By Harriet P. Gross
I dipped into nostalgia last week while remembering two old family recipes, and ever since, I’ve been encountering it everywhere.
First, there was a glorious but sad piece by my very favorite columnist of all time, Paul Greenberg, the venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He writes regularly on a variety of personal subjects; this time, he was bemoaning a recent weekend return to Shreveport, La., where he was born and raised.
“I’m amazed at how little of the hometown I remember is left,” he said. “They seem to have paved it over and built some kind of bland, fake Shreveport on top…I’m staying in one of those indistinguishable motels on an indistinguishable freeway lined with indistinguishable franchise operations…
“I go to Sabbath services Friday night at my old synagogue, Agudath Achim, but it has downsized and moved into a new building in a new neighborhood, a carbon copy of Agudath Achim here in Little Rock. Everything’s franchised these days… We could as well be in Sioux City or Dallas or Atlanta… That’s what happens: You turn your back on a place for a few years and it’s no longer a place…”
Then I came across a story in a doctor’s waiting room find: an old issue of Guideposts, a simple little magazine filled with not-so-simple interfaith inspiration. This piece, written by actress Andie MacDowell, details her loving memories of growing up in Gaffney, S.C. Although a successful career has long since moved her far away to both Los Angeles and New York, she remembers fondly “that people always made time for each other. You don’t just wave and walk on by. You stop and chat. I’m grateful for that small-town friendliness. It’s important for us, as spiritual beings, to feel as if we belong somewhere, that we’re part of a community…”
There is plenty of waxing poetic in that story, about nobody having to lock doors, and kids playing “kick- the-can” out in the street until it got dark — after which they brought out jars for catching fireflies. And then — lo and behold! — I found virtually identical sentiments expressed, even in some of the same words, in a last-week letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News!
Susan Morgan of The Colony did her own poetic waxing in response to a first-person essay published just a couple of days earlier. Writer Nicki Cooper’s headline was “Goodbye, neighbor — We lived near each other for 11 years, but I had no idea when you died.” Hers was a sorrowful song based on pervasive lack of connection. Here’s a portion of Morgan’s letter, looking back at her childhood in the 1950s:
“…a time when we did, indeed, know our neighbors…a time we played outside from dawn to after dark, catching fireflies in jars and kicking the can until our dad whistled for us to come home. We knew all the families on our block by name…
“It is obvious that Ms. Cooper’s childhood was much like mine,” Morgan continued, “lived in the cozy security of a neighborhood back when we really knew our neighbors. When did the world become like this?”
I also grew up in that kind of neighborhood; I think our world changed when folks started driving everywhere instead of walking, when front porches became extinct and privacy fences kept the next door “neighbors” from seeing you, or you seeing them, as you were both outside doing the same things at the same time in your backyards When folks stopped walking to shul Friday evenings, so were no longer asked in for coffee and cake by families you passed on the way home.
I often visit my growing-up street. Where we used to play kick-the-can is now “paved over,” as Paul Greenberg says, but with parked cars. And so the kids are inside, gaming on their hand-held devices. Nostalgia makes me feel sorry for them.