The Suitcase Lady


July 23, 2013, 11:37 pm

The New York Times Science section recently had a lead article entitled “Fond Remembrances”. For the greater part of three pages, clinical psychologists expounded on a radical new finding: Nostalgia, previously though to be a psychological disorder, is now considered to be beneficial to our species.

These academics could have saved a stack of money by simply asking happy people their opinion on the matter.

I have spent thousands of hours in the last 20 years chatting with octogenarians in nursing homes and assisted livings in three states. Anyone who doubts that nostalgia brings joy should get out of their ivy covered walls and listen to the elderly.

One of my favorite 80+ friends would light up when she would tell me about a beloved barn cat from her childhood. “That cat would never drink her milk,” Mrs. P. would say, “she would daintily dip her foot in the bowl and lick the milk off her paw.”

My dear friend Margaret taught me that even people who have had horrific childhoods can garner happiness from memories. Margaret grew up on a farm, and when she was twelve, her mother died of cancer. Her father was an abusive, stingy alcoholic who made it clear that Margaret would have his dinner on the table at whatever hour he staggered in. Yet, Margaret would radiate happiness when she would tell me about her mother’s love of growing flowers, or the day the cows got loose and ate the vegetable garden or the kind, young teacher at her one room school. Memory is selective, frequently it is the good memories that stick.

Young people thrive on nostalgia as well. One of my most popular programs is “Festivals of Light” which compares holiday traditions all over the world at the time of the Winter Solstice. I conclude the program by inviting the kids to share their special family traditions. Multiple hands always shoot up. I frequently have to escort a group of students out the door and down the hall to their next classes so they won’t be late. They are sharing stories all the way.

Somewhere during my long tenure as a City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commissioner, I heard someone say, “Without our past, how would we know it’s us?” I agree and would add that enjoying the past does not preclude living fully in the moment. After all, the present moment is where all nostalgia is born.


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