How Revisiting the Past Enriches the Present

Tunnel of Trees

In these troubling times, it’s challenging to feel optimistic. I bought a greeting card the other day that helped restore my optimism. The short verse on the front cover is a quote by Carmel McConnell: “Do more of what makes you happy.” Perhaps that’s taking a long walk at the beach, bike riding, woodcarving, diving into a hobby, lying in a hammock, or yes, kicking back in a lawn chair.

I enjoy many of these things—and something more. I appreciate revisiting the past. What do I find there? Memories mostly. But sometimes fresh observations of the role past events played in formulating my future.

Several years ago, my sister, Kathii, and I took a walk in our old neighborhood. We hadn’t been there for at least 20 years. When we came to the first home we lived in, the owner was in the yard. We introduced ourselves and he remembered meeting us when he bought the house. After a short visit, he asked if we would like to see what they’ve done to the place over the years.

Naturally, we accepted his offer, anticipating we would find our family memories still lurking there. As we entered, I knew instinctively that Kathii and I were not only viewing his renovations, but reconstructing our own. He knocked down a wall to open up the kitchen. Kathii and I mentally put the wall back up because that’s where the stove was—where Mom would cook alongside our crowded kitchen table surrounded by six young children. 

On this warm August evening, the living room was beautifully updated. Nevertheless, I mentally converted it to Christmas time, recalling the old wallpaper and where we placed the tree for the best Christmas’s of my childhood. He graciously showed us the bedrooms at the top of the stairs. Kathii and Mary’s room was on the right facing the backyard and alley. My room, shared with brothers, Chris and Bob, was on the left. I recall feigning sleep when our parents looked in on us before reading comic books with a flashlight under the sheets.

As we walked back down the staircase, I noticed our grand wood railing that I didn’t bother to hold on to as I ran down the stairs as an 8-year old, tripping halfway down, and crashing into a sharp corner of a table at the bottom of the stairs. I gashed my knee and bled profusely. Mom used a clean washcloth, a Band-Aid, and a miracle medicine, Bactine, to make me whole again. 

What I remember most is Mom sitting alongside me on the third step with her arm around me, pulling me close to her and assuring me I’d be fine. Funny how a child believes anything when it comes from someone they love. As I type this sentence, I’m wearing shorts. I glance at my right knee and run my thumb over the scar that returns me to this memory, not of the fall, but of an emotional, yet fleeting moment with my mother. Novelist Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “Scars have a strange power to remind us that our past is real.” There wouldn’t be many more moments like this as we would lose Mom prematurely to cancer three years later.

“Our lives are filled with memories, sometimes lost, 
when we fail to recall them, 
and invite them back into the present.”

Every September, the scent of fall in the air reminds me of hiking with my Uncle Jim and Chris and Bob. Any reference to American Bandstand, ushers me back to my mother dancing in the living room with Kathii in front of the TV. Balmy summer afternoons remind me of playing football in the street with Chris, Bob and sisters, Mary, Joanie and their friend Debbie. Every time I read a newspaper, the scent of newsprint reminds me of my father and his thirst for news. The smell of turkey every Thanksgiving conjures up images of my Aunt Elizabeth cooking for six hungry motherless kids and a young widower—for years.

When I walk down the long, silent corridor of the past, I’m not merely reminiscing. I’m calling the past into focus so I can attach it to the present—and view my life in a continuous reel, like a movie.  When I splice the past with the present, I see my life in its entirety, and God’s hand in orchestrating it. Suddenly, the randomness is gone—and a plan and purpose emerge. And while I still can’t change the world, my world makes a little more sense.

I don’t live in the past—I just visit often, because—well—most of my loved ones live there now. And those joyful memories are worth revisiting.

What is one of the happiest memories of your past? 
Share them with me at:  jamescmagruder@gmail.com.

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