Yesterday, a friend and I shared a long, rainy-day conversation about childhood. It was the sort of conversation I look back on with equal measures of hope and apprehension; did I do this right? Was I really listening? Did I say anything wrong? No matter what’s happened in later years, I acknowledge that the years I spent in the three-bedroom red rancher with my family were good ones. I coasted with a sense of permanence and safety, unconsciously certain that the little timber-lined neighborhood and its inhabitants would always be there.
If you’re lucky, reality is content to wait a few blocks northwest by the highway, until you take the right turn yourself and batter into it with a car full of boxes. Or maybe I wasn’t lucky; maybe those safe years left me unprepared. Maybe it doesn’t matter. They happened, here I am, with no love for small farm towns but a powerful attachment to Care Bears, tomato gardens, homemade pizza, and – the catalyst for the aforementioned rainy-day conversation – vinyl records.
My mother has an impressive collection of vinyl albums, purchased until the price and availability of vinyls became too challenging. When I was small, the turntable made a fixture in the living room, topping the silver-chrome layer cake of a stereo system. I was too short to set the needle, but I could make requests and Mom would fish the black platters from their sleeves: The Jets, The Bay City Rollers, The BeeGees, The Police. I knew the yellow cover of a ‘zany hits’ compilation album; my maternal DJ eventually put an embargo on “Snoopy Vs The Red Baron,” for everyone’s sake.
Time marches on. My parents updated the stereo to one with an eight-disc CD changer and no turntable; the old one relegated to the basement. I discovered a record store in a nearby city; my first purchase was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I sat in the basement with the old record player, writing fiction in a yellow notebook, to be transcribed later on the brick of a Compaq Presario laptop. Then the old stereo heaved its last sighs and died, and our vinyl collection sat silent for years. Nobody sold new turntables then, at least nobody in reach of a tiny rural Illinois girl.
Shortly before I graduated from college, we got a new player. This one stood alone, linked into the entertainment center that now dominated the basement wall where the old stereo once lived. My record collection now included REO Speedwagon and Journey, but I burrowed away into a life online, writing characters that played violins and built homes with Drowish jewelers in fictional text-based roleplay worlds. I started my first job and two years later moved out, leaving my records at home. I wouldn’t own a turntable for another ten years, during which time my family crumbled and my life exploded into chaos. I’m not kidding or dramatizing; I actually had brain surgery at one point here.
There’s a chasm between me and that rosy childhood today. The memories of what it’s like to feel safe and permanent are across the way, reachable only in glimpses over the reality of a shattered family and the gaping blackness of mortality. It’s hard to feel safe when you know, really know, that you’re going to die. It’s hard to feel permanent when the roots of you were yanked from the ground on the way home from a movie. When you answered your brother’s phone call and heard that your sixty-something father was gone, having packed his belongings into his pickup and waited until a convenient moment alone to abandon you. When, in the messy year that followed, extended family dropped away from you like fighter jets, barrel-rolling out of formation, and you understood for the first time that anyone could leave at any time with no justification or warning.
But the records? They still play.
The yellow-jacketed vinyl exists, replete with cartoons of Snoopy and a woman in a too-small polka dot bikini. I have a turntable again, and new records have joined the old: Fleet Foxes, Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Mumford & Sons. And when I put on the needle, I have a thin line back to that sense of safety and permanence. It’s an illusion, gossamer and golden. I think that’s what ‘nostalgia’ is – a thin tissue imprint of a feeling swabbed out by experience and time. We can’t have it back forever, because it was never real in the first place. We can only visit it; let it filter our vision for the time it takes to drink a mug of tea and fold open an old yearbook; play a Doors tape; visit a childhood schoolyard.
Or, play a Billy Joel record.