On a Sunday morning two weeks ago, my family met at my Uncle James‚Äôs house for lunch. It was cold outside, and we sat next to a fire for a long time with my cousin‚Äôs new baby, taking pictures. The baby played with a giant glass sea urchin into the hollow of which someone had placed some fairy lights.
We had arrived mid-morning and helped my uncle make ‚ÄúNear-Eastern Pork with Grapes and Peanuts‚Äù, a meal that was as trendy in the 70s as its name suggests. My grandparents, Colleen and Graham, used to make it for dinner parties. The ‚ÄúNear East‚Äù, is what is now known as the Middle East. How exotic, Colleen!
Later, full of NEP and wine, we sat at the table and played a game called ‚ÄúThe Minister‚Äôs Cat‚Äù. You go round the circle each describing the minister‚Äôs cat in one word, that word beginning with a letter of the alphabet, until someone blanks and you move onto the next letter. In a sing-song voice: ‚ÄúThe minister‚Äôs cat is a dreadful cat‚Äù; ‚ÄúThe minister‚Äôs cat is a darling cat‚Äù and so on.
It is a very quaint game that we had never played before. I fetched drinks, and while I was looking for glasses, I stopped, aware of how this day felt. A baby and everyone making a fuss over him, other things that were sad and complicated, all of us there together. The food and the day and the weather, and having everyone there felt very much like itself, closed off from any other part of life: just Sunday lunch.
It could have happened in just the same way when Near-Eastern Pork was a sensation, or when I was twelve. The day‚Äôs success, I thought, while I was pouring beer, really did seem to be partly because nobody was on a phone. It is irritating to talk about how Facebook might be bringing us down, or melting our brains, or how we don‚Äôt even really know anyone who we‚Äôre friends with on it. But that day I felt nostalgic for a time when Facebook feeds weren‚Äôt a thing. There was something about both the ease and effort that the day involved that made the passivity of any feeds feel grotesque. Also, I look at my phone far too much.
If the day had been happening when I was twelve, or on my twelfth birthday exactly, I would have been in trouble with my mom for rushing away from where everyone was to go and listen to the Avril Lavigne album I‚Äôd just been given by my uncle. The sting of my mom being so mad would almost be made up for at school the next week, when I was the first person to have the CD that we would go on to listen to for our last days of Grade Seven, before we split up and went to high school. If I were twelve today, it would be staring at my phone that got me a glare.
The magic might have been something emanating from my family: ‚ÄúThe forty-year rule‚Äù that Adam Gopnik writes about in this 2012 piece for the New Yorker: ‚ÄúThe prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)‚Äù
The meal we ate, the games: my mom, my granny, my uncle James, and my uncle Philip might have all been trying to be in the 70s for just a little while.
Don‚Äôt get me wrong, thank God for all of modern medicine, Skype grandkids, these robocops in DRC, and the robocops being made by ‚ÄúWomen‚Äôs Technology‚Äù, a DRC-based association of women engineers. Obviously technology is great, but I felt grateful at Sunday lunch for whatever force seemed to be protecting me from it.
Lately I‚Äôve been working what feels like very hard, and I can safely say that I‚Äôm getting pretty close to losing my personality entirely. My dad says that I am ‚Äúfragmented‚Äù. I feel like a friendly but quite boring ghost. The last time this happened, I was in Honours at university, taking extra courses and doing extra jobs and quickly starting and ending relationships. Andre Agassi‚Äôs autobiography, Open, was the only thing I could concentrate on then for longer than ten minutes.
With elections all over the place and a series of things that seem to be going off all over the world, forming a pattern, the conclusion to Gopnik‚Äôs piece is worth reading, and a good place to stop:
‚ÄúAnd so, if we can hang on, it will be in the twenty-fifties that the manners and meanings of the Obama era will be truly revealed: only then will we know our own essence. A small, attentive child, in a stroller on some Brooklyn playground or Minneapolis street, is already recording the stray images and sounds of this era: Michelle‚Äôs upper arms, the baritone crooning sound of NPR, people sipping lattes (which a later decade will know as poison) at 10 a.m.‚Äîmanners as strange and beautiful as smoking in restaurants and drinking Scotch at 3 p.m. seem to us. A series or a movie must already be simmering in her head, with its characters showing off their iPads and staring at their flat screens: absurdly antiquated and dated, they will seem, but so touching in their aspiration to the absolutely modern. Forty years from now, we‚Äôll know, at last, how we looked and sounded and made love, and who we really were. It will be those stroller children‚Äôs return on our investment, and, also, of course, a revenge taken on their time.‚Äù
Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. Follow her monthly column on Casimir¬†about new technologies and how they interact with, or replace the things they aim to improve upon.¬†
Illustrations by Kirsten Sims