None of the walls in my homes recognize me. Not my touch, not my voice, not even the air of the presence I left behind.
I would like to have grown up in a permanent home, where I wouldn’t have to feel like a baby constantly cut out from the womb just to be placed into another over and over again. I would like my childhood to have never consisted of waking up crying because I thought I was not in my own house only to realize the opposite and I was just getting to know the new walls around me. I eventually got used to it but not too long after I could already see the telltale signs of boxes ready to swallow our belongings to spit them into a new house. I would like to have all my memories kept safely in one single place, the house like a chest where I neatly lay out all the good and bad things that have happened so that one day I can go to it and it will all be there waiting for me to peruse. I would like that, yes.
Instead, I now wake up in the middle of the night with the urge to drive to places I used to live, to my past homes as if my memories and recollection of them are already starting to disappear and being there would bring it all back. I want to stand under one of my old apartment buildings and look up at that balcony, hoping I will catch a glimpse of my past self. I want to retrace the steps I took, touch everything- including the walls of the houses. But I can’t do that, can’t just barge into the home that used to be mine. After I am filled with that nostalgia tinged with joy and melancholy would I then get back into the car and drive back home- my recollection becoming clear once again like an artist going over an old painting to fix the faded colors.
But I can not do that. My mother won’t allow me to randomly visit our old homes, after all it will be nothing but a “waste of time”. She does not realize how much she is also tied to the joys and sorrows I experienced in those homes, and I would like nothing more than to rediscover all that love she gave me in those moments. This is my little act of stubbornness- picking up that car key and driving back to our old homes to pick up what’s left behind of my mother and I, the person whom my heart fills to the brim whenever I look back to our love within the walls.
My consciousness began when I was four. It’s as if the first three years of my life were shrouded in a thick blanket and somebody was generous enough to pull it off of me. So there is where I will start, reaching into the very back of my chest of memories.
We lived on the highest floor of the building (the fourth floor) and I remember my very first enemy from then: the stairs. It was a nice apartment with a kitchen bigger than the bedrooms. I remember that I sometimes wished that I could cut a portion of it and feed it to the bathroom so we could have a cozier one.
My mother worked long hours and did not have much time to take care of me so we had a caretaker that lived with us back then. But on the evenings when she was home, she would sit by the dining table with a cigarette in her hand as she faced the living room where I was dancing around in front of the television. She would be careful not to blow the smoke near where I was, holding the ashtray close to her. This habit of hers was soon to pack up its bag and leave her right away when she started carrying my sister in her belly. Four year old me was completely oblivious to all that as I practically flew around the living room, hair streaming out behind me.
She would call out to me to sit down in front of her. “Let me braid your hair first then you’ll put on Que Sera, Sera and dance for me, will you?”
So there I was, my hair braided down my back and dancing on my clumsy little two feet to Que Sera, Sera with my mum behind me humming to the song and laughing along with me when I tripped in the middle of the floor. It was not her or my favorite song back then, but ours. I started to hear our voices every time the song played with me asking, “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?” and her replying in song, “Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see.” right after.
When my mother wasn’t home, I liked to play pretend in her room. I didn’t pretend to be just anyone, I wanted to be my mother. In the mornings she would sit by her dresser and make herself up, so that’s what I did. I would reach into the drawer and across to the back of the dresser for the little pots and pencils smudging it all over my face in the way I thought was exactly what she did every morning. She would then spray on her perfume when she was done, the one that she still uses to this very day: Dior’s J’adore. So, that was what I did as well. I would hold the bottle with my two little hands and spray it all over my body, the room now suffocating in its strong scent. Then she would put on her heels and a jacket before heading out. I did that too, grabbed a pair of her old blue sandals with heels and a blazer she did not bring with her to work on that day. I would then go click-clack around the house as my mother in an ensemble too big for my body.
All I remember from the days she would bring me to work in the embassy was how she sat in front of the computer typing up a storm as well as her walking back and forth from the photocopier or the ambassador’s office (no-man’s-land to me). I tried to pretend I was working just like her, sitting in front of our computer and pretending to type, walking to my elder sister’s room occasionally to “see the boss”, and going into the kitchen pretending to gossip with colleagues. When I got bored, I would take everything off including the makeup. The perfume, however, would still stick to me long into the evening until my mother came home to the mess I made of her dresser.
That was when she started buying me Barbie dolls since I showed much interest in more feminine things when before this, I would like nothing more than toy pistols and Hot Wheels. I loved her all the more for it, for she gifted me many dolls and toys for me to spend time with when she was away.
Of course, the problem with that came when it was time for us to move.
We moved a little bit away from the city when I was eight. All of my toys were sealed inside boxes and it was my first time feeling something close to sadness. Sadness at not only the fact that I did not have access to my dolls but also that I would be leaving the house for who knows where.
I grew more and more anxious in the car ride to our new place, it felt like the bond between me and the previous house kept on stretching tauter and tauter the further we drove until it finally snapped when we arrived.
I soon forgot about the sinking feeling in my stomach when I climbed down from the car and explored our new home, a large double storey with cool marble flooring downstairs and dark wood flooring upstairs. This was my dream house! I banished my hatred for stairs immediately once I saw the ones in the house. It was not dirty and ugly like the stairs in the previous building, it was shiny and perfect for me to spend hours going up and sliding down from the top until my backbone hurt.
We unpacked and I had my own room for the first time, so that was where my toys went into. The prospect of sleeping alone excited me to no end, but on the first night (as well as the following nights) I got too scared of the dark and ran to my mother’s room. My room began to stay empty of my presence for I found much more comfort sleeping beside my mother.
