A Handful of Memories

I often tend to liken memory to a mosaic, small pieces of the past haphazardly joined together to create a pattern. A mosaic that I hold in my hands, which ripples over my skin, one specific incident of the past catching light, jogging some deep-rooted recognition I held of it that I have long since buried underneath the mundanities of the present. It takes me by surprise sometimes. I am jolted awake right before drifting off to sleep when an odd image makes its appearance just when consciousness is slipping away, beckoning me. Something new, or something from my childhood. Something wholly ordinary that should have no meaning and no place here, now, after a long day when all I want to do is close my eyes and be lost to the world. Just the complete peculiarity of a memory asserting its presence when I have made no effort to conjure it is enough to unnerve me and wake me up.

I was thinking about the workbook I have been meaning to start working through - Story-Starters - and the first exercise, which is to write about where you come from. Lahore, I was thinking. Ravi. Jasmines. Cliches, all of these. Kalima Chowk. Liberty Market. Convent of Jesus and Mary. The images were coming slowly now. Street food. My father's farmhouse. Earthworms after a monsoon downpour...Pigeons! What?! Pigeons? All of a sudden I felt very awake as if someone had called my name inside the darkened room to rouse me.

For many years during my childhood, my uncle raised pigeons. He built a roomy cage for them on our rooftop, filled with moss and leaves and bird feeders. I remember the birds pecking on grains that he used to scatter on the concrete floor of the roof, their funny little necks bobbing backward and forward. They would fly off in groups, in white and gray rings, swooping and rising, disappearing, but always coming back, always finding their way home. I wonder what happened to them. I distinctly remember a time when my uncle had them and a time when he didn't. Perhaps he sold them, or found them another home. I felt an odd pang of longing for those birds I had no particular feelings for during my childhood. Where did they go?

There have been memories in the past that have startled me awake from the shallows of slumber. The way my grandmother used to keep a small linen pouch pinned to the inside of her shirt holding a round cylinder of small bills. The smell of new notebooks and the brown paper we used as sleeves for them right before the school year began. A walk on the Mall Road in Murree more than two decades ago when I bought a fur hat that was too big for a 7-year-old head. The time my sister and I were sent to school on a holiday by mistake and spent the whole day with Sister Grace, having tea and scones, visiting the chapel, playing in the kindergarten play room. The sound of water rushing out of the tube-well's spigot at my family's farmhouse. The smell of a large bouquet of tube-roses my father always arranged in a crystal vase in the drawing room. Knitting a scarf that was destined to stay incomplete in front of the gas heater while my mother shelled pine nuts and handed them to me. The roasted and salted almonds served as an appetizer at Mei Kong restaurant in Barkat Market. The way the canal was dressed up like a bride to celebrate the spring festival with beautiful hand-crafted floats dotting its calm waters. Turning towards the airplane window, away from other passengers on my journey here, a weight in the pit of my stomach, sobs heaving my shoulders, rubbing my throat raw as I saw Lahore receding underneath me...

I could write a thousand or more words on each of these fragments, and I might just do that in the coming days, so strong are the recollections I encounter when my defenses are diminished. It is like I am cupping hundreds of these tiny memories in my hands, treasuring them, and if I move just the right way, one slips trough my fingers and lands on the floor. I am compelled, then, to bend down, examine, retrieve, and restore it. Back into the pile it goes just to resurface another day. Some of them tighten ther grip on my heart, give me a dull ache where once a stronger sensation used to be, like my memory of the journey away from Lahore, towards my life as it is now. Others leave me with a warm happiness; I see it spreading through me thick and golden and sweet like honey, like the memories I have of the day my sister and I spent in a deserted school building with Sister Grace. Yet more leave me wondering, or with a sense of longing and regret and confusion. 

Why was I startled awake by the image of those pigeons that appeared behind my eyes and swiftly vanished like a picture in a book whose pages I am rolling between my thumb and forefinger? I am only left with meaningless questions about some memories that are not salient in and of themselves, but lead to other strings of events, people, milestones. The pigeons got me to think of my uncle, the love he has given me unconditionally and liberally my whole life. I started to recall other details I observed about my uncle during my childhood. The brand of cigarettes he used to smoke, the small golden pack, the contents of which I used to break into tiny pieces in an effort to make him quit, for instance. Or the huge kites that he used to store in his room. For months he collected kites and rolls of string in every color and size for the annual spring festival called basant. And this is the spark that lights the fire under all the basants I remember, the tiny kites dotting the azure sky, the little girls dressed in yellow dresses symbolic of new beginnings and growth...

It's a spiral, really, and the pigeons are the place to start. Round and round and round it goes, it burrows through the handful of memories to a deeper place - the place I go to so I can write this.

Photos by Rebecca McCue