscape. I still find the lithography and print styles of the 60’s and 70’s as evocative as perfume and the illustrations in these books are so familiar I could crawl inside them just as I did as a child. I realize that when I received stories as a kid, it was in an immersive way that I have since forgotten.

Make Way for Ducklings 2

Introducing my first feminist icon... MRS MALLARD

I love the poignancy of touching a crease made on a page forty years ago by the four-year-old me and the sense of continuity that comes when my daughter traces her tiny fingers over my name, the ‘S’ handwritten backwards in my childish scrawl, on the inside cover.

I adore my Kindle, but I know that the tactile world of books is leaving us and it makes me sad.

When I decided to compile a list of the vintage favourites my daughters and I have enjoyed, I noticed that every book featured a mother of some kind.

So while my own mother was reading Fear of Flying and the Female Eunuch, I was getting down with some of the greatest feminists of the era, many of whom had beaks. Here they are along with the notes I would have made to myself if only I had known how to spell at the time.

Make Way for Ducklings1. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Synopsis: One reviewer at the time of publication in the 1940’s commented on the pre-feminist tone of this story of Mr and Mrs Mallard who search all over Boston for the perfect place to raise their family of eight ducklings; Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

Favourite quote: ‘”Don’t you worry,” said Mrs. Mallard, “I know all about bringing up children.” And she did.’

Notes to self:

  • Mrs Mallard is in complete control in spite of having eight children, and was probably my first feminist icon.
  • It’s mothers who teach their kids everything important and husbands are a bit rubbish.
  • Give your children rhyming names for ease of communication. Think Jenny, Lenny, Lily, Billy, Gilly etc.
  • Don’t mess with ducks.

Blueberries for Sal2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Synopsis: Set in Scott Island, Maine, the characters Little Sal and her mother pick blueberries to store for the winter months. There is a parallel story of a mother bear and her cub who eat as many blueberries as they can to fatten up before hibernating. Sal and her mum and the little bear and her mum get all mixed up on Blueberry Hill.

Favourite quote: “Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk!”

Blueberries for Sal illustration

Mrs Blueberry: Fearless in the face of furry adversity!

Notes to self:

  • Mothers are supposed to know how to make jam.
  • Mothers are fearless even in the face of wild bears.
  • Your own mother could be easily mistaken for a bear.

the giving tree3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Synopsis: The metaphorical tale of a tree (aka mother) and a little boy. The tree gives and gives and gives to the snivelling, ungrateful (my interpretation) little boy throughout his life until she (the Giving Tree) is just a tired old stump. This tour de force of martyrdom versus self-centredness is actually one of the most moving children’s stories ever written. If The Giving Tree doesn’t make you weep at the end, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.

Favourite quote: “And the tree was happy…but not really.”

Notes to self:

  • Kids, they’ll suck you dry.
  • And if the kids don’t get you, age will.

story of ferdinand4. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf  (1977)

Synopsis: Ferdinand the Bull likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers instead of fighting like all the other bulls. His mum worries about him, but lets him be who he wants to be. Ferdinand caused controversy when first published as he was considered to be a pacifist symbol.

Favourite quote: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Notes to self:

  • Mothers, even if they’re a cow, know their kids better than anyone.
  • Don’t mess with bulls.
  • Or bees.

little runner of the longhouse

5. Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker (1962)

Synopsis: It’s New Year and The Basket Woman has come to collect gifts from all the families in the Long House. Little Runner wants to go and play with the big kids but his mum thinks he’s too little. Instead, he pretends to kidnap his Little Brother to try to trick his mum into giving him maple sugar.

Favourite quote: “It was cold in the longhouse…”

Notes to self:

  • Mummies always have a secret stash of sweets.
  • Mummies are weirdly telepathic and TOTALLY know if you’re fibbing.

Are you my mother6. Are you My Mother? by P. D. Eastman (1960)

Synopsis: Frankly terrifying plot where a baby chick hatches while his mother is out searching for food. The baby chick leaves the nest in search of mum and ends up asking all kinds of creatures and inanimate objects if they are his mother including a scary dog and a giant digger that snorts at him.

