Archives for posts with tag: memory

I am interested in how memory and imagination intersect to weave a story. Just as my aunty remembered her father, now I remember mine and can feel his spirit presence in spaces he once occupied physically. I live in a house that has contained other people, their voices and movement. Even as memory fades and becomes disjointed, sometimes I still see a shadow standing at the kitchen counter, hear a familiar sound at the door. My imagination remembers deeply and I am grateful for its firm hold on a world that I have loved.

Outside, sunlight glinted on dark leaves

as we wound down the mountain road.

And on something else, too,

it seemed. Aunty said,

“Your grandfather traveled

up here all the time.” She

was speaking to my generation,

not to her own – her sisters

nodded in agreement – and

not to the great-grandchildren,

happily puckering lips around

straws, gulping cold, sweet drinks.

“He knew the hill tribe people here,

and helped them. The school he

built, it’s somewhere …”

Her voice trailed off and it was

clear she did not know exactly

where. She had entered the

world of imagination. I came

into that world, too, gazing into

the shadows and light dancing

through the trees as we

continued our descent into

the city below.

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Sometimes our senses are on high alert, taking in an abundance of sight, sound, smell, taste. The market where my aunties shop in Chiang Mai is this kind of place, so rich in everything that I wonder how I can take it all in. Yet it is all stored somewhere inside me, each sense absorbing a piece of the story. Brush away just part of the dust covering a memory and soon the whole picture emerges again. Try it. Close your eyes.

 

If I were to close my eyes,

the sounds and smells would

be the same as I remembered.

Smoky sweetness of small

bananas on a grill, high

Northern dialect voices of

women selling food,

clank of coins, shuffle

of feet. Eyes open,

and everything is true.

The grills line up on the

ground, forming a room

of smoke. The women sit

on high stools, food they

made – steaming curries,

vegetables, pastries –

spread out like skirts before

them. People move between

stands, reaching, buying,

bags bulging. I search for

the source of the clanking

coins, and then memory

clicks into place. There,

at the bottom of the still

broken escalator, she is

standing, still standing

after all these years. Neat

clothes, short hair, pale

skin, and eyes open, but

her gaze empty, blind.

Standing there, shaking the

tin can of clanking coins.

 

With so many ways of acquiring luck — through charms, rituals, even cash — you would think all would be right with the world. But luck, as we truly know, has nothing to do with any of this. Some part living well, some part practicing integrity, a large part pure chance, good fortune has no formula. It comes down to how we measure it. I count it as luck that I had this lively, colorful moment with my family. And what good fortune to remember Setting Birds Free with my cousin years before, and to see that this is where it got me.

 

We must have looked like we needed it,

the way the hill tribe woman came

at us, determined, her fingers hooked

around small woven cages, each with

a desperately chattering bird inside.

She lifted her arm and waved the cages

in the air, jangling from the many

silver beads sewn onto her

colorfully embroidered clothes.

Aunty bought one – for fun, she said –

letting the birds go would bring us

good luck.

 

So that was it: a long ago

sun-filled room, burned into memory,

releasing bird after bird out the window.

Dust and sun and cheeping birds.

And luck, too, I learn now, so many years later.

 

One was fun, but we needed more,

and I knew the woman was telling us so.

Aunty bought another, and another.

Soon we had released every one

of the birds back into the world.

The old woman grinned a toothless smile:

so much luck now, how lucky you are.

When my parents invited me and my family to join them on what they claimed would be their last trip home to Thailand, I knew they were telling me more than they said. They were not so much old as sick — and feeling vulnerable to time. Despite the stress of uncertainty and the sadness of imminent loss, that awareness of time, place, and all experiences was a gift. My senses were on high alert, paying attention to taste, sound, smell, and the many voices that I knew not to take for granted. 

The last trip home

would travel along

the edge of change.

The change comes,

as it always does:

a slow folding in,

then increasing urgency

as the end draws near.

But before that,

would be the last trip home:

the chance to touch gold,

taste salty water,

feel warm breath

on tea-colored skin,

sing the song of language,

touch the ground

of home again.

My collection of childhood memories are connected to deep sensorial experiences — true for all of us, I suppose. A familiar taste or smell that, like a time machine, takes us back  to a long ago life. These memories live so much more vividly than the present-day list of things we need to do. Why? Maybe because our childhood selves were so present in those experiences. As a child I had little control over where I was or what I was doing. Nor did I have a context for the images, tastes, smells, and sounds I was experiencing. So these memories live as pure sensation and now, when I remember, I wake into them fully.

 

I opened my eyes on the other side of the world.

Was this a dream?  Or my life now that I had woken?

The day was bright, hot, busy with traffic and people.

A flash of light:  shiny scissors ripping fabric.

The cloth snapped free, blurred in air,

then quickly collapsed into neat folds.

 

Voices:  high, loud, singing a language, woven together by sound.

 

Warmth:  on my lap a small green package.

It was the ridged leaf of a banana tree,

folded into a tight square,

secured with a tiny toothpick.

I opened it up and smelled:

smoky chicken, steamy sticky rice.

I made balls of rice with a treasure of chicken inside,

and popped them in my mouth,

one by one, tasting and tasting.

 

I taste it now, my lap feels warm, the voices sing, the fabric snaps –

I wake into this life.

