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Nostalgia: Spooning Up the Past


On June 14, 1984, my father, my brother and I arrived in St. Jean de Monts in western France after a long drive from Germany.

It had taken us two days and we had progressively gotten on each others' nerves. We'd been trading a virus and at St. Jean de Monts it was my father's turn to be sick. Chris and I left him to his fevered dreamings in the hotel room as we walked around the seaside town arguing.

I can't remember what the fight was about. It might have been about who got to drive Dad's massive lime-green BMW. Or it might have just been one of those Cain and Abel/prodigal son moments: two brothers, both back from college, twitchy and ready to pick a fight.

We came to the beach and saw that it swarmed with dozens of people hunched over the sand, digging. They were harvesting something, but what? Whatever it was was too small to see from where we stood and I was too unsure of my French to venture much closer. After our father's fever broke, we returned with him to the beach. The mad French people were digging up tiny clams, cockles or something.

As we walked on the sand -- my brother and I reconciled but still in that odd, post-argument mood, enervated as after a caffeine jag -- my father picked up a metal spoon. It must have been left by one of the foragers.

Months later -- back home in Langley Park -- I received a package in the mail. Inside was the spoon, engraved "St. Jean de Monts 14 June 84." I've lost the note my father sent along with it, but it read something like "Even when we have nothing else, we have our memories."

I still have the spoon but even without it I would remember that day: the searing light, the blinding sand, the whitewashed buildings, my father sweating in his bed, my brother and I tense with aimless anger. I don't know if I'll ever return to St. Jean de Monts -- I rather doubt it -- but I can go there in my head whenever I like.

I thought of that day, and my father's note, when I was writing two columns this week: one on the Peppermint Pipers singing group and the other on Chuck Fraley's Marlow Heights '60s and 70s Web site. And then there was my melancholy column about the end of newspapers. All were, in some way, about memory.

I remember feeling irritated when I first read my father's note. I was 21. My life would be spent looking forward, not back. But, of course, the older I get, the longer the skein of memories I trail behind me. Striking the right balance between nostalgia for the past and excitement about the future is one of life's great challenges.

I hope we'll discuss some of these things during my online chat, today at noon.

By John Kelly  |  March 13, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
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