A useful distraction?

Where does nostalgia fit when there are so many things clamouring for our attention?

Knowing and understanding history has its benefits, but at what point do the costs (time, resources, opportunities) outweigh the benefits, particularly when talking about the personal (as distinct from the institutional) collection, maintenance and presentation of family history?

The washing up still needs to be done.


How much nostalgia is too much?

There are those TV ads and programs that suggest family history is important. And there is inevitably someone who says, “We should be recording this!”, when the old-timer recalls a few family stories.

Have you noticed the tension? So often, the amount of time required to research and present family history is greater than the time spent by others reading, remembering and experiencing it.

The question of ‘why bother?’ is addressed on the TV program Who do you think you are?. First, there’s the opportunity to establish connections to well known events or famous families. Second, there are values to be passed on, usually those that ensured the ancestors survived when faced with all manner of adversity.

That particular TV program focuses on documents and buildings. However, for many of us, our history resides in objects .

I’ve got a shed full. Some of them are my personal history, things I’ve decided to keep. Some of them are family history, objects that came my way over the years. Most are small objects that won’t fetch much at a local garage sale. Some might fetch a bit more if sold online. A few are broken or well worn. Most only have sentimental value.


Nostalgia is about stories

I’m one of those people that strongly imbues an object with any and all experiences associated with it. The small fan beside me was hurriedly purchased at lunchtime one stinking hot day when the workplace air-conditioning struggled. It’s been dropped a few times, and the front cover is now tied on with string. Over the years, it’s travelled with me to five desks. I can see each of them when I look at it.

This tendency probably started at the clearing sale when the family moved from the farm when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

A lot was happening: cars and people everywhere; the sound of auctioneering; lots of official importance floating in the air. The excitement was gradually punctuated by an increasing awareness of loss, beginning with the understanding that the old Bedford truck had been sold. Perhaps I had overheard Dad express regret at it’s sale.

I remember a sense of distress, nothing overwhelming, just memorable, when I realised a ‘toy’ doll was no longer mine because the pile of scrap metal on which it sat had been sold. It wasn’t an actual doll. Some pieces of rusted metal were connected in such a way that a child’s imagination could see two legs, two arms, a torso and even a head. And it wasn’t, technically, ever mine.

Even at that age, I knew the toy would not be the same in a different context. After all, I had never removed it from the pile of rusting metal. That was where it lived. I visited it.

In thinking it through, I don’t think it’s about the loss of the toy. Instead, it’s about the passing of the experience. Objects have a connection with someone’s experience. It’s what makes holiday souvenirs … well, holiday souvenirs.


Building and extending stories

In thinking about the objects I want to document, my aim will be to find an associated experience that I can write about; something that will tap into either specific family history or a bit of social history, or both.

On a practical level, the process starts with three questions:

Question 1: What do I do with the rescued items? I need a long-term and manageable strategy that variously includes upcycling, distributing and in some cases simply carting to the local tip.

Question 2: How do I research the history and relevance of the items with so many of that generation now passed? Perhaps only some of the items will benefit from this type of documentation.

Question 3: How to present the family history so that other members of the family can dip into the information whenever opportunity allows? And maybe add to the story!

There’s a lot of other things we all could be doing instead! So, as with most things, the resolution of this problem is to set some boundaries and find an immediate benefit that makes the effort worthwhile.

What are your thoughts?

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