Remembering gets easier with practice. Practice by pulling out the yolk of nostalgia, feeling for the overdue residues. The cardboard cut-out birthday cake from kindergarten class, with paper candles, icing, and painted flames. It was a consolation prize for parents who didn’t bring cupcakes to school on their kid’s birthday, including mine (“You already had a birthday party.”). We dimmed the lights and sung to the holy paper cake. I always loved school. I remember that I always loved it. Roaming back, for the love of memory.
My memory is murky, warm, a badly spun spool of actual things that happened, my old fantasies of romance and intrigue. This younger self, small and darkened brown, cornrowed, and stuffed in a Mickey Mouse shirt, wide open, dark, wet eyes. Eyes obsessively watching TV, writing stories in marble notebooks.
My dad is a rememberer, too. Leaning back, tilting until he disappears into the past, his childhood. To him, nostalgia is not an individualistic endeavor. His childhood was the last best time, was his truest most patriotic self, his determination and loneliness and nostalgia all connected to his long-gone family, his country.
And as a byproduct of an immigrant family, we collectively remember my parents’ memories. Their childhoods were not just personal reminisces or family history. Their childhoods were the crucial past, our lifeblood, sermons, yarns connecting us to our country and, further still, to all our ancestors in the ground.
My dad always invoked his memories, rummaged for them, plopped them out on the table. Look at this, children! These golden silky orbs. How could we yearn the way he did, love the past the way he did? We should really join him in loving his old homeland because here we had no real home, no real magic, and we did not have the childhood we should have had if we had not come to America. America was seen as a cauldron buffed to a shine, filled with rotten meat, shiny toys, and perverts everywhere.
There were dining room lectures, diatribes mixed with fondness. There were boxes of old photographs, diplomas, stamped letters, woven insignia of an East African prep school. “Look at these old things with me,” he’d said, slamming upon the photo album. Dad looked different, youthful with a pointed expression. How did he bring it with him when he ran away from the war in the middle of the night, across mountainsides, across the ocean in a plane? “You have no sense of nostalgia!” he’d lecture us at the kitchen table, shaking his head with a grimace.
My younger self had precious dreams, wholly different from his own. I remember an American youth with fondness. As an adult remembering golden East Africa, he only felt the chill and isolation of America. I worshipped at different altars, dreamt on the other side of the sun. At age 10, I, unlike him, had the luxury of whimsy, had a softer temperament suited to fantasy stories and happy endings. He was a curmudgeon, a daredevil, a painter from a young age, a prefect at school. Fondly remembering his love of his country, he reflected on his youthful discipline and the honor of meeting Haile Selassie as a top student.
My Dad recalls stories with impeccable memory. Does he actually remember those times like he tells us? Did the memories gain momentum over time, gain new details? He says he remembers 1949. He was a toddler taking the bus by himself to visit his grandfather in the countryside. A bus full of human musk, whiffs of fertilizer and old suits, diesel exhaust pumping in through window cracks, swaying around street corners, rickety. No money for the bus, small and unnoticeable, wily. He ran down the dusty road to the last bus of the early evening. The last bus, so the sun must have been setting. Running between skirts and dusty sandals, proud old men in fedoras. One grizzled village man was boarding the bus, steading himself on the steel steps to board. Dad motions a swoosh to describe how he ran between the man’s legs to get into the bus without paying, and smirks at his retelling of the story.
He shared his grandfather’s bed as a toddler, a cot as firm and bulbous as an ancient lava field.
Dad was a child once, how strange. The same stern face would have scared me as a child if I had seen his face in the playground when committing some misdeed. A little boy with the same narrowed eyes and grimace as my father. I could not imagine it.
Like all Eritrean children, he was resourceful, fashioning a toy out of spare bits of metal, archaically ingenious. Rusted wheels, a lone bicycle handle and wooden rod. The other kids saw the glitter of the spinning wheel. “Let us try the thing, eh! How did you do that? Give us a try!” He yearned, full of fervor, pride, hotheadedness. He remembers he was an entirely self-made young man. A lone boy, a disciplined and grouchy pioneer.
My summers were spent bumming, my brother and I laying still like statues on the woven couches of the basement, trying to dispel the oven heat from outside. Swimming at the Y, reading the new Harry Potter books late into the night, crouched over my bedspread. Dad read his books by moonlight, by flashlight, in the woods, in the dorm attic.
My father and I both loved to daydream back then, and we still love to now. We dream of our former dreams. Back then, we dreamt of travels, adventures, anywhere else. We love to astral travel, as my dad says. With my quizzical brow turned towards nowhere, a voice from behind unsettles me: “You are astral traveling!”
We were half-human, half-alien children, who had friends but fancied walking into nature alone for a few hours at a time, who looked at the sky with an extra thought towards flight, who built inner worlds of our own religion and feeling, and were just a bit strange. What we remember is that everything was good and we loved ourselves. Or maybe we created that self-love and satisfaction in retrospect.
I remember my own childhood beside his childhood. Which yearning wins out? Which longing is righteous? That love of younger selves and remembering are soothing acts. That the love for our youthful selves is greater than the love for ourselves now. We both have a grand romanticism for and idealization of our younger days, regret and longing and hope all mixed into one vast feeling.