By Megan Pan ’18
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ever since I was young, I’ve had a strong sense of attachment. My mother told me that when I lost my first tooth, I cried over the loss of a part of me that had been with me for seven years. As I grew older, this sense of attachment developed into a fear of losing hold of the past. While the eponymous hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby attempted to recreate the past in the present, I preferred instead to hold on to what remained.
Tangible objects served as portals to the intangible; I kept notebooks from elementary school, saved old voicemails on my phone, and held on to even the most trivial of mementos, like gum wrappers, in order to have an extant link to the people, places, and experiences of my memories. In my mind, preserving my memories of the past in the present validated their having happened, and to lose a piece of my past in the present was to lose the past itself.
In March of 2015, my grandmother passed away. She was the cornerstone of my childhood, practically raising me as my parents worked in the city. My grandmother played a part in all of my happiest memories: teaching me how to ride a bike, driving me back and forth from school, telling me stories before I went to sleep. Upon her death, I lost a beloved family member who was as precious to me as my own life, and the world with her in it that I had known for all my life crumbled away.
I was living in a postmortem world that I never imagined could have existed, and I was unable to find any way of fully bridging the gap back into the world of the past. I had photographs, of course, and clothes she had worn, journals she had written, gifts she had given me—but none of it was enough. Like Harry Potter’s resurrection stone, they managed to conjure the image of my grandmother, but they could not bring her back, nor could they represent the entirety of the love and warmth that I missed.
It was my grandmother’s death that led me to reconsider my obsession with the past. Up until that point, I had lived my life with a retrospective focus, with a preference for the preservation of old. However, during my period of mourning, I realized that my grandmother would not have wanted me to dwell on her death and to forget to live. Everything she had done for me while she was alive was in service of my future, and to disregard that was to dishonor her memory. My grandmother taught me that I must embrace living in the present, trusting that what really mattered from the past would stay with me.
In about two weeks, I’ll be turning eighteen. What a strange thing—the inevitable passage of time! Though my heart feels entirely like that of a child, its vessel has managed to outgrow itself. To be perfectly honest, I never imagined that I would live to see the day I turned eighteen. I don’t mean this in a morbid sense—it’s just that, throughout all these years, the idea of adulthood always seemed so far away, a fantastic mirage somewhere in the distance, beyond the boundary of where I could ever reach. But come January first, I’ll have crossed a threshold, and the door on my childhood years will be gently shut.
However, this isn’t to say that my connection with the past will be completely lost. Though her physical form is now a relic of the past, my grandmother’s spirit has remained with me in the person I am today whom she has helped to shape, and I trust that she will remain with me still in the person I am becoming. Each moment I have lived of life up to this point will play a similar role, molding the clay of my character—hopefully into someone who is kinder, stronger, braver, wiser—as I look forward into the future.
There will always be a part of us that will never completely relinquish its fondness for the past. Nostalgia is a powerful force, so much so that it was once considered an illness afflicting certain groups of people. James Gatz was forever tethered by the remembrance of the past, unable to ever move forward toward the future. However, the plight of Gatsby does not have to be the fate to which we are all condemned.
Instead, the past can serve as the wind in our sails, pushing us past the current as we venture out onto the open sea.