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first person

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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

I was convinced there was no better use for a staircase than this. Watching my slinky make its way from the second floor of our house to the main landing was mesmerizing. It was momentum of course, that helped this metal stretchy thing drop itself to the step below with a fascinating ability to morph and move. To a five-year-old, it was sheer magic.

It makes sense why the marketing world capitalizes on childhood wonder. It has the power to evoke such a strong feeling of nostalgia. The target audience for many toys these days isn’t always kids, it’s parents. A 35-year-old stands in a store looking at the latest iteration of the slinky – plastic, pink and jazzy. She’s instantly transported back to a moment in time when life was simpler and dare, I say -fun. Sold to the mother in aisle seven.

I connect nostalgia with a sense of warmth. Words sometimes have a sharpness to them, a bite, or a heaviness but not nostalgia. It’s wrapped in fond memories and good times. That’s not to say this is the only interpretation of the word. Recently I read another take – the author said nostalgia “evokes a powerful sense of longing and pain”.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a different analysis of this very human desire to look back. There is a tendency for the brain to romanticize the past. It can take a fuzzy memory and fill in the blanks with a narrative of better times. It’s not just objects that evoke these strong emotions. Music, places, and people are all exceptional vessels for nostalgia.

With the recent sale of my house, I am downsizing for a second time. The home we raised our children in was a generous four bedroom with lots of stuff. We inherited an enormous amount of furniture over the years. The neighbours gave us couches and patio furniture. We picked up used bedframes and coffee tables. But it was the antiques I inherited from my mom that were the hardest to let go.

It was so difficult in fact, I moved several of the pieces to my much smaller home after my divorce. I didn’t have room, but I squeezed them into spots, including the garage.

It’s hard to explain how counter intuitive this is for me. I fall firmly in the non-pack rat camp. I’ve been teased by many that if something sits too long, it’s out the door to the local donation centre. I feel a sense of calm and ease when things are uncluttered and organized. Mismatched pieces that are dated and old don’t fit my clean aesthetic.

But here is the issue – my mom is dying. She’s been palliative for over a year. I desperately want her to let go and be at peace instead of this shell of a person she’s become. When it comes to my mom, I have been grappling with my intense emotions for years. Our relationship is complicated and painful.

As I get ready to move again, I once again looked at the blanket box she gave me on my 30th birthday. There’s also the even bigger hutch that lived in all her apartments. The reality is, there is simply no room, and a storage locker is not an option. So, I made the call. A company that takes donations came to pick up the antiques and I let them go.

Is it nostalgia that I’m feeling or a connection to objects that represent relationships? There are a few items I’ve kept from my past that when I look at them, I feel pain. And in this case, a responsibility to honour the gifts I was given.

The furniture is not what this is about. It’s easy to see that the real issue is facing my grief. When the truck pulled out of the driveway with its load, I felt a lightening in my heart. When I looked at the spot where the furniture used to be, I felt a lump of sadness. Pretty well bang on how grief works. It’s not a straight line.

Nostalgia will always help sell leg warmers from the 80′s and a new soft drink that’s really an old throwback. It works with cars, chocolate bars and home décor. And rest assured, waxing nostalgic isn’t just for those of us getting on in years. I’m sure there’s a meme that involves an old person talking about the “good old days” but feeling nostalgic is just as likely to creep up on the young. A song can trigger a lively conversation between my three young adult children about nerf gunfights in the basement and the post-game debrief of who actually won. If crazy frog pops up on a playlist, I pour another coffee and settle in to listen as the kids relive cherished memories together.

It’s true, nostalgia doesn’t always have to be painful. Yes, my heart still squeezes every time I think of that blanket box. It didn’t prove to be an out of sight, out of mind scenario as I’d hoped for, but I know I did the right thing. My relationship with my mom is rooted in far more than a piece of furniture. As for the lovely little snippets from the memory bank – I bought a slinky for my kids a few years ago. They didn’t play with it, but I did. Nostalgia can evoke a sense of longing, but it also permits us to connect with real human emotions. My new pink slinky was a reminder that childhood wonder never gets old.

Karen Horsman lives in Oshawa, Ont.

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