Good memories in tough times

Waiting to sample fresh-baked bread from adobe ovens at a harvest festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a recent trip

We’ve all had bad stretches in our lives, from days when we wish we’d never gotten out of bed to years when we’re especially happy to celebrate the start of a New Year to come. During rough times, research has proven that remembering good things can boost our mood and improve our outlook.

An article I just read in Nautilus magazine, The Lasting Power of Good Memories, highlights that as we age we tend to remember good times. You may have found that somewhat annoying in an older relative who keeps reliving the same experiences when they’re talking to you, but I can tell you from personal experience that once your body stops working as well as it did and all kinds of health issues dominate your life, you hang on to the good memories to remind you that life has been better.

The key, though, is to make those good memories in the first place. I see a lot of people just coast through life, carrying on through the days without making high points to offset the lows. Everyone should have something they really love doing, whether it’s a hobby, a sport they like to play, places they’ve travelled to, or even just having wonderful gatherings with friends or family.

As per the article, research has shown that “recalling happy moments triggers reward circuitry in the brain”, and that retrieving positive memories improved the test subjects’ moods. Researchers also found that the subjects who were recalling good memories, when put under stress (submerging their hands in ice water for the test), had much smaller rises in cortisol, the stress hormone, than those who even thought of neutral memories (neither good nor bad).

So rather than pooh-poohing nostalgia, let’s embrace it as the built-in stress-reliever technique that we humans are fortunate enough to have. (Maybe animals do too, but we may never be able to figure that out.)

During the pandemic lockdowns, quite a few friends and family asked my hubby and me if we were stressed about not being able to travel – we’re usually going several places every year, even as weekend jaunts. Everyone seemed stymied that we were barely bothered. But we had lots of good memories of past trips to carry us through and allow us to chill about being stuck at home. That’s not to stay that we didn’t make small trips within our own province, exploring places we’d never bothered to go to in the past, and that it wasn’t very nice to get away for a few days – even we got some cabin fever.

A long-planned cruise around the 1000 Islands during the pandemic

We also engaged in some home renovations, like most people, and made good use of our back yard, as well as any public nature spots that were open. Two of our favourite memories from that time period, when our government was advising everyone to stay separate for the different holidays are:

  • having my brother and his girlfriend over for Thanksgiving dinner outside. They felt more at ease that way, just going inside to use our bathroom as needed, and we got lucky with the weather, which was mild enough to eat out on the patio. We decorated our patio table, cooked the turkey in an infrared fryer, ate amid the yellow leaves drifting down from our linden tree, and had coffee and dessert next to a new patio firepit we’d bought for the purpose
  • sharing a Christmas picnic with our nieces and nephews on a chilly day warmed by a fire, which we built in the picnic spot’s public barbecue. We made a big thermos of hot chocolate spiked with maple cream liquor, ate beef stew that we heated in our (luckily portable) infrared fryer, and made the most of a brief window that we could all safely spend together.

My hubby and I have travelled around the world, and have many special memories that we reminisce about, and often laugh about. Many of them you’ve read about in this blog already. Those are the good memories we’ve made; yours might be different but equally precious. Just ensure that you make them, and continue to make them as time goes on, because during difficult times we need to remember that we can still have good experiences, that they aren’t all relegated to the past.

Funky diner food in a small town in Virginia

All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Do you remember when…?

I love the smell of fallen leaves in the morning.

It’s straight out of my childhood. I always looked forward to the return to school, Thanksgiving turkey, and, best of all, Halloween!

As an adult I only have Thanksgiving turkey and Halloween in my life, but I have a great deal of nostalgia around all of them.

People seem to either love or despise nostalgia — I know people who feel it’s just indulging in sentimentality — but psychologists have done studies around it, and results have shown that there are benefits to spending some time in pleasant reminiscing:

  • The boost to your mood when recalling a positive experience. My hubby and I often find ourselves laughing at something from our travels that happens comes to mind from something that’s just occurred. It’s really special to us that we’ve shared those experiences together, and those memories have on occasion been a bulwark against something stressful that’s happening in the present.
  • Researchers found a strong social component, where people experiencing nostalgia were more motivated to connect with other people. It may be for the often communal aspect of the shared memories.
  • When we’re reminiscing, it’s akin to reading or watching a good story, but better because it’s from our own lives and actually happened to us.
  • For the elderly, who can suffer from feelings of isolation, it may inspire them to share their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.

