Family & Education

Even kids can feel nostalgic

Susan Reuben has been looking back...


When I was 12 years-old, they showed a re-run of Grease on the TV. I’d never heard of it, but my big brother was excited so I sat down to watch it with him. When John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John started to sing Summer Nights (Uh well-a well-a well-a huh…), my heart began to race. The song was deeply, almost painfully familiar.

“Where have I heard this before?” I asked, urgently.

“You mean you don’t remember?” said my brother.

“Remember what?” I replied.

It turned out that when I was four, the song had been at Number One for several weeks. I used to stand in the corridor outside my brother’s bedroom, my ear pressed to the door, listening to it play on his radio over and over. (Naturally, I wasn’t actually allowed in. My brother was 11 at the time, and found it bad enough having to live with a four-year-old sister without actually letting her into his room.)

As my brother spoke, the memory came flooding back to me, the feeling of nostalgia quite overwhelming. I could see the pattern of the landing carpet, feel the wood of the door against my ear and the dizzying sensation of listening to something fresh and exciting — quite different from the nursery rhymes and Shabbat melodies and school hymns that had been my musical landscape up until that point.

It would be natural to think that the elderly are the most nostalgic among us, but actually, children can be exceptionally nostalgic as well. At breakfast-time the other day, our older two, Isaac and Emily, were talking to their little brother.

“A long, long, long time ago, before you were born,” said Isaac, “we didn’t keep the cereal in that cupboard. We used to keep it on the bottom shelf of the pantry.”

“Oh yeah!” said Emily. “It was weird back then.”

Whenever we try to throw something away, one of our kids will cry, “But that’s my childhood!” I’m not just talking about their toys or other possessions, but anything they have grown up with. We recently replaced our dodgy IKEA kitchen chairs with slightly-less-dodgy IKEA kitchen chairs. The children were utterly appalled.

“The old ones are wobbly and they creak,” I explained.

“But they’re our childhood!” they cried (predictably) — and Isaac insisted on salvaging one to keep in his room, even though there is already a sofa and a desk chair in there and no space whatsoever to move around.

And I do get it, because I feel very similarly about my own childhood. Every remembered object, however mundane, is invested with significance. Last weekend at a family supper, for reasons I cannot recall, my brothers and I took turns testing each other on the registration numbers of the various cars our parents had owned over our early lives.

“EWY 478T?” I asked.

“The white Mini,” said my brother. “Not the first one — the second one.”

“Correct,” I replied.

As you can see, the sparkling conversation around our dinner table is the envy of all who know us.

Meanwhile, my mum and dad, the erstwhile owners of these cars, had no recollection of the numbers at all. And indeed, I have to think hard to recall the registration number of my current car. It’s just another uninteresting thing to in the sea of bureaucracy that all adults must constantly navigate.

In my mind, everything in my life that I encountered for the first time is a paradigm against which all future versions are compared. For example, the only “proper” synagogue is our one back in Sunderland with its arched stained glass windows and central bimah. Any shul that doesn’t look exactly like that (so, basically, all of them) is just getting it wrong.

And the house I grew up in is “home” in the most fundamental sense. Nowhere I have lived since has represented that concept as deeply. I can effortlessly track my mind over every corner of it, each tiny detail coming alive as I do so; the rattling click the dining room door made when you closed it; the warm, clean-sheets smell of the airing cupboard; the paw print in the garden terrace where the dog had run over it while the concrete was still wet.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, and it set me wondering whether the phenomenon is scientifically measurable. It has been discovered that our first language is lodged in a different part of the brain to any we learn subequently. (That’s why it’s so hard to become truly fluent in a second language.) Perhaps the same applies to other first experiences.

So I asked my paediatric neurologist friend for her thoughts on the subject.

“That would be an interesting study,” she replied. “I don’t believe it’s been done. “

When I requested that she carry out the research for me (in time for my Thursday copy deadline) she refused, which frankly felt like a dereliction of friendship. I mean, how long can it take?

Maybe I should have offered, in return, to invite her round to our house so she could recite car registration numbers with the rest of my family. That would have changed her mind.



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