I think I hear church bells one night. I step outside onto our back doorstep, lean over into the humid, still-hot evening, and strain my ears, my soul, my whole being toward the sound I thought I heard. Nothing. Just summer-still evening air, quieter even than a normal August night. No bells.
This is maybe not as crazy as it sounds. It’s 8:30 PM, an hour when bells would have been appropriate. And there are some church bells, here and there. When I was a kid, there were semi-regular bell pealings from the top of Phinney Ridge, from a Lutheran or a Methodist church (I never asked which), but I haven’t heard those in a while. And when we lived in West Seattle, the bell tower of the large Catholic church down the street occasionally let fall a few friendly clangs. So bells aren’t completely out of the question here.
But as surely as Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore, I’ve thoroughly left the Land of Bells. I can still hear them, the rich cacophony of a city’s worth of bells that woke me on my first morning on a new continent, the bells of Salzburg pouring in through my open window. I hear the bells in a ski town in the Austrian Alps, the Catholic and Protestant churches marking the hour a few minutes apart, a centuries-old argument over who kept the correct time. I remember the bells in the village where I lived in Germany, first feeling disappointed that they “weren’t as good” as the Austrian bells and finally growing to believe they were the best bells in the world, because they were useful and dependable and ours. I even remember the absence of bells, the year I lived so close to the church that I could hear the empty clatter of the mechanism that would have rung the bells, had the bells not been taken down for repairs. The bells were everywhere, a reminder that I wasn’t at home until, eventually, they became a reminder that I was.
Like all pretentious people who’ve lived elsewhere, I picked up some other language words that I used in place of their English partners while living there. I’ve mostly let go of these. I call wardrobes wardrobes, not Schranks (an anglicized plural that makes native German-speakers angry), and I no longer insist on ordering pain au chocolat, because I know that my French roommate isn’t going to be impressed with my pronunciation. (She never was, anyway, but I tried.) But there are a few words that don’t properly translate, like with any language. One of them, one I’ve written about here before, is Fernweh, which means the longing for faraway places.
For an instant, standing on the balcony and doing whatever the auditory equivalent is of squinting, I imagine this is what I’m feeling. Longing for another home, a home where time was divided, measured and celebrated with bells. But that’s not it. It’s not another place that I’m trying to hear tonight, but another time. And there is an English word for that. It’s nostalgia, and its reputation is terrible. Nostalgia will make movie executives write a movie about Magic 8 Balls, or remake Jumanji because… why not? Nostalgia has brought back the crop top. Nostalgia features prominently in campaign platforms about how great America used to be. You know what’s not that great? Nostalgia.
I’ve been reading a bit this spring and summer (two whole non-fiction books’ worth!) in a genre I’ll call “Mom Memoirs” (though not calling it “Mom-oirs” seems like a missed opportunity). One was called The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. Written by biographer Julie Phillips, it features mini-biographies of various writers and artists who were also mothers. It is very solemn and detailed, depicting the tension these women felt between their vocation as artists and their relationships, particularly with their children. The other, I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood, by Jessi Klein, is decidedly less solemn, yet every bit as serious, personal reflections of various difficulties of modern parenting. Though different in tone, both books seemed to return, like a mournful refrain, to the same depressing conclusion: Who you were before is gone, and you’ll never get her back now.
Though I enjoyed these books, and even found them profoundly validating at points, I don’t particularly care for their conclusion. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last few years learning that I’m not, in my soul, a teacher or a writer or a mother or a Person Who Lived Overseas. I’m a child of God. Created and beloved. That’s enough. That’s the trunk of this tree, on which everything else depends. It never changed.
But my frustration is more than that, has more to do with the way we—the Mother We—seem to look backwards only to compare our lives now with the ones we used to lead. There must be a way, I think, to be grateful for the past without wanting to Gatsby-style claw my way backward. I don’t really want to be twenty-five, do I? Isn’t enough to be thankful that I once was?
Author Sarah Bessey once wrote:
Digging in old files & found pictures from 14 years ago. God, I loved being this girl. New mama, head over heels in love, tiny apartment. Dreaming of writing, working in a cubicle, deep in faith deconstruction, daily being saved by the rituals of loving that little baby. Never could have imagined how that little baby girl would now be in high school and six feet tall! let alone another three babies after her. And I don’t know if I ever could have imagined the woman I’ve become and life we’ve lived since then, all the ways God surprised me. Madeleine L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” I’m not that girl anymore, but I’m so glad I got to be her for a while. God was faithful to her and I feel like I can count on that again today.
And I guess if I could go somewhere with my own memories, with the feelings of longing and delight sparked by the phantom bells in my neighborhood, it would be something like that. I couldn’t have imagined all that was ahead for her, the one who heard those bells. I’m not her anymore, but I’m glad I got to be her for a while.
The next day another kind of echo crashes back to me at our local wading pool. I’m there with my daughters, and it’s late afternoon, a lazy and sluggish time. We’ve come down to pass the hours before dinner, along with at least half of the families with young kids in our neighborhood. There are lots of toddlers, lots of babies, and then my girls, older than everyone else and rowing imaginary rowboats with their water cannons in eight inches of water. Classic.
I sit down on the edge of the wading pool, dip my feet into the too-warm, late afternoon water, try very hard not to think about the composition of that water after a day filled with baby visitors, and take out a library book. I don’t read when it’s busy here, but today there aren’t many other people, so it’s possible to keep an eye on my kids in the mostly-empty pool and read some low-commitment prose. For a minute, I’m a mom with a book at the wading pool, looking up to locate my kids every few sentences. I’m acutely aware that this isn’t a normal thing to do, because:
- All the parents with babies and toddlers are with them in the water. For obvious reasons.
- All the parents with older kids are behind me in the shade, looking at stuff on their phones.
I’m soundly in the second category, but still I worry that reading a book looks more distracted than looking at a phone, though I know that personally, my phone has the power to suck me in more than most cellophane-covered library volumes. I’m insecure about this for a second, and then I’m not.
Because this isn’t the first time I’ve read a book here when no one else was. I used to come here as a teenager. I’d walk (or rollerblade!) to the library, pick up some lesser-known title from the Classics section (which doesn’t exist any more, much to the chagrin of snooty teenaged honors students everywhere), and then sit here, amidst the summer buzz of kids playing in the water, and read.
Now, this wasn’t a normal thing to do. Even then, I knew it wasn’t normal. I couldn’t even tell you, actually, what the “normal” teenagers were doing in the summer, because a lot of the time I was doing this. Reading library books outside. (Actually, I can tell you. The normal kids were teaching swimming lessons. And having just finished our first week of those lessons, I can say: Normal kids, I see you. You’re really great, and I’m glad you’re hustling with those swim lessons.) I knew it was a strange way to pass the time, but honestly, I just didn’t care that much. I liked it, and that was enough.
I look up from my book to find my daughters again, little girls with hair like mine and eyes like their dad’s. It’s a golden sort of time—the hour, the season—and they splash diamonds through the gold, their laughter its own glorious echo. I didn’t live here when I was their age, so it’s not the playing that speaks to me, that pulls me backwards in time. It’s the reading.
It’s not nostalgia, this feeling. I don’t want to return, to when I was high school kid reading here alone. I’m happy I’m here with these girls, now, in this gilded afternoon. I can see back, a long way, but I wouldn’t go back. I’m just glad it happened, glad to remember.
And the girl that I’m not anymore, the fifteen-year-old who didn’t really care if what she was doing was the most average way to be a teenager, she gives me a knowing wink. You’re still me, a little bit, she says. You’re still you.