‘Familiarity slips away each time you go back home’
Home movies have been placed under a strict ban ... because I used to cry when the tape stopped
Twelve years ago today I was 12 years old and woke up in my childhood bed in New York City for the last time.
I hadn’t slept well. I stayed up for as long as I could to imprint every inch of that room into my mind – the green carpet that I thought looked like grass and the old alarm clock that used to jump off the dresser from the ferocity of its bell. Just behind my pillow was the tape recorder that used to play Winnie the Pooh audiobooks each night when I was little.
But on the cusp of adolescence, I no longer felt little. Finishing up the sixth grade I tried to convince the friends, who I would leave behind, that I was now officially in high school. I would be starting secondary school in a few months in Ireland, and thought to heck with accuracy, I’ll just say high school. It was the only thing I knew to be the mark of growing up.
We did one final check over the apartment before heading downstairs to the taxi. My father would be coming back and doing the most of the packing, meanwhile it was mid-August I had to make my way over the Atlantic. High school waits for no one.
Everyone in our building thought we were going on one of our usual Irish excursions, soaking up the drizzle before the new school year.
The doorman smiled as he held open the glass panel and wished us well on our trip.
Overall, the open-ended trip did go well. I landed with some skid marks and after a few years of adjustment, lilting Irish voices sounded just as familiar to me as their sonically rougher New York counterparts. I proudly spelled and sounded out the name of an upcoming Irish actress to my friends and family at home. It’s Saoirse. It means freedom.
After twelve years, I’ve now officially got one foot of my life in New York City, and the other in Europe. Two years ago, I graduated with a degree from a Dutch university, and have been happily back in Ireland for just over a year.
It feels odd to have your life spliced so neatly. It feels unsettling to slightly dread the passage of time from here on out because you inch further away from your home even though you’re standing still. Odder yet is how familiarity slips away each time you go back and see a new storefront you’ve never heard of selling trendy things and filling the space of one of your childhood establishments.
But strangest of all is to witness from afar your country of birth become something you no longer recognise. Then you realise that maybe the seeds of unprecedented disorder were lingering in the soil you walked on. You just never knew.
And sometimes you feel like an idiot when people hear your accent and ask you what you make of the calamity. Because hell, you wonder to yourself, did you even know the place you came from to begin with?
If I had to pinpoint exact traits in myself that manifested as a result of these past 12 years, I’d struggle. I have no control group of a life unmoved to pin it up against, no red sharpie to circle inconsistencies between what is and what would never be. In fact, sitting down to write these words, I had trouble coming up with anything to recall but memories.
And as I tried to map them out, the only thing that became clear was how fuzzy they now were. I can barely remember what the apartment itself looked like, except for that carpet and alarm clock.
The other night, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway performance album. During one of his intermittent musings, he said that people don’t come to his shows to be told anything, they come to be reminded.
For the past twelve years, I’ve tried to be reminded. I’ve asked my mother to recount a childhood escapade or I’ve sifted through old photo albums. Home movies have been placed under a strict ban in my parents’ house because I used to cry with physical gusto when the tape stopped.
I was looking at it all, but what pained me was how much I needed a visual aid. I no longer remembered it, which meant I couldn’t be reminded of it. I had to re-learn it through a convex television screen.
But as things faded to sepia in my mind over the past decade, Irish-born memories filled their wake – amber fields I caught glimpses of through a car window and Trinity’s cobblestone square. A first kiss. A first drink. Friends who listened to dreamt up plans and bore witness to the follow-through. Things that New York never gave me.
And there might come a time where I lie in bed one last night on Irish soil, where I keep myself awake to etch each detail of the country that I arrived in 12 years ago into my memory.
They might vanish, whether 12, 24 or 48 years have passed.
But control group or not, I will find ways to be reminded of it.