The Way We Were

by Henry Swain

I recently returned to the community where I spent my formative years, to attend a memorial service for a ninety-nine year old former Sunday school teacher of mine. It caused me to reflect on the kind of a person I was at high school age when she taught the class.

As we get older, we sometimes encounter occasions that return our thoughts to times when we were younger. Nostalgia creeps in and we find ourselves reflecting on the way we were. We discover that life is a process, and we are not the same person today that we were yesterday.

Nostalgia is a way of viewing a movie of us from an earlier time. Do we recognize that person? How much have we changed, and has it been for the better? If we could re-live that portion of our lives, would we change it?

I am struck by how important memory is in determining who we are. Without memory, we would be unable to learn. We would have no perspective to measure the progress of our lives. If we made a mistake, we would not know it for there would be no way to measure it, no context in which to put it.

Alzheimer’s disease, the dread of all who grow to old age, is defined by the gradual and continuing loss of memory. Without memory, the victim gradually loses the identity of self, moving into a prison of halted time from which there is no escape. The caregivers watch helplessly as the person before them changes from someone known and loved, to a lost stranger with no identity and without recognition.

Memory is such a natural part of our being we take it for granted, not appreciating it as a vital necessity. When we visit after a long absence, a place we have been before, we notice how much has changed. Generally, we are uncomfortable with the changes we witness. From our memory, we put things back the way they were as we last remembered them.

When I revisit the home place of my youth, my memory puts back all the trees that have died. I put back the chicken house with the apple tree shading it where we had a tree house accessible from that roof after climbing to the top of a fence post nearby.

The new trees that have been planted and grown to middle age, I must adjust to. The picturesque old barn has been razed and replaced with a concrete block three-car garage. I’ll try to adjust to that. The old house has been added onto, but still retains its dignity and character. The subsequent owners have appreciated its historic value and have kept it up well.

I believe we resists change because it alters the pictures in our memory. Nostalgia is not a bad thing. Not only does memory return the landscape the way it was, it reminds us of the way we were, that we too have changed along with everything else. That is the way it is supposed to be. That is life.

I have observed that when new residents come to Brown County to live, they usually are resistant to any changes in the county. They want the charm and beauty that lured them here; to stay the way it was when they first arrived. They would like to be the last new residents to move to the county. Alas, that will not happen, nor should it. All life is change, and we had better get used to it.

Preservation also has its virtues, and should be a component of change. The insurance of a good future is in knowing in the present, what should be kept, and what should be discarded.

Will future generations of Brown County residents look back on our contributions with good memories? Will they say of us, “I’m glad they were the way they were?”