Taking a late evening walk recently, I heard the dull roar of an audience.
Startled, I stopped and listened to pick out more sounds: the authoritative crispness of an announcer, a chant I couldn’t quite make out, the unmistakable sound of marching quads. Then I realized I was hearing, from a distance, the fervor of our local high school’s football game.
And that was all it took to start the memories flooding in.
The small town where I grew up had an intense passion for the local high school and for its local football team. From my earliest memories, Friday nights starting in September meant football. I trundled with my mom and dad and their bags loaded with blankets and stadium seats to the local stadium, and we watched our high school team play.
What do I remember most? Salty popcorn in early fall; hot chocolate in late winter. Soda. But most of all I remember the people. “Our” seats, the ones we used every year, sat established in a camp of long-familiar friends: my dad’s buddies from work and hunting, former elementary and middle school teachers, Sunday School and church people, and random folks I knew from the grocery store and the bank.
Everyone knew everyone. It was, in many ways, a reunion for our entire town.
And I grew up with high school football in the background. As a child, I attended with mom and dad and dreamed about the day I might be in the high school marching band and maybe—maybe—wear the jaunty hat and boots of the band’s field commander at halftime. In middle school, I would pop down during halftime and breaks between quarters to walk the stadium with my friends and talk about boys.
And in high school? Well, I marched with the band. And yes, I was the field commander my senior year.
But I still came back—through college, right up until I was married, until we moved for graduate school and coming in on Friday nights became impossible. But my mom and dad still attended regularly, and Saturday morning phone calls were a history of who they’d run into, who’d asked about me, and how the team had managed.
I miss those games.
I didn’t realize, then, how precious a memory they would later be. I knew they were special, but in my innocence—and this is always the way of innocence, and youth, and growing up—I didn’t understand that there might be a time I stopped going, or even that the games might change. That life might change.
Thinking of them now makes me nostalgic. So did hearing the crowd cheering for our local team here.
But nostalgia is a double-edged sword, and brings grief with it, too. Because even as I was standing on the sidewalk thinking wistfully it’d be nice to go to another game sometime I realized with a deep, bittersweet poignancy that I really can’t go back. Not to how it was then, anyway.
The families I knew then have changed: some moved away from the area, some broken by divorce. Others have passed away and grown ill. Some of my dad’s hunting friends have grown frail. Some local businesses closed, and their owners and managers left. COVID happened. The last time I went, I remember an uneasy shock that the band had grown so painfully small.
This is the way of time.
And I think it can be easy to get trapped in that poignant realization. Whether it’s college or football games or family reunions or old traditions—we think of how life used to be, and we realized that time has slipped from us, and the realization can bring great sorrow if we let it.
I think that’s why nostalgia can be so dangerous, too. Growing too fond of “how it used to be,” we begin to tyrannize the present: we reject anything new, we fight against change, and we can hurt others and even ourselves with the desire to preserve what was, before, at all costs. We can also, in our retrospective trance, forget the beauties of the present–which, in the future, we will also recall with the same nostalgic fondness.
I’ll be honest and admit that, for my own part, I can’t dwell in those nostalgic moments for too long.
It’s the same reason I can’t dwell on my Christmas card list with its crossed-out names. I don’t want to linger on the loss, on what I can’t have right now, on what has changed. I become too sad. But what I can do, and what I often do when I feel that nostalgia strike, is hear it as a call.
Because what we value, primarily, when we remember the past with fondness is a sense of rightness in the world. Perhaps a sense of joy. A sense of contentment, of things being good with the world, of this is how it’s supposed to be. And I think that, rather than point us back, nostalgia nudges Christians forward.
If you thought that was good, just wait…
Hints and promises. The veil pulled back on life made new. Those town-reunion football games, the smiling faces, the laughter and the unfettered joy: that’s the stuff of homecoming and heaven. Granted, I don’t know that there will be actual footballs there, but that sense of deep satisfaction and joy—it will be there, stronger and more perfect than we ever knew it here even at the best of times.
Back in my hometown, high school football connected you to people. You could wander into those bleachers and run into anybody—just anybody at all. They’d grin and probably hug you, and if you didn’t remember them immediately you would in two seconds flat, and you’d set the world to right and catch up over hot dogs. And so what I remember most from those days is standing up from the bleachers, or standing in line at concessions, or simply walking down the stadium stairs, and receiving a tap on the arm or on my ball cap, a tug at my sleeve or a bellowed, “Hey!”
I knew, whenever I turned, that I’d always see a beloved, smiling face.
I think heaven will be like that. Only better. Nostalgia is a reminder to look forward to it, not back.