Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nostalgia as history

This afternoon, as I was signing yet another stack of Canton Entertainment books for Cindy down in the Museum Shoppe, I started thinking about why this book has been so well received. 

The simple answer is this: nostalgia.

It's a powerful thing, nostalgia.  Who doesn't enjoy sitting around a table with old friends and family, saying, "I remember when..."  It's in all of us to honor our own memories of the past.  Nostalgia binds us together as a community in a shared, common experience.  It provides a touchstone for us as time marches on, bringing with it all sorts of changes.

As I've personalized copies of my new book for museum visitors, I've heard many people talk about department stores in downtown Canton they loved to visit, or theaters they regularly patronized, or restaurants they loved to celebrate special occasions.  People are telling stories, their stories.  And isn't history really just stories?  Stories that happen to be true.

I didn't grow up in Canton.  I grew up in Rome, New York.  Admittedly, I know far more about my adopted hometown's history than my actual hometown.  (In my defense, I haven't lived in Rome for 20 years, and I've spent the past 12 years studying Canton's history!) 

But I fall under nostalgia's spell all the same.  I remember going with my grandmother to Goldberg's, an independent department store that closed years ago.  I remember the smell of the perfume counter, the excitement of riding in an elevator, and the endless racks of clothes.  It was probably much smaller than I remember it, like all things when you're just a child!  I only went there with my Grandma Beach.  She's been gone for several years now, so I hold that memory close to my heart.

The high school I graduated from was torn down a few years ago.  I can still picture every single thing about it, from the bus circle to the cafeteria to the weird bridge that connected the "old" building (where my grandfather went to school) and the "new" building.  For those of us who have lost our schools, nostalgia is all we have left.

Griffiss Air Force Base was Rome's largest employer when I was growing up.  The base closed shortly after I went to college, and all of the base housing crumbled into ruins.  Someday, there will be no one left who remembers the cookie cutter homes with their meticulously cut lawns.  (The military police would actually come around with rulers and fine you if your grass was too long!)

The same can be said for much of what is included in Canton Entertainment.  Not many years from now, no one who spent four nights a week dancing at the Moonlight Ballroom will be around to tell us what it was like.  The Palace was once one of several theaters downtown, but today it stands alone.  All that remains of Mother Gooseland, a favorite for those in my generation, is Willie the Whale, who is too stubborn and heavy to move.

I believe in the power of nostalgia.  And one of my favorite parts of my job is rekindling memories for people.  I do dozens of outreach programs and the most popular -- by FAR -- is "Meyers Lake Revisited."  I love seeing people's eyes light up when they talk about the park and the Moonlight Ballroom.  Since the story doesn't have a very happy ending (it "burnt to a miserable crisp" as someone I once knew used to say), I always open up the floor for stories when I'm done.  I've heard about all kinds of first dates and engagements at the Moonlight Ballroom, girls in fancy prom dresses getting stuck at the top of the Comet, neighborhood kids wrangling monkeys back onto Monkey Island. 

And I love the laughter, and sometimes the tears, that these stories bring.

Nostalgia is a powerful part of what museums do.  We are the repository of a community's memories.  We preserve and exhibit and write about these memories for all to enjoy.  Of course not everything we do falls into an era that people can remember.  We honor President McKinley's legacy, the founding of our city and county, the 19th century pioneers and inventors and businessman and socialites and workers who called this place home.  Our Mission is HUGE!  But one of my most favorite parts is connecting people with their own past, and helping them remember their own stories, some of which have been dormant for quite some time.

As we approach the holiday season, I hope you will all take some time to listen to the stories of your parents and grandparents.  Or take the opportunity to share your stories with children and grandchildren.  When someone dies, it's too late.  So do it NOW.

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