What is it about Autumn that makes us nostalgic? It happens to me every year. It’s always tinged with a bit of sadness and I know I’m not the only one this happens to. The definition for the Welsh word hiraeth describes the feeling exactly.
When I was out for my drive the other day, I had the most visceral reaction come over me. I guess you would call it hiraeth. I felt as if I were transported back in time to the TriState Fair in Amarillo when I was a teenager. I used to love the fair. I loved the damp smell of the hay in the animal pens. I loved seeing all the different farm animals us city kids never got to see. I loved all the exhibits, even the ones for housewares. I loved the scuff of boots on the hard dirt and the cowboys in their wranglers with the Skoal rings on the back pocket. And I loved the rodeo, not for the events, but for the cowboys. I love me a Texas cowboy. It must have been the distant smell of a feedlot that brought the memories flooding back and I hung on to it as long as possible.
A little bit further down the highway, I passed a food processing plant in the distance. It brought memories of late night drives home from my grandparents’ house in Kansas. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven through the Texas panhandle, but there is a whole lot of nothing for miles upon miles. You can see a town in the distance and think you’re getting close and an hour later, you still aren’t there. When you’re driving at night, it’s almost as if you are the only people on Earth. The sky is so black and you hardly ever pass another car. I knew we were close to home when I would see the eery blue-white glow from the lights at the Pantex plant near Panhandle. Pantex was a big secret back when I was a kid. One of my parents’ best friends worked there, but he wasn’t allowed to tell us what they did. We all knew, though, that they manufactured nuclear missiles, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it. I wondered why, if it was such a top secret operation, they lit it up like a neon sign in the desert. It didn’t matter though. I knew I was almost home. Finally, I’d get a whiff of the oil refineries and I’d know we were home. To this day, I find the smell of an oil refinery oddly comforting.
The funny part is, I had a terrible childhood. It was full of pain and sadness. So why do the memories of home bring such warm feelings? Is it like any traumatic pain in which our brains cannot recall the level of pain we went through as a protection method? When you break a bone, you remember that it hurt, but your brain won’t allow you to feel the actual feeling of pain. Once the broken bone is set and casted, the pain subsides and you have a good story to tell. Maybe that’s what nostalgia is: the good story you tell yourself in order to not relive the pain.