You can never go back, murmured my mother as we drove along Chaguanas main road. All three generations, her, Ziya and I, were on our way to family for Eid. As my mother had lived out of Trinidad for decades and almost never returned to Chaguanas, I thought we could look for the place of her childhood home, then my father’s which was opposite the Chaguanas Market, and even my mother’s primary school, the Chaguanas Government School.
We found none, my mother unable to remember where any were located and feeling like her past had been as demolished as the school, and her memories left as opened and bare as the field where her schoolchild self was formed, and as empty as the space next to the mosque where my father’s house once stood.
We also passed the Muslim cemetery, where both her father and my father’s mother are buried. I asked if we could stop to see their graves, but she didn’t know where to find those either. Those sites were most clearly marked by the memories of those who were there at those moments, many of whom had passed on or moved away. As we drove by, I suddenly remembered my own childhood experience of visiting my father’s mother’s grave with my dad. Perhaps, I was four. Mostly I remember wearing my grandmother’s orhni and the sadness in my dad’s eyes as we stood with a few others near her grave, and they prayed.
I reflected on my own understanding of memory too. As if its markers remained as lasting as concrete houses and established signs, but in fact those too changed like the once popular Jubilee Cinema, becoming rebuilt into something else with new memories for newer generations.
Whereas my mother used to know everyone along the main road, having greeted all her neighbours as she walked to school, time had made the familiar strange. I thought that Zi would have a chance to make her own memories of going to remembered places with her grandmother, but it seems that memory-making must also move on.
Locations and history, not just blood, connect family. Memories are the language of those connections, and like language are living and breathing, conveying both feeling and forgetting. You can never go back, and it’s a flash of recognition of your own present when you realize how easy it is for the future to lose grasp of the past.
At the Eid lunch, family members I didn’t even know appeared, many of whom shared my mother’s earlier life and could fill in the gaps left by decades of personal migration, as well as landscape demolition and reconstruction. As I sat writing this column, I wondered just where to start, who to ask and how to feel, knowing that while the past is gone, it is also reachable through different lives and their distinct memories. One cousin began to speak, without provocation, about remembering my mother’s father’s funeral with vivid detail. Lucky for us all, our lives exist in others’ memories too.
This is what the day was like, thinking about family, place and time, and the making of memories anew. I realized that its better to search for the past sooner, and, for my own history, to show Zi the sites of my own stories earlier, in the hope that she wants to know. It’s hard to remember this in the midst of life’s endless tumult and impatience with nostalgia, but you can’t go looking for memories fifty years later and expect them to have stayed where they once were, waiting for you.