Nostalgia for Things I Never Knew

When I was little, my mom and I used to go to the library on rainy days. On one occasion I brought my books with me into an empty vegetarian restaurant. We were its only guests and I remember brick walls decorated with warm orange lamps.  

When I was a teenager living at my father’s girlfriend’s house, I went to the small pond down the street and slid on the ice. I almost kissed it looking for fish underneath. One winter, I fell through. I tore through the ice until I got to shore and raced home to rip off all my wet clothes.

Somewhere between this, my parents were bitterly fighting over their recent divorce. Although what I recall is painful and blurry in my memory, it shaped me to become who I am today. I wouldn’t change it if I had the chance.

But I still think about what my life would have been like if my parents had not divorced. I’ve never had traditions during the holidays or family trips. I’ve had to organize how I’ll visit all my family members when I go home so I can be sure I get the same amount of time with everyone.

These what ifs of life make me yearn for something beyond plain nostalgia. It’s a twisting ache of bittersweet endings. It’s the untranslatable German noun, sehnsucht. C.S. Lewis says it is “the desire which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead,…the morning cobwebs in late summer; or the noise of falling waves.”

It’s the same as missing someone as though you may never see them again, although they’re just sleeping next room over. Seeing the huge city skyline and thinking of each person behind each window and door, who you might meet and who you will never know. It is the feeling I felt when I first read my mother’s journal.

My mother put her journal in the trunk of old books I took back to Boston with me at 23. The journal’s cover is faded blue cloth with tiny pink roses and white pansies. Only twenty pages are filled with writing.

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My mother first writes on August 2nd, 1992, a little less than a month after I’m born. She addresses me directly. She says “your Daddy,” not my father’s name, and talks about taking me to her best friend’s garden to pick tomatoes. She notices how well I sleep and says she misses my dad who is “working long stretches,” and says I miss him a lot, too. When she writes two years later, my favorite question is “what’s that?”. She says that I seem happy when we’re all together as a family.

There are so many things Daddy and I want to experience with you and share with you,” she writes.

My relationship with my father has changed over the years. We see the world in very different ways and it’s been hard to find equilibrium, especially in my adult life. But for both of us, it was different then. My father writes in the journal once with his chicken-scratch handwriting, completely unlike my mother’s cursive. “You are the best baby. Every father probably says that, but you so far really have been good. You’re very easy to care for, and I have lots of fun and joy taking care of you.” He says in this entry that I’m crying because I’m either hungry or I don’t like Jimmy Buffett’s music. He writes again an hour later: “You were hungry, you still like Jimmy Buffett!!

There is an entry by my mother in 1994 on my birthday that reads:

I couldn’t believe this beautiful little girl was really mine, that you grew inside me all that time and we’re finally here, of how much love I felt for you and still feel for you. I hope and pray the world will be good to you and for you, and that we will be able to be a close and loving family. Happy 2nd birthday little girl. I love you.

After this, there is a jump in time to 2000. My parents will have separated by then. I will have already cried in the bathtub after my parents tell me they will be divorcing. At this time, my parents are going through a vicious custody battle which my mother eventually wins, but I spend the next years of my childhood confused about who is right and who is wrong.

My mother’s tone has changed.

How long it’s been since I’ve written in here. So much has occurred in these past years…I am overwhelmed with tears, and you see this. I never could have imagined that you would be subject to this, but it’s unavoidable, and I just pray you will get through it all without any scars.

All of this is a glimpse of the life I didn’t remember. It was what could have been. It’s something I’ve never seen in either of my parents: pure love for each other and the little life they created for themselves. The simplicity of seeing their child in love with paper towel rolls or looking at the world in wonder. It was something I would never see in person.

I often wonder if my grandmother felt this, too, in the gift her brother Leo left her before his premature death in World War II. Before he left, he gave her a tiny box that he painted with the word ricuerdo (memory) on top. Inside the box is a rosary that would be better suited for a mouse. On the back of the box, in small cursive, it reads: From your loving brother, Leo.

My grandmother gave me this box to keep after telling me about him for years when I was a child. I wonder if he fell in love or how much he missed his sister, or if he ever had an inkling that another man would later come to my great-grandmother’s door after his death to say Leo saved his life. I think about his grave in Normandy, France, the one of thousands of crosses and how no one has visited him.

This sehnsucht is different. It is more abstract. While my parents are tangible and I can view the history of what had happened, my great-uncle’s trinket has encouraged me to form memories and attachments from only the stories I’ve heard.

I search his name and find his records to see he died on July 10, a day before my birthday. Fifty years and a day before my birthday, as though a part of his soul spent those decades waiting to be passed onto me, not content to be willed into the memory of a stranger. I can see this part of me when I look at the wooden box in the palm of my hand.

The feeling makes the universe bigger. It’s the same feeling when you look at the stars at night and feel like they’re just holes in something we can’t see. Or seeing that famous Voyager I picture of the earth on a sun beam, and Carl Sagan recalling the servants, kings, mothers, and fathers who have lived on that sphere. If I’m lucky, I will be a memory like them. I think about the billion that have come before and will come after me, the longing that comes with their stories, and how I will never know.