On nostalgia

22 May 2015

In the months after we had adjusted to my mother’s cancer diagnosis and before she slipped away entirely, she spent most of her time watching game shows. There was a cable network that ran game shows twenty-four hours a day, and it was always on at her house. If I spent the night there, I would wake periodically and hear from downstairs the soft, constant ebb and flow of applause and laughter.

I hated game shows. I thought they were cheesy and predictable, and they wasted time. On principle, I disliked games without stakes of consequence. On top of that, these shows were all old reruns from the seventies and eighties, with even less gloss and sophistication than a modern audience would demand. I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to watch them the first time, much less repeated decades later. But my mom wanted. So we did.

I don’t remember the shows much themselves, but I remember the way they looked. The recording quality muted everything, filtered it through a lens of age that rubbed off all the sharp edges and gave it a charm of innocence. I remember the people in them. They came from a different time. Their hair was long and feathery. The male hosts had strong jaws and wide lapels. The female assistants wore slinky glitter and bright eyeshadow. The contestants dressed in clothes like my mother did in photos of her youth.

And that, I finally realized, well after my mother’s death, was why she always kept the game shows on. It wasn’t the limited entertainment they afforded. It was the people. It was the window in the the world she remembered as a young woman. The living, moving past, before marriage, before kids, before divorce, before mistakes, before disappointment, before hardship. Before cancer. In that world, everything was clear and fresh, made beautiful for television, and everyone knew both the rules and the rewards. In that world, you didn’t know what was going to happen. In that world, you could still believe you had a chance to win.

Nostalgia is never a desire for what we used to know. It’s only ever our desire for the time when we didn’t know what was going to follow it.

When I stayed in my mother’s house, and woke up during the night, I would sometimes go downstairs to check on her. I was perpetually terrified of something happening suddenly. Sometimes she would be awake. Sometimes she would have dozed off in her armchair, in the glow of another game show, where contestants squealed and hosts joked and assistants grinned and audiences cheered and everyone from 1978 looked ahead eagerly to see what would happen next.

And I always left it on, and let them hope.


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