My parents hold onto memories. All of them. They take the form of photos, spilling out of albums and shoe boxes; postcards and souvenirs, layered on the fridge and mantle top; our art, rotated from the fridge to the portfolio stowed away in the back of a closet. Even clothes, garments that were far too small and long since obsolete were carefully preserved as a physical reminder that, yes, we were that small. We never moved, so the memories just piled up.
It can be nice, to walk into a room and be brought back to preschool days, but it started to suffocate. The unrelenting reminders of days gone-by can feel stifling.
It is impossible to keep a surface clean and empty. The mantle can’t be cleared, that’s where the sea urchins and starfish live amongst dust bunnies. The top of the fridge can’t be striped; where else would we keep serving plates we used that one thanksgiving? We can’t sit at the piano. It’s where the never-looked-at music books preside, reminding us of our wasted potential. If only you had taken the time to practice.
It became stifling for me. I hated being surrounded by noisy memories. I hated feeling obligated to keep useless objects because of their individual histories. As a teenager, I wanted to live in a blissfully impersonal house. Some personality-free apartment, much like a hotel. A space that didn’t know or care about my sixth-grade track days or my green braces or my sailing awards.
Despite my wish (one that I still entertain), I am a hypocrite. I cannot even keep my childhood room barren of mementos. Slowly, they creep into shoe boxes and onto window sills. The top of my dresser is a map of childhood experiences.
There is a music box, faded yellow and blue, that sits unconcernedly in the middle of the mess. It was my mom’s, given to her from her mother. I liked to think that it went back for generations, connecting me to women I hadn’t heard of. Maybe, I thought, it was an antique treasure that once sat on the bureau of a royal little girl. Given the ballerina inside is clearly a poor plastic mold with messy painting and a missing arm, it doesn’t seem likely. The “MADE IN CHINA” sticker on the bottom also refutes my fantasy. But it served it’s purpose. I would play the song and pretend I was Anastasia, and that my noble Russian ancestors came out of it to dance with me. When that became too childish, I used it to hold my “gems,” the polished colored rocks I spent a week’s allowance procuring. Over time, the stones turned into costume jewelry, and now the box houses my gold hoops and silver bracelet.
Sitting beside the music box is a purple, wooden chest. It is small, with tiny etchings and a fake key hole. As a child, it help all my most special treasures: the prettiest shells and sea glass I could find, a tiny gold leaf charm from a friend, and a silver bell left by the tooth fairy. These tiny trinkets are almost meaningless to me today, but I can’t quite bring myself to part with them.
Beside the boxes of treasures stands a beautiful cloth figurine of a woman in foreign garb with long, luscious black hair. She was bequeathed upon me by an elderly neighbor when I was six or seven. I used to regularly go to Mrs. Johnson’s house for tea parties. I think I reminded her of her granddaughter, out of reach in Arizona. She gave me the doll for a birthday because she knew how much I adored it. Mrs. Johnson told me she (the doll) was from a distant country, where people dressed differently and even talk differently. I imagined she was from the town Mulan was from, dressed and ready to meet her match maker. The flowers in her hands may have been a gift from her betrothed, or maybe she was a flower seller. I imagined that if I went to that country, I would find life stuck in the past. There wouldn’t be cars or phones, the people would eat with chopsticks and travel by horses. I didn’t realize that China was in the twenty first century with us. She was my first taste of a different culture, no matter how flawed it was. So obviously I can’t get rid of her, she was too special to Mrs. Johnson to be thrown away. So she sits on my dresser, collecting dust in her strands of paper flowers.
Then there is the snow globe of New York City. The one I bought with my very own money the day that my dad’s parents took us to see the statue of liberty. It is the only time I can remember visiting them in the city. On that trip, my dad had his knife confiscated by security on the ferry. My parents explained to me that people were scared of weapons on transportation when we walked past “ground zero.” They told me a story of two buildings, twins, that had be knocked down and how that had made the entire country fear strangers, especially the different colored ones.
“Goddam Muslims,” my grandpop had said. It made my mom’s face darken, and when I asked her why, she whispered that she would explain later.
Later she told me that some bad people had knocked down the buildings. That even though it was only a few people, but that because they came from a different country, were a different color, and believed in a different god, that people in our country were scared of everyone who believed in that god, was that color, or from that country. That this fear made them angry. They found it easier to blame outsiders.
It took me a long time to understand that my grandfather thought all Muslims were terrorists, and that it wasn’t an uncommon belief in our country. It took me even longer to understand what a Muslim was.
So the globe has to stay. The world was nicer when I bought it; not afraid or bitter.
All these and a dozen other memories litter the top of my dresser. Things I can’t bring myself to part with or feel compelled to keep. Most of them are little trinkets given to me by people who are, or were, important to me. They aren’t valuable, or pretty. They don’t even hold that much sentimental value, but they are portals to the past.
On my dresser top, there are no markings of adolescence or adult hood. No tubes of make up or credit cards lying around. Tampons and pads are forbidden from the sacred space. My dresser looks as it did when I was younger, and that’s how it will always look. Just like the doll and music box and globe that are rooted in another time, so does my dresser belong to the past.