Last spring, my cousin in this story came to Minneapolis with his wife and two adult children to visit. I have only seen him a handful of times as an adult, and it always seems surprising that he is now a grown man. My memories of visiting Thailand as a child include him — a lanky, laughing boy with a buzz cut and the school uniform of navy blue shorts, white shirt — and our adventures together. 

 

Light streams through curtains of dust.

With my cousin I climb, each step waking more dust.

Hooked on our fingers like elaborate rings

are several small straw cages,

tiny birds cheeping inside.

We come into a room, wooden beams, wooden floors,

empty, but for sunlight from the windows at front.

Dust, wood, light – these muffle the busy sounds below.

At the windows, we lean out to the sunshine.

And then we begin:  taking one cage at a time,

we open it, sending each bird into the light.

I am interested in the idea of inheritance — gifts from those who have left our earthly world. They might be material, but could also be intangible. The inheritance of language, names, physical features, mannerisms, all matter as much, or more than, money and things. My grandfather did leave things, but the inheritance I have and most love from him are the stories my family shares. This is my memory of the things — the money is gone, but the story remains.

 

The evening dragged on.  The lawyer

and my two uncles sat in the

living room, talking quietly.

For the daughters and children

of daughters, the talk hardly mattered,

and we sat around the table

eating longan fruit.

Sticky juice ran down our arms

and brown skins spilled over the

edges of the bowl.  Grandfather

was a Hindu.  We knew

everything would go to the sons.

 

“Slap!”  Papers

thrown angrily on the table.

An uncle’s loud voice,

our silence, another uncle’s voice.

The nervous lawyer, speaking

softly but too quickly.

“They are arguing about money,”

my aunty said.  The words

ran, fast, climbing higher, until they

started to descend, breathing

slowed, and the uncles

sat down again.

 

And then, as if from a dream,

someone threw handfuls of

money into the air.  Money from

Grandfather, I suppose.  Screaming with

excitement, we jumped up to catch

the money as it came down.  Colorful Thai

bills floated above us, suspended in the air

a moment or two.  Breath held, silence,

eyes focused on the soft flutter of

reds, greens, blues – nothing but

paper, but everything we had

at that moment – that seemed to rise

higher before dancing down.

Sound returned, arms reached

high, children crouched low,

crawling between the legs of

adults, reaching for our inheritance.

 

This memory of my grandfather — my only one — is among my first and most vivid memories. From it, I have been able to construct an image of him that matches the stories I have been told. I am very aware of how difficult it is to discern the truth from images and stories, but this is what I have. So I hold it close.

In my memory, the room is dark,

but sunlight filters in from somewhere above,

casting a dusty light.

A red carpeted path divides the room.

On either side are tall stacks of

paper, boxes, and bolts of cloth.

My grandfather sits at the end,

behind an enormous desk.

Dark skin, heavy eyebrows,

thick hair in streaks of

gray and white and black,

and light clothing that glows

in the dark room, against dark skin.

He is large, a giant.

I have only this one memory.

Lack of memory is nothing, weightless.

But this one pebble I hold tight.

I am afraid of losing it.

As I follow the long red path,

I feel small, but sure.  I have

done this before.  I am not

afraid of the light at the end.

When I finally arrive,

he lifts me onto his lap.

He takes the tin from behind.

It was the tin I wanted.

He opens it, the sugar smell

cuts through the dust, and

he offers me a biscuit.

I was four years old.

I have often thought that one reason for religion and spirituality is to grapple with the mystery of those no longer with us. How do we explain the power those we loved have over our lives, even after they are gone from the earth? Their presence continues on in some way, guiding us in how we, the still living, carry out our lives. My human, mortal self longs to understand the world the dead inhabit, and for a deeper connection to the world they left behind.

 

The day Grandfather died, he came to life for me,

woke up from murky memory, grew colorful in

stories.  The world – it grew larger, too, drawing

me deeper in and around it, connecting me

to the rhythm of life, not just mine, but others,

family, living and dead.  It was as if Grandfather’s

matter was reaching out to me, holding me closer

to the earth.  I have not been to the Ganges,

where his ashes float with those of others in my

family I have never known.  When I do, I will ask a

pundit waiting on the banks of the river to look

in his book, and find record of all the names of

my family brought to the river.  All

mixed in there, in the silt at the bottom, at the

muddy banks, flowing in the currents are the

dusty remains of my family.  I will cup that water

in my hands and feel the flow of relation running

through my fingers, and know them as my own.

On this coldest of winter days, I am remembering a phone call that interrupted our summer. I was nine years old and my grandfather had died. It was hard to know how to feel. He was so far away and we hardly knew him. My brother, sister, and I thought we should feel sad. But mostly we acted sad because we did not know what else to do. We had not lost anyone before. Now, in losing someone, we were learning what it was like to have him.

The phone call landed on a summer day,

our summer day of bragging about camp,

of dares and exaggerations.

It came from Thailand and

our grandfather had died.

The news fell on the adults heavily,

but for us it sat uneasily,

not knowing how to feel,

and spoiling our day.

We had not known this grandfather.

Now we did.

Before, Thailand was faraway

and fleeting:  ice cream and

cousins I would soon forget.

But, hidden on the steps,

listening to the adults whisper,

I felt the presence of others

of my tribe whispering, too,

beyond the walls of

our Midwestern house.

Loss and gain, both at once.

Who was this grandfather,

whose permanence

in my life had come at death?