Favourite quote: Mother: “Do you know who I am?” (The baby chick does indeed)

Notes to self:

  • Your mother will quite possibly abandon you in favour of searching for worms and the journey to find her will be perilous and strewn with large vehicles.
  • Mothers are human and can make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, awful mistakes.
  • Mothers can be many things: scary, kind, neglectful, loving, forgetful; but we all had one once, even if they didn’t stick around.
Are you my mother

It's all about the headscarf for me...

So there you have it ~ my six vintage motherhood classics. I’d love to hear about yours.

10 Truths About the Primary School Years**

We all know the school gates are more toxic than a post-curry air bagel. Here is my guide to surviving them…

1. Regarding looking knackered in the morning

Firstly, I advise trying to get your partner to do the school run. If this doesn’t work I suggest you take my lead and a) wear a poncho/cloak. (No one will ever know you’re still in your nightie, and it serves brilliantly as a cover for morning abdominal gas/bloating) or b) home school.

2. One sexy parent mum and one sexy parent dad

There is always one of each of these in every school and invariably it is neither you nor your partner.

If you’re lucky, your child will make friends with the offspring of sexy mum or dad and you will get to do lots of coffee/football/yoga mornings together whilst secretly checking out their house for signs of marital discontent.

3. At some point, your child will embarrass you

Perhaps they will do a drawing of you naked or make a passing comment to their teacher about “mummy’s special grown-up juice” or about how your computer password is T**S.  Perhaps, they will have written a story  like the one my husband wrote, aged 7, about his mother’s trip to the doctor’s for a blood test which he entitled, “The Day Mummy Had A Little Prick” with accompanying graphics in crayon.

You may not be aware of said embarrassing reveal until Parent’s Evening when the teacher smirks as you sit down. If said smirk occurs, demand to see your child’s art folder and English book immediately and rip out all incriminating pages. (Not much damage can be done in maths).

4. Nits

Let me make it clear: you will see more nits during your child’s time at nursery/primary school than Kerry Katona has seen white powdery granules (allegedly). My theory is that nits don’t actually feed off the blood on your child’s scalp, but off YOUR frustration.  If you put a nit under a microscope you will see it clutching its little grey, opaque abdomen with its six little legs, laughing in the face of your nitty gritty comb.

NITS WANT YOUR TEARS.

They grow bigger from your loathing like Darth Vader off Luke Skywalker.

5. Cake/bake sales

I can’t be doing with this bit of motherhood. It was totally NOT in the manual. I can barely cook as it is (See touching slideshow below for examples):

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I’m hardly likely to suddenly come over all Jane Asher and deliver something edible anytime soon now am I?

However, I have seen the cupcakes at our local church school down the road and I can only conclude that angels, perhaps even the Lord himself, helps those mother’s bake overnight in some kind of heavenly version of Masterchef. It’s cheating.

6. There is always one teacher all the dads fancy (TILF)

“Ready for the parents race are we?” she (the TILF) will beam as she skips past you in her lycra shorts on Sport’s Day.  Then she will laugh and you’ll think, “Why is she laughing? Is it that obvious that I am absolutely NOT ready for the parent’s race for fear of knocking myself out with my own breasts? Is it that obvs that WHEN I RUN I WEE?”

Yes, she is hot and young and sort of ‘springy’ and your husband will definitely volunteer to do parents evening this year. But just think how foolish your husband will look trying to be cool, charming and sexy with his knees around his ears as he sits on one of those tiny chairs made for 4-year-olds. He will look like a sad, demented praying mantis ogling an untouchable bird of paradise while you are comfortably at home eating choccies with a George Clooney DVD.

7. PTA stands for Parent’s Torture Association

Don’t misunderstand me. Most members of most PTA’s are amazing people who work their butts off in a bottomless pit of indifference, malaise and apathy. Sadly however, PTA’s can be a little bit like Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, embodying aspects of British culture that are embarrassingly anachronistic. Often run by a select group of posh people in corduroys who think selling lemonade at the school gates will transform an inner London State school into Bedales, some PTA’s are mind-bogglingly weird and also, scary.