That year, I became the sickest I have ever been with food poisoning. My mother let me stay home from school for almost two weeks. She tried her best to take leave from work but not for long. Even so, she would still arrive home as quickly as she could to look after me. I rarely got up from the bed, my mother’s bed that is, and had multiple fever dreams day and night. I did not know where I was or what days had passed- I only felt my head spinning, my body sticky with sweat, and my mother’s hand on my face every once in a while.
What I did remember greatly was little fragments of seeing her feeding me food. Warm soup with chicken balls as I lay down in the living room, porridge as I was barely awake on the bed, little bits of rice that she fed straight from her hand as I tried to keep my heavy head up sitting by the dining table. It was as if she was trying to feed me some of her energy so I could heal faster.
My usual self resurfaced not long after, although the recovery process was slow. My mother was very happy to see me come back with color on my cheeks again and an appetite that only grew stronger from then on. It was like my body knew it missed out on so much during the period of my illness. Then, a much happier news came to me: she’ll be gifting me a bicycle after the whole ordeal.
Once she came home in the late afternoon, my mother would sit outside by the gate with my baby sister in her arms and watch me as I practiced riding my new bike. I tried to get better at balancing so I could impress her by how quickly it took me to take the training wheels off. She would then call for me to get back in as the sun was setting and my sister was starting to throw a fit, which I would always be annoyed at.
The training wheels were taken off soon after and my mother allowed me to ride around the neighborhood on the weekends when my older sister was home from university to look after me as my mother had to take care of my baby sister. For a time, I missed having my mother all to myself, but I realized how she divided her attention among her children and I couldn’t complain over the fairness I saw.
I was the happiest in that home, a home which I so badly want to revisit today. But a year after we moved in there, everything was packed up and we were leaving for a different place yet again.
Our new apartment was closer back to the city and brought me tremendous despair as it was nothing like the previous house. But as it was then and now, I got used to it and adjusted to being in the new place.
It was very cozy and constantly smelt of lavenders for some reason. Happiness was found again in the nooks and crannies of the new place as well as in the time spent in it, especially with my mother. She had discovered a new love for baking and did it almost every weekend. On those days the house no longer smelt of lavenders but of almond cookies and chocolate chips.
I wanted to be in the warm kitchen with her so I could see what she was doing and copy her, but I was always told to go wait in the living room, it will be done soon. I spent my time poring over her recipe books and bookmarking every random cookie and cake I found colorful and interesting to show my mother later so she could bake it for me. When she started a small business of selling her cookies to relatives and close friends was when she started calling me into the kitchen to help her, and I couldn’t be more elated.
However, nothing could top the happiness of riding my bicycle, especially now that my mother has allowed me to ride around the apartment compound on my own. Sometimes she would come down with my little sister and take her to the playground, and I would wave and smile at them every time I passed them on my bike. My sister got excited every time she saw me come around the bend and I would pretend to be a highly entertaining performer doing tricks to my audience of two.
I felt the most independent I have ever been in my life, until I lost control and fell face first into the asphalt road. How I wished my mother was there to carry me up, but she was quite far from me with my sister over on the other side. I had to brush the gravel off my knees and face which was sticky with blood, and walked beside my bike with my head down towards the playground.
I burst into tears once I saw her and she came running straight to me with my sister following behind on unsteady feet. She looked at my face and quickly brought us back up where she instantly became that caring mother and me the ill child once more. I took one look in the mirror at my face and instantly cried again. My mother shushed me gently and said everything was going to be alright, she would make all the wounds go away in a matter of time.
I stayed home for a week and my mother attended to the wounds on my face every night. I couldn’t stop thinking if what happened was a reminder that my mother and I can never be separated, not even in my brief thoughts of independence that were in my head right before I fell and went straight back to my mother’s arms.
At that time, I knew that I was existentially going to be my mother’s daughter forever and that I need her more than she needs me. Nothing was going to widen a gap between me and her, and even after every anger-filled outbursts of mine that would soon follow as I ventured into adolescence, I would mentally and physically return back to my mother wiped clean of the thoughts I had earlier. We never apologized to each other for we never found affection in words, but in the little things that we do.
Two years later, we moved to another apartment and my mother stopped working in order to focus on me since I was about to enter high school. We moved a lot during those first few years and I was constantly angry because it felt like I never knew what was happening. We constantly had boxes around us like furniture, stacked up in the living room, dust flying around here and there. It was suffocating and I was tired of it.
My mother almost never told me what was happening because she thought I was too young to know about the problems that we had. At one time we had to live in a hotel and my friends at school wanted to come over to my house to hang out but I quickly shut them down. I felt sad once I got back to our hotel room after school, they didn’t know that I was then living with my mother and younger sister in a tiny hotel room. I constantly asked myself if we were practically homeless back then.
My idea of home was destroyed and I was constantly stressed and anxious about our situation. Despite all that, I was in a way thankful that no matter what it was, I still had my mother with me. My relationship with her never went slack and we did our best to find solace in every moment we had, no matter where we were.
Things turned out well in the end, and in 2018 we found an apartment we were happy with and settled down. We did move again at the beginning of the quarantine in 2020, but believe it or not it was just a unit a few doors away, which is where we are now.
We will no doubt have to move again in the future. We have no idea exactly when, but I now know that whatever it is, my greatest source of love will always be there, and we will continue to create memories in all the homes we find ourselves in. Perhaps down the line in five or ten years, I will look back on this time in this current home, and think back to the time when I finished writing this piece on my computer and stood up to go to the living room where my mother was sitting in playing her favorite game on her phone. I would think about how I went up to her and told her that I loved her and how much she meant to me- even if it’s just through looking at her since our affection is rarely spoken, only felt and done within the walls.