A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided we wanted to expand our family further than we already had, and we had long since come to the conclusion that our house at the time was too small. So, as many couples in that scenario are wont to do, we started the process of getting a new house.
We ended up with a pretty reasonable plan. A couple of months before we actually would put our old house on the market, we would get an apartment or rental house or something, and move our essential things there, and live out of there. It would give us a chance to go back and get the house ready to sell without kids or a cat messing things up; and, it would be a haven once our house sold, while we looked for a new house.
There are a variety of other nice things about that plan, though it also comes with the stress of multiple moves in a short time. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the rental house.
Because it was pretty shitty.
It ended up being a rental house just down the block from our old house1. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom, and was quite a tiny place for two adults and two kids. We were pretty sure it wasn’t built very well: just some wood and plaster plopped onto a slab. It was drafty, the electrical situation was a mess, and the sink would sometimes back up into the shower. A shower that was always way too cold for a winter morning.
And what really sealed the deal was the opossums. Two of them.
We usually left the door under the kitchen sink opened, because that’s where we put the cat’s food. A nice, private location, away from kids. But it turned out there was a small hole in the back of that cabinet, that led into the walls, and ultimately, outside.
So I turned the corner into the kitchen one evening, and there were two opossums, looking at me, lording over the cat’s food dish.
I have to give credit to the owners (a husband and wife team): they took care of them, and also dealt with the mother opossums. I also would be remiss if I didn’t indicate that the rent was very fair, and the owners were very responsive to our other issues around plumbing and such. I don’t at all want to make it sound like they were bad landlords at all, because they weren’t, and were very willing to work with us on a month-to-month basis for our situation.
But the rental house was still pretty shitty, and I was so relieved when I finally spent a night in the new house, and never ever had to go back there and take a shower there ever again.
Even while we stayed there, I kept telling myself that I need to always remember how bad it was. Because it was bad.
So why am I blogging about this?
See, even now, I sometimes think back to those few months, and a bit of the haze of nostalgia floats around me. I have memories in that house—some good, some bad, as always—but memories, nonetheless. Of that being the place where I introduced my children to Studio Ghibli movies. Of games of Dominion on the cramped dining table. Even of the nights where the kids just wouldn’t stop screaming, and it being impossible to get them to all fall asleep at the same time.
And, sometimes, I even miss it.
But I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was terrible. Absolutely terrible. I should never want to go back there. Never want to relive those memories.
But they’re there, now. And as time passes, and the bad memories fade, that thin veneer of happiness has come to coat those memories with a golden sheen.
I think of this, now, when I hear people talk about how much they wish things were like they were in the past. Often, they think that things were better when they were kids, or when they were in college, or other such timeframes.
I always knew that the haze of memory makes the halcyon days of yore seem more appealing than they did to those living in them at the time. It seems a human condition, to memorialize the past and scrub off its many imperfections—and then lo, what a surprise that the imperfect present does not compare.
Yet I have a true, tangible thing now I can point to and see this effect in full bloom.2 That rental house was terrible. There’s no good reason I should ever want to think fondly of that time.
But I do.
That was only a couple of months. How much worse is it for those halcyon months, those halcyon years? The golden moments in the cracks are far more plentiful, far easier to see than the dirty stones they fill. And with time, it’s not the amount of dirty stones we see: only the golden gleam of fond memories.
So thus I exhort myself, and others: do not be deceived those who cling to the memories of the past. Do not follow them as they attempt to recreate that golden era, for there was truly no golden era. All they see is that thin veneer of nostalgia, wrapping the dirty stones that were the bulk of that time.
For me, outside of the material benefit of those couple of months, there is paradoxically one thing I can say was good about that time: it revealed this tendency to me in all its fullness.
May I—may we—see that veneer for what it is, and adjust our expectations appropriately.