The one time I was on a school PTA, I was in charge of the Christmas grotto with a fellow mum. We spent £300 building the most beautiful grotto you’ve ever seen; fairy lights, fake snow, we practically had LIVE reindeer I swear! Only to find we had misread our “PTA Grotto Instructions”. We were expected to RAISE £300 not spend £300.

But I tell you this, you cannot buy a memory … ah,  the looks of wonder on their little faces. And that was just the other PTA members before they booted us out. Demoted to ‘normal parent’ status me and the other mum were destined to walk the linoleum corridors of shame for all eternity.

(Note to any friends reading this who are on the PTA at my current school, you are clearly not any of the above and I love you all).

8. Christmas fair or no fair

You can try it all: Winter Wonderland, Ye Olde Fayre, Holiday Party, AN Other PC Name, but everyone just wants to see a fat bloke dressed as bloody Father Christmas at the flipping Christmas Fair during bloody, flipping Christmas time.

Everyone wants to pay £1 to sit on a sweaty man’s knee (the thing we’re told not to do every other day of the year) and receive a present worth 10p (ideally from Woolworths RIP) that has been wrapped in tissue-thin paper from the local street market.

All the parents want to drink mulled wine from the huge bubbling vat that normally contains (and still slightly tastes of) soup, and all the dads want to get hammered enough to chat up the TILF.

Everyone wants to pay 50p to win back the same bottle they contributed to the tombola, and EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE loves a raffle. (Although if you do win First Prize, everyone will hate you).

9. From caterpillars to… big, sweary pupae

By the time your sproglet leaves primary school, they will have transformed from pant-wetting adorable into an incredible mini-adult aged 7 with an impressive repertory of swearwords at their disposal.

“Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man,” said someone very clever who knew their organically-grown shallots as this is definitely true of boys who fight and wear their pants around their bum crack well into adulthood. By 7, girls have mastered the art of looking disdainful and will have experimented with sideways pony tails. So it’s not that they’ve learned nothing.

10. Relax

Think about it; unless you were the victim of serious bullying at primary school, the thing you probably remember most is the smells. The smell of lunches and disinfectant, the teacher’s coffee breath, the dinner ladies and their polyester-pungent lady bosoms of comfort, the headmistresses office (whiskey and paper). Ah, the stench of the communal mouthpieces on the recorders and the miraculous farts from the bottoms of babes… primary school is a veritable nasal tour de force.

We don’t remember if we had a heated, sprung-floor gym, an Iguana as a class pet or day trips to Venice. No, we remember if people were kind to us and whether our parents and carers picked us up on time. What remains of primary school is, well, a primary feeling summed up by a whiff. ‘Tis a mere base note in the great perfume of life. Or as my 6-year-old would say, “School stinks”.

 **By Primary School Years I mean roughly the journey from ages 4-7. 

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)

Notes on Nostalgia

Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue

This morning at about 6.45am, the sun hung in the sky in a particular way that cast outrageous pinks across the turquoise dawn. As a black dot of a plane silently made it’s way across the horizon, I was reminded of long-haul flights across the Atlantic in the smoke-filled passenger jets of my childhood. Airlines back then had names like TWA and PanAm, airhostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no veggie option in the meal choice.

I would sleep for most of the flight missing the endless surging of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada below. I’d wake up just as the plane banked right towards Logan airport in Boston. The cabin would be flooded with the purple and rose hues of dawn and I peered out of the window imagining I was reeling America in by magic, bringing the land up to meet me rather than the other way around. As we descended, the intricate threads I saw below me morphed into real roads, buzzing fireflies became life-sized cars weaving their early morning headlights and suddenly, BANG! We would be on the runway. Landings in those days were different. Questions were always asked;

“Is the pilot drunk?”

“No, stoned.”

“Ah. Is everyone ok?”

“My head hurts.”

“ That’s just because your brain was thrown against your skull.”

