What I forget, what I remember

Sometimes I am astounded by the depth of time that stretches between now and the morning I boarded a plane from Lahore International Airport. Eleven years. I sound it out to myself. I enjoy the music in the three syllables that make up the number 11. I roll it around in my mind, I roll it off my tongue. I pretend to cup time in my hands, like bringing them together in prayer, in supplication. I bring my palm to my heart - how many times has it beaten since I left home? Home - because there is no other word for it. It is not really home. I have made my home here in California. I have built it painstakingly, carefully, each piece of furniture, each book, each light-bulb represents an intention, a preference. But there is something I left behind, too. Not home - something deeper and intangible, something that can be felt but not heard or seen. What was it that I left behind - people obviously, but something undefinable and unquantifiable, too. I don't know what it is, but it has the power to take me back one day, and it will. 

There is a certain richness in being an immigrant, in having your origins rooted in a place that is geographically distant from you, in the bravery of the decision to pluck yourself from your land and your people and travel in search of knowledge and success, in the cowardice of the decision to not go back unless you have to, in the fear encompassed by the fluidity of belonging or not belonging, in the taxing change dictated by years when you pass through them in a new place, in learning new ways and giving in to the natural transition of accenting your English differently so that you are caught off-guard when you hear yourself saying something in the old way without intending to, suddenly, without a warning - your tongue having a memory of its own, but your voice sounding strange because of this inadvertent regression to the past. Yes, there is metaphorical wealth in the immigrant experience, something that my American daughter born in California will be lacking, who in all likelihood will be raised in the United States exclusively with annual visits to her parents' home country. In some ways, I feel a little sad about that. I will probably never be able to make her understand how magical it was to lounge in a makeshift hammock constructed with long bolts of cotton fabric by my father and erected between two trees on a hot May afternoon, small beads of sweat forming all over my face so that when I licked my lips I tasted salt and earth, while I read A Little Princess and watched the sun go down on the other side of the sugarcane fields at our farmhouse, and then became enchanted by fireflies lighting up the night all around us. The farmhouse came alive in a different way at night. The cicadas started their sonorous hum, a soft breeze began to sway the grasses that tickled our feet, the tube-well was turned off and it groaned until it stopped, a fire lit up in the hearth, someone put an age-blackened wok on it, the smell of caramelized onion and roasted garlic permeated the garden so that our stomachs began to grumble and we stopped noticing how fragrant the jasmines were. That was our perfect vacation. I would never be able to make my daughter understand the simple perfection of such a time because even the farmhouse doesn't exist anymore. It has been replaced by a brick house with a proper kitchen, running water, and wooden four-poster beds with imported mattresses. Or so I've been told. The call of the cicadas is drowned out by the drone of a power generator, and I don't expect one can see fireflies when the house has plenty of artificial light. I don't think I can wrap my memories in shiny paper and tie them with a ribbon. I don't think I can take them to my daughter and say, "This is the past, this is your mother's history. It's important. Keep it safe so it is not forgotten."

All the same, I find myself aching for the past - for the places that don't exist anymore, for people who have aged and changed and in some cases, died. The "back home" I wish to go to sometimes, in moments of extreme awareness, or conversely, those of weakness, is only present in pictures. When I go back to that house in the pictures I keep in a box under my bed, it won't be the home I grew up in. My sisters whose voices and footsteps I can trace on each wall of that house in my imagination will be gone - one to her new home in Tokyo, the other to hers in London. The baby brother I held on to is 6 feet tall now and can lift me up and twirl me in circles just to make me scream, "Put me down right now!" My mother's perfume, still the same one she used to wear years ago, will still linger in some of the rooms of the house. I will walk through them, touching the familiar and unfamiliar things. "When did you get this?" I will hold something and ask her. Her answer will surprise me. "Years ago," she'll probably say. And I will feel betrayed - unrealistically and unfairly. Maybe, my mother will feel betrayed, too, because of my brooding silences, my lack of participation in the routine she is so used to and one that I used to be a part of, and my divided attention among my daughter, in-laws, and the family I left behind. 

The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, but it's a slippery understanding, it escapes my fingers before I can examine it fully and memorize it, its grooves, its character, its lack of pliability. And as I am telling myself this, absorbed in my thoughts, I see someone coming towards me from the corner of my eye. I perceive this person to be someone I love - a family member or friend I have not seen for 11 years, and I experience a lurch in my heartbeat, a moment that has no rational thinking associated with it. I look up and it's a stranger. They smile at me, and I smile back. That could be such-and-such ten years ago, I think to myself. Something about the stranger's gait, or their arm swinging by their side, or their hair waving in the wind, reminds me of another person, a dearer person, changed now. The eleven years have happened to all of us, or more aptly, we have all lived through these last eleven years. The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, and the fickle thing, it slips away.

Photos by Rebecca McCue