The things I’ll keep


Ilena Peng

My childhood struggle with the concept of memories materialized in a form that almost all children can relate to — stuffed animals. I’d leave the house with my mom for a walk, stuffed animal in hand. And often, I’d return without it, bursting into tears upon realizing that it was gone far too late. I could only remember it being there and being gone — never anything in between.

Teary-eyed, I kept losing things for another five years or so — jackets, toys, pencils. My mom always reassured me that they were replaceable, but what frustrated me was the way my mind faltered when I tried to retrace my steps. I wasn’t terrified of losing those items — I forgetting about them altogether.

And the terror of forgetting spawned a series of collections, some more ridiculous than others. A binder full of National Park brochures, a row of bags filled with every dance costume I’ve ever worn, a plastic cup from the Hilton hotel we stayed at in Hawaii. This was my way of preserving the details. I wanted the ability to put myself back in that place, to hide in the past. I’d never want to go back to high school. But I know that next year, I’ll try to remember this place again and again, craving the comfort of nostalgia.

I remember the room filling with incessant shouting during APUSH group quizzes and then a sudden silence as we hoped we’d gotten the answers right. I remember leaning my elbows on the stage to take a picture during a drama production’s dress rehearsal. I remember decorating the whiteboard in room A111 with green and red markers, even though Christmas was three months ago.

Most of high school feels like a blur of stereotypes — muted whispers of stress, faint memories of exams, quiet chirps of birds reminding me I should probably be asleep by now. Yet these are some of the moments that stand out boldly against the monotonous backdrop of school. They would be impossible to forget. But that doesn’t stop me from hanging name tags from my lamp, leaving hotel room keys on my bedside table and listing the events of my life in a journal.

Other things are harder to remember — the feel of my worn polyester-silk blanket, the taste of my favorite Earl Grey milk tea from TeaTop, the melody of my mom’s favorite Taiwanese songs. I’ll try to remember that one time in fourth grade when the air smelled like peppermint after one of California’s rare rains. I’ll try to picture the green filter of trees curving overhead to form a tunnel along my favorite path. I’m clinging onto these feelings, somehow fearful that the memories will dissolve when I leave this city.

It’s only now that I realize that I do remember some of the things I left behind. I remember an olive-green knit jacket sitting on a table next to the door of my elementary school music room. I remember leaving a bunny patterned with glow-in-the-dark stars behind in the dirt lining the sidewalk on one of those walks with my mom.

If I can remember those moments, surely I will remember these places and the people who occupy them. Surely it’s impossible to forget the laughter surrounding our family’s mahjong table, the time my sister came to the airport just so she could hand me my new stuffed animal the instant I got into the car, or the conversations I’ve had at 2 a.m. about French homework and friend drama.

I’m scared that somehow the future will find a way to replace these memories because I need them — they give me familiarity in a world where every day is a series of unanswered questions. In June, I’ll leave MVHS. Two months after that, I’ll find myself alone on the other side of the country. I know I can’t take all the little trinkets I’ve stashed in my room with me, and I’m scared that without them, I won’t be able to remember what it felt like to be home.

I will always stay in the compulsive habit of dividing my life into collections and journals, but next year will be different. Next year, the collections themselves will be divided — my treasured pile of mementos will stay here as another pile builds in my dorm room. Maybe I’ll become so preoccupied with remembering those new moments that this life in Cupertino will seem like it’s fading away.

In those moments when I feel too close to forgetting, I’ll comfort myself with the knowledge that these collections will never be more than a flight away. These memories will never be more than a daydream away. Besides, I still remember the little bunny patterned with glow-in-the-dark stars, and I think that perhaps I’ve broken my childhood habit of forgetting.