The Curation of Memory

January 10, 2022 / Kunika Trehan

On days where every thought I have feels like a push further away from the person I wish I were, the letters and trinkets I keep by my side remind me of those who love me from near and afar.

I can’t seem to pinpoint when exactly things started to go badly for my family. The ball was set in motion well before my birth: two strangers bound not by any shared familiarity but by the desire to be married, freshly displaced in a country to which they had no ties, struggling with grief and addiction and all the sorts of things that foster an unhappy marriage.

Yet along came my brother and I, and, for a while, things were okay. Not good, by any stretch, but okay. Our presence didn’t eradicate my father’s drinking or my mother’s neuroticism or their growing distaste for one another, but through opening their hearts to us both, I imagine they found a little space in there for one another as well. There were Sunday afternoons spent swinging from our orange tree’s outstretched branches and long drives home that lulled us to sleep; there was my father carrying us up the stairs from the car and my mother pulling on one of her many wide-brimmed hats, shielding her delicate skin from the sun.

Our house was always visibly lived-in: the kitchen counter stacked high with unopened mail, laundry awaiting folding piled up in the yellow loveseat by the TV, our neighbors’ Christmas cards adorning the mantle well into January. Intricately patterned throws my father had collected in his travels were draped across the backs of couches, mirrors my mother had purchased were positioned to cast warm afternoon light across the walls — the living room a mosaic of their shared existence.

My father’s study housed a desk overflowing with papers, notes to himself scrawled across whichever stray envelope or business card was nearest when he needed it. Persistent bouts of insomnia resulted in sleepless nights, his keyboard clicking and murmured calls to offices halfway across the globe echoing through our darkened house. My father, the addict; it was never in his nature to know things in moderation. His drinking, his work, even sometimes his joy: it overwhelmed us, his moods switching direction with the wind.

And my mother, a force in her own right. Her affinity for bold patterns and vibrant shades came to life in her closet, each overflowing shelf enveloping you in her kaleidoscopic mind's-eye. I remember vividly the glimmer in her eyes when she’d return from shopping trips, eager to reveal what she’d picked out for me. “I have a surprise for you,” she’d disclose as I crawled into the backseat of her car. She was never a woman limited by means — every outing was an adventure, each purchase the push that would shift things into place.


As the years passed, we strayed further and further from that approximation of “okay.” Perhaps we grew to the age where our parents’ issues were no longer some mystical, distant thing but instead a palpable weight on our backs. Our house, with its metal-casted dhokra sculptures and swaths of embroidered fabric stretched across the walls, grew congested by everything left unsaid. The gaps between us where the words should have been were filled with stuff: garbage bags packed with toys and clothing we’d outgrown swamped our garage, nearing the ceiling in altitude.

My adolescence was marked by passivity. I was stuck in the passenger seat, the events of my life floating by as though they were happening to someone else. My bedroom, in which I’d tried to find sanctuary, was never a space I particularly enjoyed. The room didn’t get much natural light, rendering my theoretically coral walls a gloomy red most days. I spent much of my time compressed by the immovable darkness of my surroundings. I’d picked up from my parents the habit of collecting, but much like them, had never made a habit of organizing. Clutter accumulated in each dim nook, pushing me further into a hole I felt incapable of escaping. Etched in my memory is the singular light fixture I kept illuminated through the evenings — the hours I’d lie in bed, staring at it, feeling immobilized by a weight I couldn’t name. Even after I’d fallen asleep, the light burned into the insides of my eyelids. I could never quite muster the energy to turn it off.

Despite this sense of melancholy, I held onto one glimmering thread of hope: the future. I’d someday hoard less — certainly, with age, I’d develop the mental fortitude to get rid of what no longer served me. With my refined collection of belongings, I imagined a newfound sense of mental clarity. All I needed to do was escape my parents’ home; the rest would follow, the puzzle pieces clicking into place. I’d finally become someone I might actually like.

As the fall of my freshman year of college approached, that shimmering hope stretched a bit thinner. Was I ready to make the big shift I’d been envisioning? As the future, once distant enough to cast my aspirations upon, became the present day, I felt distinctly unprepared. The tangible steps towards this new me had always been a bit fuzzy in my mind: now that the time had arrived, I wasn’t certain how exactly one began a metamorphosis.

In my dorm room, surrounded by heaps of my belongings and, for the first time, truly alone, I realized how poorly I’d executed my reinvention. Unpacking slowly, I unearthed a new, unnecessary treasure every few moments: a gift bag, stuffed with cards and notes from my loved ones; the delicate, ornately-patterned Varanasi silk scarf I’d never worn, feather-light in my hands; a collection of tiny jars and boxes whose purpose wasn’t easily identified. I felt ashamed. How had I managed to let so much of that messy child slip through?

Yet, through those first few months, I found a purpose for each trinket I’d held onto. Those very notes offered me solace, taped to the wall above my desk, providing me the imagined company of those who’d authored them as I slogged through red-eyed nights glued to my laptop. The scarf I pinned to the wall above my bed, its silky pleats gently rustling from my overhead fan as I learned to sleep in the twin-sized bed of my new life. Those little jars and glass bottles I’d been mystified to uncover lined my bathroom sink, housing hair ties and cotton swabs, each tiny piece of my life finding an equally tiny home. Each fragment earned its place, and while there was chaos, it was my chaos.

Rather than overwhelming me, my tendency to collect grounds me. On days where every thought I have feels like a push further away from the person I wish I were, the letters and trinkets I keep by my side remind me of those who love me from near and afar.

I consider myself more a maximalist than a hoarder.  What is maximalism, if not finding beauty in the mess? I draw from each of my parents the traits I admire the most: my mother’s optimism, my father’s eye for beauty.

He is the man who wakes up for the sunrise every place we go, who emails me pictures of the owls in our backyard, who used to sneak out of his boarding school late at night and wander the streets of Delhi. Who told me once, “It doesn’t matter to me what you do. What matters is that you dedicate yourself to it entirely.” Who believes there is no point in doing anything halfway. Who tells me he is proud of me every chance he gets, especially when I don’t feel proud of myself.

She is the woman who never leaves the house without a tube of the brightest red lipstick she can find, who unearths every item I’ve ever misplaced, who used to walk me to school every morning holding my hand, rehearsing our home address and phone number, warning me to look out for snakes in the grass at recess. “This is my favorite part of every day,” she’d tell me then. “When it’s just me and you.”

These moments didn’t make up the majority of my time with my family. In truth, the moments where I felt lost, helpless, and afraid far outnumber the beautiful ones. But I believe that from every ugly thing, something beautiful can be born. We don’t get to choose what happens to us. What we do have control over is what we choose to embrace.

I am not the idealized version of myself I’d imagined as a teenager. I likely never will be. I’ve yet to outgrow my proclivity for messiness, as any roommate of mine will tell you. Life did not, as I’d once dreamed, curve abruptly in the right direction when I left the physical confines of my parents’ home. Nevertheless, within each pocket of the mess I’ve accumulated, I find fragments of joy. I may spend the rest of my time on this Earth chiseling away, in search of these shards; in the process, I uncover the narrative of my own life. ■

By: Kunika Trehan

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