In my memory, there is a place where sun-bleached hills fade into darkening skies and nothing but wild grass and the slow surrender of late August exist for hours in any direction.
I am seven years old and I hope the memory of that day never fades. From the window I carefully, comprehensively commit every detail of the scene to heart, to a long and frequently revisited internal encyclopedia of everything I think I need to be a person. “Summer, noun (verb??)” means eternal petitions to be taken to the swimming pool and barefoot investigations of pressing neighborhood mysteries (when you are seven years old there are always pressing neighborhood mysteries). My entry for “what I want to be when I grow up” is “ASTRONAUT”, followed by a long, crossed-out list. “Favorite animal” also has a definition (“ELEPHANT,” no crossed-out list), as do a number of other items I consider to be life defining.
Some words I don’t quite know how to define.
Here, along with the word “love,” are four golden and pristine passport photos — Mum, Dad, brother, sister — and a picture of the Graceful and Mysterious Andromeda Galaxy, carefully gleaned from a class trip to the planetarium. You can’t love space, a teacher tells me, you can really like space, but you can’t love it. Love is something you have for people. I think I understand and respond in turn by categorizing my love, but I keep my memory of the Andromeda Galaxy just in case.
Memory to me is an activity, not an incidental occurrence, and I am obsessed with remembering. As someone trying to be permanent in a life that refuses to be, it is how I have always defined myself. At seven, I have never lived in one city for longer than 18 months; I learn new rules and languages as quickly as I unlearn old ones. At each new school, I have a quiet contempt for the other kids whose first memories were only a few years ago. I tell myself I remember because they don’t have to. If they want to go home, they can walk out of the classroom, through the neighborhood where they took their first steps, and into the house they’ve known since birth. “Home” to me is another concept I don’t quite know how to define — it exists in the present only when I call it to mind, a patchwork collage of desert cities and crowded souqs, colored-in after the fact with Technicolor hues that represent my best estimate of reality.
Inside the house that day, dust specks flash lazily in the last rays of dusk, like fireflies drunk on the longest days of summer. I stop focusing on the scene outside and turn to plastic biscuits on tiny porcelain and tea dispensed in equal measure with the wisdom of my grandmother.
I am certain she was born from the pages of my favorite fairy tale. I am Cinderella and she is my fairy godmother, saving me from the wicked injustices of the playground, delivering me from the death grip (a medically debatable self-diagnosis) of the summer flu with magic soup concocted from ancient recipes, transforming the kitchen into a ballroom and sending me off to dance away the night in thrift store skirts and heels five sizes too big.
At seven years old, I am prone to perfectionism and wild temper and she alone lets me rage when these two qualities inevitably conflict: when something I’ve worked on doesn’t go according to plan or when I feel somebody has wronged me. Through her I come to understand the contradiction of life, singular in its truth, that in the struggle is the validation and satisfaction.
She alone is responsible for helping me define many of the ideas I keep in my memory. She tells me how to dye eggs (wrap in onion skins and boil in water). She tells me about fashion (sales at Nordstrom, if you can find them), about strategies for beating her in Riču Raču (impossible, there are none), about boys (stay away from them until MUCH older) and about her childhood (war).
She is endlessly complex — graceful and tough, funny and grieving, brilliant and loyal. She is a refugee, but she is no one’s victim. She has lost everything — her home, her parents, her country, her child — but still she is capable of a love stronger and more impartial than any other. I picture us in the future, laughing together, drinking tea from tiny porcelain, remembering, as always. I am older but she is the same, my universal constant in my ever-changing world.
In America, death doesn’t happen in polite company. It happens in stale, shuttered rooms, in lowered voices that fall heavy on hands held over children’s’ ears, and in distant countries far beyond the reach of our manicured suburbias. Dying is the bitter flaw in the American dream, our final concession, our ultimate shortcoming. We remain optimistic about our immortality, as though this possibility alone gives meaning to our work. If we can’t live forever, we will create something that does. Would we exist as boldly and determinedly if, instead of the familiar words “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”, “Invictus” had been written instead: “I am the interpreter of my past; I am the master of my present; I am the captain of my soul, but I will die”?
As a child, I never had to be told about death. No long talks or kind euphemisms precipitated my understanding of the matter. It seemed a foregone conclusion and I accepted it as the inevitable outcome of an existence not unlike any other. The leaves fell at the end of summer, the sun sets at the end of the day and fairytales always concluded with an elegantly flourished “happily ever after.” My contention, my rage, my tears at my grandmother’s death were not directed at the reality of death but at the inexplicable injustice in timing I believed the universe had committed. She was invincible, she was my constant. We deserved longer.
Under “life,” I filed a single thought: sometimes you don’t get to finish the story; you just have to close the book.
With the first real days of spring blooms the inevitable realization that everything comes full circle. Today, I sit in the new and wonderful sunlight and listen to my friends reflect on our time here at Michigan, a countdown that runs faster with every passing day.
Weren’t we just 18, scared and excited to unpack our cheap, coordinating dorm decorations? Did we waste our time here? Did we join enough clubs and take the life-changing classes we’d always planned? How much smarter and worldly would we be if we had paid attention in lecture? Did we stay up talking until sunrise enough times? Are we the people we wanted to be? We are caught in the balance of an uncertainty that stretches as far into our pasts as it does into our future. There’s an unspoken understanding that somehow, at 22, poised precariously on the brink of some unknown future, our lives as we know them are sealed fates. We need more time to spend all night celebrating and telling our friends we love them. We need more time to figure things out. We need more time.
Today, I still struggle with definitions. It is the rare concept that can be precisely and permanently summarized in a single word. But this uncertainty no longer bothers me. In order to have a neat and predictable definition for every occurrence — a life with no revisions, amendments or reconsiderations — we would need to be born with all the knowledge and experiences of every person who has ever lived and will ever live in the future. And even then?
When I think about being seven years old, living in stories and memories, the alternative to our uncertainty is an existence more terrible than any other. Our lives would be a book with no beginning, no plot and an infinite, repeating ending. It would be the most boring story ever told.
Julia Zarina can be reached at email@example.com.