From the time they were babies, I’ve told our kids the story of how they were born and how they came into our family. Each time, I try to tell it in the same words, intoning it the same way, like a bedtime story that I hope will comfort and ground them. The first few times I told them their stories, I stood over their cribs, self-conscious in trying to get the words right while they slept away, eyes shut tight and mouths pouted in sleep. Soon I could repeat their stories like prayers, the breath leaving my lips, speaking the protection of all the people who love them over their resting infant bodies.
Lately though, when I tell our older daughter her story, I stop to ask her questions. The first time I did this, my husband and I were walking with all three kids around our neighborhood. Our son was sitting up in the triple stroller, playing with his baby sister beside him, and our older daughter was looking thoughtfully up at the thick white line a plane was making across the soft blue sky. I asked “Do you remember when you came with Mama and Dada on a plane from Guate? Do you remember we stopped in Atlanta before we got on the second plane?” I kept asking questions dreamily as we walked, skipping around in chronology, more attentive to the soothing sounds they made than to any potential impression. I was looking in front of me at the newly-blooming trees on our street for most of the time, not down. When I finally did look down to adjust the shade of the stroller, I was shocked to find our older daughter still thoughtful, but this time, in consideration of my questions, a few of which she was shaking her head to, but the rest of which she was nodding to.
I’ve never really believed that babies and children don’t have the power of memory. I’ll concede that maybe it’s not the same kind of memory adults have, that more quantifiable kind, but I can’t help but believe that life makes its mark on us all, from the very beginning. And so, when I ask our older daughter if she remembers the garden we walked her through when she was four months old in Guatemala, or the way her foster mom cooked with her on her hip, and she nods, I believe her.
One of the qualities that being bilingual and bicultural has given me is the inability to take memory for granted. For one thing, having never felt fully a part of either Spanish or American culture, I’m hungry to find pieces of myself in all my experiences anywhere. For another, memory is one portable resource that I’ve found to be vital in connecting with everyone else.
It’s not that I remember everything; in fact, I often have to look down to remember what I’m wearing, and I’d never remember everything I have to do on a daily basis if I didn’t note it on copious electronic and hard-copy Post-its. But I remember most things that count. Wherever I am, physically and psychically, I make intense memories. I can experience these, even if only briefly, and carry them with me as vivid memory the rest of my life.
I make memories with a poet’s eye, noticing senses and images instead of dialogue and plot. I find at least one thing that’s totally unforgettable for its strangeness or energy or for the response it evokes in me, and pin every other observation to it.
What I’m left with are the products of this memory-making: not only memories, but reminders. Before a light late-spring thunderstorm in Pennsylvania, the air outside smells like it did in Guatemala City. A statue of the Virgin like the one in my grade school in Madrid, backlit with sun streaming through stained glass and roses at her feet, reminds me of who I was when I first believed in the simultaneous existence of magic and sorrow. I stumble across these reminders and think: I didn’t lose that piece of myself after all.
There’s no word I like in English for the kind of missing I feel as a bicultural woman. The word I use in describing it is always añoranza, which, if you had to translate it, would be translated as somewhere along the lines of yearning, craving, and nostalgia. My coping strategy, my antidote, to añoranza has always been my memory.
Our older daughter is the most interested in memory right now, so she’s the first of our children I’m working on teaching the art of remembering to. To another mother, her interest might look like she’s just exploring her world the way any toddler might, but to me, it looks like she’s collecting the things she’ll return to again and again, the ones that may become sustaining, life-affirming reminders. While I make dinner, she takes the lids off of the spice jars and brings them to her nose, smelling each one distinctly. She smells my hands after I cook. Outside our house, she cups the flower of a rhododendron in her hand and licks it. In the room she and her brother share, I find her lying under the window looking up at the high tree branches outside. I kiss the crown of her head and whisper “Esta es tu vida, no te olvides. No te olvides.” This is your life, don’t forget. Don’t forget.