Not long ago, my aunt — who is 82 and beginning to clean up the loose ends of her life — sent me a book I did not remember ever having owned. The title in question was “The Story About Ping,” a children’s book written by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese, originally published in 1933.
“I was sorting old children’s books when I came upon this,” my aunt wrote. “I have no idea why I have it but it seems fitting that it be returned to you.” As soon as I opened it I saw what she meant: On the flyleaf was an inscription, addressed to me from the children of an old family friend and dated 1964.
I don’t hold on to children’s books. I’ve kept a few of my favorites — “The Story of Ferdinand,” “Winnie-the-Pooh” — but by and large the books I read as a kid have not followed me into adulthood, at least not in physical form.
“The Story About Ping,” however, was different, for as I paged through it, I realized I had no memory of the story — which involves a young duck trying to be reunited with his family on the Yangtze River — at all. No memory of the writing, no memory of the art, no memory of holding the book in my hands or listening as it was read to me, although worn as it was, it appeared to have been well-loved.
A big part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that in 1964 I was 3, and my conscious memory had not kicked in. Part of the appeal of books such as “Ferdinand” is that I remember looking at the words, the images, trying to imagine my way into their scenes. These were my first encounters with the art of reading, and they connect directly, as part of a lifelong continuum, with how I still read.
“The Story About Ping,” though, offered none of that; to read it now was like reading it for the first time. I discovered (there is no other word for it) the quiet life on the river, as Ping and “his mother and his father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins” hunted “for snails and little fishes and other pleasant things to eat.”
The China here reminded me of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” or Nora Waln’s “The House of Exile”: a window on another world. This, too, I suppose, is a form of nostalgia, although as Buck and Waln portray it, that between-the-wars China was hardly idyllic; just two years before the publication of “The Story About Ping,” Japan invaded Manchuria, triggering the Sino-Japanese War.
And yet, I wonder, is this how nostalgia gets created? “The Story About Ping” is certainly wistful, describing, as it does, a world that was disappearing even as it was being set down on the page. In that sense, it’s not so different from my experience of reading it, rendered inaccessible by the lack of memory.
Until my aunt sent back this book, I would have told you that memory is a key component of nostalgia, that it’s impossible to feel nostalgic for something you can’t recall. But now I wonder: Maybe nostalgia is not a by-product of memory but of the lack of memory, a longing stirred by what eludes us even more.