Writings by Cole Huffman

Walnut Street

Is nostalgia wasteful pining? Being stuck in bygones, wistful for more of what isn’t and won’t be? Is it just our inner Uncle Rico throwing footballs at his tripod, readying his 40-year-old self to be a high school quarterback again? Nostalgia has even been considered an illness, as in acute homesickness.

I detoured into my old neighborhood on the way to Birmingham recently. While it has its problems, to never experience nostalgia is a kind of willed amnesia. And anyway, of late I can’t help it. This month my oldest daughter graduates high school. I did the same exactly thirty years before her.

So I was thinking of senior years and symmetries as I came upon my hometown exit and took it. My custom-made basketball goal remains at the head of our old driveway off Walnut Street. Must be thirty-five years ago Dad cemented it there. He painted it maroon and white, my high school colors. He lettered Hamilton Aggies down the pole, faint now but still readable. The wooden backboard has seen better days, as the nostalgic say. But there it stands, a weathered sentry to my boyhood hoop dreams.

“You were pretty good at basketball, as I recall,” Mrs. Cox told me. The memory of the hospitable is kind like that. She and her husband, the current homeowners, were outside pruning a tree when I pulled up. They welcomed me but admitted later they feared I might be a Jehovah’s Witness!

I guess I should be remembered as a basketball player when my full frame is out of the car, though I was never as good as I tried to be (God knows how hard I tried). I even begged God back then to make me good at basketball. But mostly I rode the pine in games.

The Coxes raised beautiful daughters in my old house. The floor plan is just as I remember but they’ve updated everything most tastefully. I enjoyed their humor in showing me the patch of carpet they decided to keep inside a closet of a room now hardwood floored. Besides the basketball goal in the driveway, that closeted piece of mint green plush carpet and a wooden apparatus Dad built downstairs to support a heavy punching bag were the only recognizable artifacts of the Huffman era on Walnut Street. 

I instantly liked the Coxes. They told me the town is doing well now after some years in decline. The newspaper my mom used to edit is still being published. They gave me a copy to take home. I recognized a few names and faces inside. A classmate of mine advertised his local insurance agency. One of my dad’s old friends is the current mayor.

Memory doesn’t always serve me. Ten years ago I went to my twenty-year class reunion. My failure to recognize a sixth-grade girlfriend wounded her feelings a bit. But there’s only so much room on my mental hard drive. I’ve had to download names in a church roughly a sixth of the population of my whole hometown. Southerners are supposed to practice memory though, especially on our classmates. We pledged as much when we put “Remember me!” in each other’s yearbooks.

“It is the South, and so spirits are welcome here,” Rick Bragg wrote in My Southern Journey. “We cherish the past… [and] talk like we are tasting something.” I love that turn of phrase. To walk through my old house was to taste gratitude again for what was. Thirty years ago that’s the house I walked out into the wider world from. My daughter embarks from our house into her future soon. What will things be like in thirty years for her?

I felt no pangs to relive anything during my brief visit. I left thanking God for who and what I had there when I had it, and for who and what I have now in Memphis. I prayed blessings for the Coxes as I drove on to Birmingham.

Recently in my readings I was reminded that most of us leave out the first part of Augustine’s famous dictum about our hearts being restless until we rest in Christ. Here’s the full quote from the beginning of his Confessions: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Nostalgia can be its own kind of restlessness. Or perhaps it is more subject to restlessness unless it connects to something besides memories indulged for their own sake—let’s say unless nostalgia connects to praise. It gets dismissed for stirring up drippy sentimentalism, but nostalgia can glorify God if it stirs the memory to praise the One who was with me back then as He is now.

You stir man to take pleasure in praising you so that we rest not in our memories of places and times so much as in His unchanging goodness that transcends places and times. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you for His blessings but also to love God for God. That’s where I’ve been trying to get to for a long time. I started from Walnut Street.

“Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” (2 Sam. 7:18)

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:16 AM
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