Photos, floods, and stories over coffee

on losing artifacts and history

Ever since I could remember, we always moved from one place to another: from the Philippines to Bahrain, then Bahrain to the Philippines then to Qatar; from one flat to another; from one job or role to another. Half of our belongings do not make it out of boxes and suitcases, and it is only a matter of time until we pack up and move again.

To make moving easier, some of our ~non-essential~ things are shipped to the Philippines and relinquished to the safekeeping of relatives. They won’t have to move, anyway so our things could be left untouched, we thought. They had a large house and we lived in tiny flats so they had room for us, we thought.

And so all our photos from my childhood years in Bahrain are boxed up and stuffed in some unseen corner of a relative’s house in Dagupan. Since we had to keep giving away our things in order to adapt to another move, our photos were our only evidence of living through all that: fighting over the play house in WOLI, blowing a birthday candle in Salihiya, jumping on sagging couches in Hoora, and walking through the wilderness just to visit a carnival. We could not visit most of these places again to retrace our steps and relive our memories, so photos were all we had.

But Dagupan is very flood-prone. It is a never-ending struggle to save paper and electronics from turning into mush as the waters rise. Since every flood is an exercise in setting priorities, it is understandable that a box they do not own or have no emotional attachment to will not figure into this list at all. Relatives don’t even remember which flood ruined the boxes and swept my childhood away. No apologies. “Well, life happens. What did you expect?”

I can’t help but mourn the loss of my childhood memories, especially as an expat kid. We are raised with the expectation that everything is fleeting: people move jobs, homes, and even countries mostly for economic reasons. I no longer remember the insides of houses that sheltered us from the harsh world of Filipino migrants. I no longer remember the faces of our found family who have made living abroad worthwhile. The pictures should have helped. Losing those pictures in a place that should have been a permanent home is a betrayal, one that I am still trying to come to terms with in this season.

My memories of Bahrain are slowly fading, and this panic is compounded and made real by so many losses in this pandemic. I have no way of physically holding on to my roots, and this is the first of many posts that covers how I process my grief.

How do wanderers keep their memories before pictures?

They hold keepsakes that urge them to put their experiences into words: a tattoo, a necklace, a memento small enough to be carried everywhere and mean everything. They tell stories over and over and over again until they remember it in their bones. They share it with fellow wanderers who can remember some details for them when the grief overtakes too much heart space.

Maybe I should, too. Maybe this blog will be my keepsake.

These days, my mom likes to repeat the same stories over and over and over again. She would see a random object in the house, like a sofa or a coffee table, and launch into another anecdote of some mundane things I have half-forgotten. Do you remember when you almost flooded the house with the washing machine hose? she would ask. Did you know that we never bought a dining table, because we were always blessed with furniture? I brace myself for another yarn.

I used to find it annoying that our snack or dinner times would extend beyond reasonable hours, reaching almost the next meal time. Sometimes, she would wake me up and say “Coffee time!” and I know that it will be another round of stories–some I’ve heard before and memorized by heart, and some that are half-buried in time. Though I have initially chalked this up to age, I realize that someone has to remember these stories for her. I have to remember them for her, and in the process, rediscover my own history.

I will be tagging these vignettes as stories over coffee. I hope that by writing these stories down, I keep my memories intact. Pictures cannot be replaced, but these will suffice. I can read them over and over and over again, and words are as real to me as objects I can hold in my hands. With a cup of coffee or karak in hand, of course.

Question: How do you remember childhood experiences without physical artifacts like photos, toys, or clothes?

5 thoughts on “Photos, floods, and stories over coffee”

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