What were planes in the 1970’s actually made of? Paper and string quite possibly. A study into the psycho/physiological effects of early passenger jet suspension would probably reveal the simple fact that the 21st century is more ‘bouncy’ than the 20th.

I digress.

There I was at the dawn of my day, suddenly submerged under memories that ran over each other like busy liquid metals. The dawn flights and abrupt landings flowed into the memory of ‘waiting for our luggage’; a humiliating ritual during which various members of my family dispersed themselves around the baggage carousel heaving off house-sized rucksacks stuffed so full with personal items that the odd bra would always have made a break for it. Half-open cardboard boxes tied with string containing ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, fish tanks; all of these had to be dragged off the shuddering merry-go-round to the amusement of our fellow passengers. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois .

My morning of nostalgia continued.  I then recalled the edgy US immigration officials with their steely blue eyes that made you so uncomfortable you’d confess to just having turned over a bank. Then came the memory of running into the expectant arms of my grandparents and the particular smell of her. Emeraude by Coty.

There was a block of warmth that hit you as the airport doors slid open and threw you into a New England heat wave. Then the cool air-conditioning of the car so wide it looked like the Cheshire cat smiling. Then there was the long tunnel under Lincoln Bridge, then the open highway then suddenly, a left onto back roads leading up the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire. Someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine would flood the car and crucify me. I swear it nailed me to the leather seat every time with its invitation to breathe. I wanted to eat that smell, consume it as it consumed me. And then somehow, in some way, some part of me would feel inexorably at home.

Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was first coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. In fact, the army banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the disease of Nostalgia among troops.

By the 19th century, Nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement’s appeal to the pale, tubercular, concave-chested masses who headed for the Alps and Italy to dream and recuperate.

Few scientists have looked into the question if whether nostalgia serves a specific function. One suggestion is that the ‘warm glow’ of nostalgic memories act like a natural antidepressant.  I have a (totally unfounded) theory that most imaginative brain function (such as nostalgia) is a brilliant ruse to cushion us from the inevitability of death. As nostalgia tends to involve places, people and aspects of ourselves that are now lost to us, there is perhaps some semblance of truth here.

Neuroscientist Susumu Tongawa distinguishes between ‘Non-Declarative memory’ meaning the subconscious memory of learned skills such as how to play tennis or ride a bicycle and ‘Declarative memory’ where subjects can describe past episodes consciously recalling details and emotions. The two kinds of memory are understood to be processed in different areas of the brain and clearly, nostalgic memories belong to the latter type. If nostalgia is an anaesthetized version of the past, memory is the truth of it.

Nostalgic memories reclaim emotional experiences of the past and the present moment reframes them. In the time between the then and now, we imbue our experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally each time we visit them. In other words, our memories are fluid and the degree to which nostalgia is painful or joyous depends on this emotional revisiting. We can be very creative with our histories. Have I simply renegotiated the neural pathways in my brain that originally linked the smell of pine trees with feelings of family tension during tight-lipped cocktail hours, with new connections to an idealized past where the trees could talk and the New Hampshire sky was so dark you could see galaxies? Perhaps, but I’m hanging on to my renovated version, it’s soul food.

Thinking about it more, I realize that my nostalgia for New England is not so much a yearning for a physical place as for a place in time ~ a moment that faded long ago. My ‘painful longing to return’ is a groaning chasm in my heart that I would most likely feel even if I boarded the next available dawn flight to Logan airport. The beauty of the whole thing is, you never know when you are making a memory. I’m sure my grandmother didn’t know that the image of her teaching me to deadhead Black Eyed Susan’s in her garden would slay me years later any more than my father knew what a potent memory he made when he taught me how to unpeel the bark from a Silver Birch in a way that wouldn’t hurt the tree. I wonder what my daughters will remember of me, Facebook statuses?

The incredible popularity of Smeg fridges, Cath Kidston’s reclaimed 1950’s prints and iPhone apps such a Hipstamatic emulating extinct Kodot Xgrizzled film only goes to show how much we all love the feeling of looking back in all it’s painfully aching glory. Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue, we are vintage chic, we are so very retro it hurts.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.