Autumn is my favourite season, and Halloween my favourite ‘holiday’, dating back to my childhood and a time when as kids we were innocently and fully free to enjoy it. It was the one night where we were allowed to prowl the streets without a parent in tow, and we made the most of it.

My neighbourhood was lined with trees, and as the air got cooler and the beautiful red and gold leaves began to drift to the ground, shuffling through them on the way to school every day, breathing in the earthy smell and crunching them underfoot, became an annual fall ritual. I would often pick up an especially ‘perfect’ leaf to press between book pages and keep in my room.

The scent of grapes would also fill the air – a lot of people had grapevines in their yards at the time, so it’s an aroma that instantly takes me back to childhood, although it’s increasingly rare.

Each grade at school always put on a Halloween party, and, at least for me, weeks of planning went into my costume. My mom had a trunk full of old clothes, which she readily helped me transform into a variety of outfits.

Anticipation on October 31st was intense – the daylight hours couldn’t pass fast enough. We would put our costumes on and wait feverishly for dusk to fall – it was an unwritten rule to not start trick-or-treating before dark! – and for jack-o-lanterns to come to life on front porches as the streetlights came on. As soon as that happened, our parents would let us out the door for a night of adventure.

We always made a beeline to any places giving out candied apples or popcorn balls, and then, in the mysterious darkness that could be concealing who knew what unearthly creatures and the chill breezes that felt like the tap of the grave on our shoulder, we would go up and down the streets, deciding which houses looked welcoming.

There were always a few houses whose inhabitants were either not kid-friendly, or (to us children) downright creepy. If the former, we didn’t bother visiting them, but if the latter and there was a pumpkin out, we would have a discussion as to whether we felt safe going up to the front door; sometimes we did, with some trepidation, but sometimes the risk outweighed the possibility of more loot.

Once we’d completed our circuit, and usually with a full pillowcase of candy, we’d head toward our respective homes to dump out the contents onto a table and see what goodies we’d accumulated. It was always a great night, and I regret strongly that children now can’t have the same thrill.

My nostalgia for those experiences has been a strong influence on creating a spooky effect for the kids that come to our door trick-or-treating. They all seem to enjoy getting a little scared, and their parents get a kick out of it as well. I didn’t realize how much the children enjoyed the creepy contact lenses I’ve worn with certain costumes until a parent commented once that his kids look forward to it every year.

My hubby helps me decorate our front entrance but allows me to do the dressing-up and hand out the candies. He’s invariably lurking in the background, though, to watch the kids react. We’ve put out a variety of decorations, including some large stone gargoyles that we added glowing red eyes to, and there’s usually fog swirling through the bushes and along the ground. Our house has a split entryway, and the kids have even commented on the interior Halloween décor that they can see behind me as I’m putting treats in their bags.

Halloween allows us to experience some chills in a safe way, and allows both children and adults to step out of our normal lives and become something entirely different for a night. It doesn’t have the emotional baggage or responsibilities of Christmas, and it gives us an opportunity for some good, silly fun.

The proliferation of Halloween-themed cooking contests on the Food Network have instituted a new annual tradition for me, and I now have a well-decorated Halloween tree on our dining-room buffet, but you might still sometimes catch me romping through a pile of raked autumn leaves, to my hubby’s combined dismay and amusement. Enjoy your autumn, and I hope you get as big a kick out of Halloween next week as I do.

Nostalgia – Childhood Homes

French River, October 2013 - photo by E Jurus
French River, October 2013 – photo by E Jurus

This Thanksgiving weekend Mike and I did a fall-colours road trip that began out of a desire to see the farm in northern Ontario that my family lived on for a few short years when I was a child.

There’s something about childhood homes, if the memories are largely happy ones, that always seems to draw us back. I think it’s because we’re in them during our formative years, when we create the most powerful memories.

Certainly as a child I loved living ‘up north’, and missed it terribly when we moved down to southern Ontario just in time for my 8th birthday.

We moved to northern Ontario to follow family friends who’d moved there a couple of years previously. My father was a very smart man with a strong entrepreneurial streak but not a great facility for making money. Coming from a European background where hunting was a long-standing tradition, he decided to open a pheasant-hunting farm in the tiny community of Kynoch, at that time about two hours west of Sudbury, where our friends had their own farm.

We drove through miles of wild forested land where the roads snaked through towering cliffs of granite. Once we left the Trans-Canada Highway, though, at the small town of Iron Bridge, we were really in the hinterland, bouncing up and down a steeply rolling dirt and gravel road about half-an-hour to where our farm was located.

