The word “Nostalgia” conjures up feelings of kitsch and preciousness. It’s hard to separate the word from bourgeois affectations, and “aw, shucks” images of small town life that may never really have existed. People of a certain age connect the word with Norman Rockwell paintings, and snow at Christmas, and an apple pie cooling on the window sill. But at its heart, nostalgia is actually about pain, even its etymology reflects the sense that recalling the past causes an ache. I found my own past triggered today by, of all things, a Norman Rockwell painting. It wasn’t one from the Saturday Evening Post.
This painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicts little Ruby Bridges integrating William Frantz Elementary in 1960. When I was a boy, not any older than Ruby Bridges, my parents had a coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings, and that image seared me before I really understood what it was. My six-year-old fists clenched up at the injustice of someone throwing a tomato at a little girl who just wanted to go to school. I didn’t understand why some grown-ups didn’t want her to go to school,but it seemed terribly unfair and I was shaken by the idea that grown-ups could be so awful to kids that a little girl would need other grown-ups in uniform to protect her. I had a peculiar, childlike naivete that assumed that grown-ups, for the most part, learned how to be good, and that petty cruelties were something you grew out of. I grew up protected, sheltered, affluent, and firm in the notion that all policemen were there to protect me, and that if I worked hard enough I could be anything I wanted. I grew up in a different world than my parents, in other words.
My mother, who is only two years younger than Ruby Bridges, went to a segregated elementary school in Missouri. Her schooling prior to that had been in an integrated school on an army base in Germany. The Missouri school was sort of a rude awakening for a dainty, bookish, bilingual little girl whose fair skin tone and accent made her something of a novelty. No one was cruel to her, but one of her teachers made her speak German to the other faculty like a trained parrot.
The school was poorly funded, with out-of-date texts, and she was far ahead of all the other students academically. They served yellow grits for lunch, she told me, and she wrinkled her nose at this, expecting what she had come to think of as a real meal. I think it was one of the first examples she could remember of the world being different than her expectations. And I think one of her grandest ambitions was that I wouldn’t have to live in a world where I was an alien. And six-year-old me, raging at the injustice of grown-ups towards kids was the first time I can remember where the world was different than my expectations.
I remember calling my mother at College to tell her that I was gay, and I remembered how she cried. “Not”, she said, “because you’re gay, or because I love you any less. But because you already live in a world where people will hate you for who you are because you’re a black man. And now your life is going to be even harder because of who you love.” I was a young adult, and my mother still wanted to shield from the world, to protect me, to provide a space where I could be at home. But despite her best efforts, the world had already seeped in, and there had been plenty of times where she could not have protected. There were plenty of times where I was harmed despite her best efforts.
Memory for me is a painful thing. It is fraught with mistakes, and failures. There is always the nagging feeling that I had the opportunity to do more than I did, that I squandered the gifts I have been given, the love and support that was offered to me. It’s not that my past is an unending series of missteps and sorrows; it wasn’t, and I have been very fortunate in many respects with friends and family who constantly humble me with both their loyalty and love. It’s just that in the moment, it’s impossible to be aware of everything, and how the woman who nags at you for not getting a haircut is doing so because she’s acutely aware of how for some people you are a template for how they see your people, and how she has been as much shaped by her own past as you have been by the past she tried to shape for you. And once that moment has past, everything is re-construction and conjecture.
Maybe one day Alex and I will have children. And we’ll try and protect them, and fail sometimes. But I hope their memories will have many bright spots, and when the world fails to meet their expectations, they will go forward with love and support, and work to make it just a little bit better.