McKean Minute: Past, Imperfect

I literally drip with nostalgia. When I recall a particularly poignant moment, or approach a tender memory, my eyes well up and my nose runs. I’m a sucker for tradition, heritage, and cemeteries. Maybe that’s why I majored in history in college. I love learning about where we’ve come from. And I often speak in the past tense.

For the record, I’m not proud of this. My kids laugh behind their hands when I tear up, and my wavering voice has caused me to pause many a private conversation and public presentation while I regain my composure. That’s not to say that I spend my life looking in the rear-view. I am optimistic, hopeful for the future, and cannot wait to rise every day to greet what’s coming.

But neither am I embarrassed by my wistfulness.

Memorializing our ancestors is one of the qualities that elevates humans from hominids. Wild animals may use their memories as a tool to help them avoid being eaten tomorrow, but biologists call that instinct, not nostalgia.

My personal past snapped into hard focus this week during a trip back to the rolling hills and hardwood draws of northern Missouri where I grew up. I was back to see for myself if reports of the return of wild bobwhite quail to the area are true, but I also reconnected with classmates, their families, old childhood haunts, and the fields and brambles who made me who I am.

Walking the field edges where I shot my first wild quail as a kid, visiting the cemetery where my father is buried, and driving the back roads where I learned everything from grain-truck airbrakes to country girls immersed me in memories. When I drove past the farmhouse of my youth, now owned by an out-of-stater who locks his gates, I had a physical reaction to the accumulated years I spent there, and the weight of the years since I left. I sputtered and misted up. And drove on by.

Maybe that’s the point. It’s important for us to revisit our past, to spend physical time in the places and with the people who forged us, because faded memories require periodic polishing. But it’s unhealthy to remain there, always looking backward, whether with fondness or regret.

The future is equal parts exciting and terrifying precisely because it’s unscripted. Will you do things you regret in the coming days and years? Sure. But it’s when you can look back on them as memories, however imperfect, that experience crystalizes into legend. Legends that you’ll pass forward long after your own memory sputters and dims.

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