Our farm was just around a bend in the road along a creek lined with alder trees. Our property covered both sides of the road – in the summertime my mom and I would go across to the other side to pick wild blueberries. We lived in a 2-story pink-sided farmhouse overlooking another winding creek; we had a barn that my dad painted with the lettering Sandhill Farms (for the sandhill cranes that migrated through the area), 2 large toolsheds (one of which became the brooding house with incubators for the pheasant chicks), an outhouse and a pump house (in those days no one had running water or indoor plumbing), hollyhocks out front and a long curved driveway where I first learned to ride a bike.

Northern Ontario was a spectacular place to be a kid, but I don’t think it was an easy life for my parents. The weather was often lovely – fresh clean air, a dry climate and lots of sunshine – but when it decided to raise a tantrum, the results were dramatic. I remember torrential rain and fog so heavy we couldn’t see past the hood of our truck, snow several feet thick from mid-autumn to late April that blanketed the countryside and sometimes made going to school impossible, winter temperatures that dipped as low as 42oF below zero. There were also a wide variety of biting insects that all loved to eat me, although they didn’t bother my brother very much – so much for equality in genetics!

But there were long twilights when my friends and I would walk barefoot through the dewy fields for miles, breathtaking fall colours lining the winding road that my brother and I walked to school every day, building huge and elaborate snow forts in the winter, the scent of wood smoke in the air, swimming in a clear cold lake for hours after which we all had coffee from a thermos and Spam sandwiches. At dusk the whip-poor-wills would make their eerie calls, and many times we’d spot white-tailed deer bounding away into the woods as we drove along the roads.

I wasn’t sure what I’d still find there on our adventure last weekend. Mike and I have driven up there before, although not for many years, and I knew that our farmhouse had at some point been demolished and a small log home put up in its place.

The old one-room schoolhouse had long since disappeared and a small house erected; the road had been roughly paved and many of the dramatic rises and falls had been smoothed out. When we lived there we had access to only two television stations, but in the intervening years satellite dishes had begun to sprout on the farmhouses.

Fabulous picnic with pumpkin whoopee pies - photo by E Jurus
Fabulous picnic with pumpkin whoopee pies – photo by E Jurus

Mike and I set out before dawn on a very foggy morning, stopping at French River just like my family used to do on our trips to visit our friends after we moved down to the Niagara region. The old picnic tables and roadside rest area have been replaced by a provincial park area that includes quite a trek to get the river, but we spread a plaid blanket on some rocks overlooking the river and had our breakfast baguettes with a thermos of hot tea, followed by some wonderful gluten-free pumpkin whoopee pies.

We ran in to quite a bit of construction the further north we got, but the fall colours were spectacular. We stopped in the town of Blind River, where my family used to go about once a month to get groceries, and I think it’s gotten smaller rather than larger. Certainly the hospital where I had my tonsils out has been replaced by a smallish health centre. The town of Iron Bridge, where we turned off onto RR 554, has so little left that it’s almost non-existent.

But, oh the feeling as we drove along 554 through the brilliantly coloured trees! We stopped at Little White River, where my dad would often take us to swim among the rocks, and the old church and graveyard are still next to it. Our old farm, just down the road, looks very much the same, although all the outbuildings are collapsed – but the views up the hillside where the road swings left are the same, and the small alder trees still line the creek.

Many of the old families are still living in the same farmhouses, judging by the names on the  mailboxes at the edges of the road. Across from where the schoolhouse stood, there’s still a hall where our entire school, all 8 rows of us, put on a Christmas concert for our families. Our friends’ farmhouse is still there, if looking a bit creaky.

After taking lots of pictures, we continued onward to the junction with the road to Thessalon, where we turned right to go to Cumming Lake, the chilly source of our summer swimming adventures, and I was able to find the exact same spot where we used to hike in from the road, although the sandy beach has since been inundated; it was already receding when we lived there. I dipped my fingers in the water and remembered happy times paddling around on old inner tubes.

View up the hill from our farmhouse - photo by E Jurus
View up the hill from our farmhouse – photo by E Jurus

They say you can’t go back, but I did, and because I had no expectations of finding much of anything the same, what I did find was an absolute delight. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, and made me recall just why I missed the area so much after we moved. Not sure I could do the long winters again, though, so I’ll just have my photos and memories to enjoy, along with any further trips back in the future.