By Jackie Leavitt
(Revised from my narration at Fireside Storytelling in 2013.)
My grandfather had a lot of names over the course of his life. Officially named Sergio Orsini, he was 100-percent Italian, born to immigrants who came to America just in time for the Great Depression. Growing up, his friends called him Sarge. I knew him as Papa, and he was one of my favorite people in the whole world. He lived to be 90 years old, so he had quite a few stories that he told our family over the years.
As a baby, when my great grandmother knew it was time to put him down to sleep, she would feed him some watered wine. “That would put me right out,” he would chuckle. And growing up through tough financial times, he said he got to enjoy bean sandwiches for breakfast, bean sandwiches for lunch, and bean sandwiches for dinner.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Papa decided to join the Navy. Unfortunately, he was missing one of his back teeth, and back then, when you could be out on boats for a very long time, you needed perfect teeth. So they didn’t accept him, and he turned around and joined the Marines.
Most of Papa’s stories circled around his time in the Marine Corps during World War Two. He really enjoyed remembering and re-telling his favorite stories, especially when our family was gathered around the table together, such as for Thanksgiving. We heard these tales so many times that we could – and I obviously do – tell them like they were our own.
One time during the war, he was traveling by train cross country for the Marines. When the train stopped, he and his other Marine buddy would patrol the outside (and occasionally hop off to steal watermelon from nearby farms to eat along the journey). On one of these stops, Papa was standing by the train when his friend shouted, “Sarge, stay right where you are!” When Papa looked over, his friend had a gun drawn on him. His friend shot… and killed a rattlesnake that lay at his feet, ready to strike.
He told us of his “island hopping” in the Pacific. He fought with his fellow Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, when “there were so many bullets in the air, it looked like rain,” Papa would say.
Papa always wore his Marine hat, proudly stating “Purple Heart” – a medal he earned for catching mine shrapnel pieces in the chest.
But there was one story, his favorite, that he told without fail every single Thanksgiving. He was discharged from the Marines on Thanksgiving Day in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 12 miles away from his family’s home. Without a ride, but determined to surprise his family, he walked the whole way back, just in time for his sister, Val, to open the door right before Thanksgiving dinner.
Now, as Papa got older, he started telling these stories more and more often. This made my family nervous because we viewed his storytelling and nostalgia as his way of slowly paying less attention to the present and living more and more in the past.
Papa passed away in June 2011, but I thought of his increased storytelling when I read an article in the New York Times in 2013 about nostalgia. This article looked at modern studies of nostalgia, as well as recapping what was previously thought in the science community.
Nostalgia was first chronicled in the 1600s when Swiss mercenaries complained of it while abroad. A Swiss doctor decided that it was caused by excessive cowbell clanging in the Alps, which damaged the eardrums and brain cells in their youth. This doctor called it a demonic neurological disorder.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was called immigrant psychosis.
But modern research shows that nostalgia is actually universal. Everyone, all around the world, experiences nostalgia. And they even experience it on the same topics, such as weddings, birthdays or religious holidays. It can occur in children as young as 7 – for example, wistfully thinking back to last year’s birthday party.
Some studies even show that nostalgia could be an evolutionary aid. When people feel nostalgic, they actually experience bodily warmth. And when it’s colder out, people are more prone to nostalgia.
Music is another catalyst for nostalgia. We’ve all been there: we are cruising down the highway when, all of a sudden, this song comes on. And we are instantly transported back to that time when you were with your best friends cooking in your kitchen, drinking wine, and dancing around to this one song. Or that time you saw the band in concert, and you got on top of your friend’s shoulders and it felt like magic because you could see over the sea of people to the stage.
But the part of this article that really struck me was that nostalgia is not something only for those who are older. The two times people experience more nostalgia is old age and in your 20s. It’s because people tend to experience nostalgia during times of transition. For example, you’re leaving home to go to college, or you’re graduating college and getting your first real job, or you’re getting married and about to have your own family. Those are a lot of big life changes happening.
I moved to San Francisco in January 2012 without a job, without an apartment and with only two friends in the city. And I admit I definitely felt nostalgic. But what’s interesting is that instead of sharing stories of my time back East with my new friends, I felt resistant. I thought, how could my friends relate? They didn’t know my old friends. They didn’t know the places I knew.
So instead, when I felt nostalgic, I would go to my room, flop down on my bed, open up Facebook on my computer and look at pictures. And not even pictures I had taken, but pictures with me in them, almost as if I need to prove to myself that – oh, that’s right, I was actually there, and I did experience those things.
But thinking back to Papa’s stories, I sure wasn’t in World War II with him. So why could I relate to his tales?
After taking a storytelling class in 2013, I thought that his stories created a sense of community. Even though we weren’t there, we could imagine it and understand him better.
And I still think that, but my opinion actually changed when I went to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving in 2013. We were talking with his friend, Danielle, about her many tattoos. She had a couple on her wrists, and then another tattoo of a cheetah on her left chest, which we could see because she was wearing a low-cut shirt.
It turns out that the cheetah was one of her most recent tattoos, and she got it in memory of her sister, who had passed away not long before from cancer. Danielle told us that the doctors gave her sister a year to live when they first discovered the cancer, and after she responded so well to chemo, they gave her another year expectancy on top of that. Soon after this, Danielle went home one day and fell asleep on the couch. She says she had a very realistic dream, where a cheetah, with bright green eyes, walked right in front of her in the living room. As it passed, it seemed to wag its tail, almost like it was waving goodbye. Moments later, she was woken up to a phone call from her family telling her that her sister had passed away. It was only 11 weeks after chemo.
So here Danielle was, telling this incredibly personal story – but why? Sure, it created community, but it went deeper than that. I think she actually wore a low-cut shirt on purpose, so that her sister, the cheetah, could be part of her Thanksgiving family.
I think that, in Danielle’s narration, she was keeping her sister’s memory alive. Rather than having the stories fade away to the past, she created new life to them by passing them to me. And then I’m creating new life to them by passing them on to you. And I think that’s the heart of it – storytelling isn’t a way for people to escape into the past, but instead a way to keep it alive in the present. Storytelling is a type of Holy Grail, in that it keeps what we love immortal.