Children and Nostalgia

I often find myself talking or writing about nostalgia. As I said here a little while ago:

I’m an immigrant; nostalgia and homesickness are supposed to be my perennial conditions.

In that same post, I remarked too, on the particular manifestations of both kinds of nostalgia–restorative, which concerns itself with returning to the lost home and reflective, which concerns itself with longing and the sense of loss–in my being.

I’ve just returned from a four-week long journey to the land that used to be ‘home’, so I’ve certainly had occasion to think a bit more about this old ailment–for that’s what nostalgia is–of mine.

The nostalgia associated with this particular trip of mine was interestingly colored by the presence of a new companion: my 11-month old daughter. She ensured that an established romantic trope–the immigrant travels ‘home’ with his offspring–was immediately made visible to me as I traveled. I was conscious–with varying levels of awareness–that I was ‘introducing the child to her ancestral lands’, ‘taking her to her “origins”‘, that ‘the wheel was coming full circle’ and so on. Of course, my daughter was only ten months old when her ‘epic homecoming’ began so there is little chance that she will retain any of her impressions. But the photographs of her travels and the conversations she might yet have with her parents in the future could trigger some interesting and possibly productive ruminations.

My daughter’s presence meant that I constantly confronted questions about my own past and future as I watched her interact with my family in India: Had her birth, in Brooklyn, guaranteed, once and for all, that I would never ‘go back home’? (‘Return’ was always an exceedingly unlikely possibility but the birth of a child renders it even more remote, more improbable than the presence of a partner did.) Would I be able to teach her an Indian language? (This was a thought triggered by some persistent raising of the question by my family; my short response: I’m skeptical.) And perhaps most poignantly, what would her grandparents have thought of her? (My daughter bears my mother’s name as her middle name, so this thought isn’t exactly too distant for me.)

Because I was traveling with my daughter, I was even more conscious than usual that it had been a long time–very long!–since I had traveled away from ‘home’. Having a child happened late in my life–long after graduation, tenure, promotion, marriage and all of the rest–so my sense of a long journey undertaken was made particularly acute.

Lastly, I was in a land which had paid witness to my childhood. As I watched my daughter crawl about, interacting noisily with all and sundry, tasting new flavors and foods, her Brooklyn nap schedule thrown out the window, I wondered about my own rearing by my parents. I’ve thought about that question before but now, it was raised with a distinctive urgency and force.

These experiences then, made possible by the presence of an infant, were all productive of reflective nostalgia too. My return to the US was not as painful as it has been in the past, largely because I became so quickly caught up in her needs: a new daycare arrangement, an altered sleep schedule etc.

In this, as in many other domains, my daughter retains the capacity to radically reconfigure my experiences.

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