Memoir Print 2021

maybe memory is all the home we’re allowed

Written by Myka Davis
Graphic by Natasha Pidcock

This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.

             Dear stranger,

             What does it mean to transplant your life?

             It means everything.

There is a word. It isn’t real, or at least, recognised in any official dictionary—I think some Tumblresque person made it up. It’s hiraeth. A noun, defined as: “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” I don’t like the look of the word too much. But perhaps it’s not about its aesthetic quality and more so the acknowledgement of honesty it demands from me.

I want to tell this story without having to confess anything. Present myself with polished inflections. A nice, shiny, sanitised version of my life containing all the answers people desire about identity and home and connection. A straightforward solution; a precise surgery sewing the organ of belonging into a hollow heart. 

It’s amusing to me, then, that I chose epistolary writing. The medium of intimacy: nobody writes letters to strangers. But somewhere, that must not be true, because even as I write to you now, I am admitting I do not know you.

Dear stranger, I’ll be frank: I’m terrified of writing. Oscar Wilde said it best: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” But I have donned no disguise here. This is the first time in two years that I have sat down and looked myself bare in the soul. To say something of meaning, we have to write from the marrow of our bones.

Have you heard of the myth that says your skin is renewed once every seven years? In reality, it only takes about two to four weeks for the bottom layer of your epidermis to become the top one. Sometimes even less, because each time you touch something, you leave a little bit of yourself behind.

I think of all the things I’ve touched: my beloved books that have accompanied me to every new place I call my own; my Finding Nemo shirt—the one I’ve owned since the age of four—once gargantuan enough to wear as a dress, now fits perfectly; all the hands of those I’ve loved imprinted ghost-like on my palms and shoulders and waist and face. All the places where I’ve left fragments of myself behind. They flit past me like vignettes, and remembering them feels as though I’m stepping outside of my body.

Andres Cerpa wrote: “When I imagine myself, I am always leaving. I could not draw my own face if God asked.” It hurts that this is the heart’s enduring task: learning how to hold memory, without it seeping through the cracks in our cupped fingers. It makes me want to find the spot where time is weakest, rip it open, and step through into the moments I most want to relive.

I am in a different place again. A fledgling in a very clean nest. I won’t say ‘new’, because Canberra is not unfamiliar to me. This place feels like a liminal space, where I can pretend that I’ve forgiven myself for all the things I haven’t already become. People have travelled from everywhere I could possibly imagine to be here, whereas it was a two-hour day drive for people from my rural town.

I remember the first place I moved out to. It was still, serene, as all plodding outskirts of farm properties are. I thought it was apt that I resided next to a cemetery. It was the attractive part, curated with manicured grass and linear rows of granite headstones. At day, you were meant to grieve; at night, you were meant to avoid it.

I reflect on this specifically because there was one such night, moonless with the stars sparking between the dark spaces of the sky. I woke up, faint yowling echoing through the open window. After calming myself, I realised it was two cats fighting, albeit loudly enough, to wake the entire street. They sounded like they were killing each other. I now picture that this is how my past interacts with my future: claws out and merciless, with the attacks sharp and quick but the injuries lasting. Sometimes I see older people and I think, “How do you do it? How do you cope with the loss of people and places and things as life progresses?

There are days I don’t speak the truth to anyone but scrap pages. The emotion runs dry inside the ink, and the period captures my silence. In the emptiness of these moments, I remember why I am here. Romanticising your own loneliness, turning it into a detached facade. But even that only works for a few months, before it morphs into a throbbing black hole.

Dear stranger, I feel drawn to ask you: can home be two places I feel bifurcated by? My heart is in both but also neither. Or did my identity drown in the ocean between the two? I know what it is to feel like a broken compass, endlessly seeking my north. How do I find home if I don’t even know what it looks like?

I was not born in Australia. I was born nearly 5,719 kilometres away, in the world’s second largest archipelago: the Philippines. I don’t remember much of my time there; I was five when I left. I’ve never returned. My mother, who, like other immigrant women, found her home in the kitchen; she told me of her childhood as she stirred the saucepan of pork adobo, ladling it onto steaming jasmine rice.

In short, it was bleak. She emphasised this, made sure it reverberated through me. Her life in the Philippines was the stark reality of a woman born into poverty and unable to climb out. My mother did not receive a proper education, because her parents were financially unable to supply her with the materials she needed. Furthermore, she was a girl, and girls did not need brains when they could marry men who would protect and provide. At least, that is what my grandmother informed her.

My mother did not believe this. She remembered the men who had married her own mother, who did not cherish her, did not safeguard her, did not save her nor her children. It was these little things that had shaped her grandmother’s capitulation, the same way it handed my mother determination. They say everyone needs a home and that it shouldn’t be inside someone else. She did not want to rely on men. My mother wanted freedom. Autonomy. Independence.

I care for myself the way I used to care about you.

A memory is a story told so well, it becomes part of your body. The shadow of poverty is not even a full generation away from me. It sings in my heritage, a reminder of the sacrifices others have made, so that I could be here today. In the times that I have been lucky to see my family, amidst the pandemic, sometimes I find my mother looking at me wistfully. When I ask her why she’s staring, she embraces me and tells me that I’m her star, her dream come true.

Guilt always soaks into my skin when she says this, bubbling, dissolving my bones. I am lost. So unbelievably lost. People usually exist in three rooted places: here, where they were, and where they will be. The ones I know have homes in my heart: a little nostalgic crawlspace. I imagine my relationships with people as a sprawling suburbia: my family in one street, close acquaintances in another. To reach my past romantic relationships, you have to take a left onto Last Laugh Lane.

For me, these states are liminal; I am constantly going, with no clue of my destination. How can I tell my mother that I have been stifled most of my life, seeking approval so that other people can live vicariously through me? This is the first time I am free to be fully myself, but I have no idea who myself is. If I am a dream, then I am idealised. I am not real.

And how could I feel tangible? Change is paradoxically something that never leaves; the instability of being alive is why nobody truly has the answers. Change is the tide ceaselessly washing up on shore, but I feel no relief in acknowledging that perhaps memory is all the home we’re allowed. I live as a rower does, facing backwards: I can see where I’ve been but never where I’m going. Does life really look better in the rear view? It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way. To have a glimpse, an echo of what might have been. It’s hard not to wonder whether I’ll ever actually find home, a moment of tangency.

In another universe, the sky is always the colour of peaches and I didn’t leave the people I love behind. And in another, the oceans take the place of the trees and vice versa. Maybe if there was a parallel universe, I would have belonged by now. But, dear stranger, if two lines are truly parallel, it means they’ll never meet.

             With love, Myka

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