A personal essay on growing up.
— Personal — 3 min read
The summer I turned 25, I packed my childhood into boxes. Emptying my closet, I created three piles: keep, give away, and circle back. Should I keep this candle from my dog’s 11th birthday cake? What about the holiday lights that illuminated years of teenage tears and talks in my bedroom? I imagined shoving these items into my shoebox Brooklyn apartment to ease my vacillation— and promptly continued to reminisce. My parents were moving to India after years of raising my sister and me in our beloved home, and I was confronted with which memories I wanted to keep and which I needed to give away. Most of the time, I had to circle back.
We moved into our home when I was 5 years old, just after we became a family. My mother and I were on our own for two years after her divorce from my father. Around the time my stepsister and my stepfather came into our lives, my memories began to take shape, along with my understanding of what family means. On Saturday mornings, my childhood home would brim with noise. South Indian classical music and the scent of masala eggs wafting down the corridor would nudge me awake. I would walk into the kitchen to be greeted with the rhythmic piercing steam whistles from the pressure cooker and the symphonic sizzling of onions, garlic, and green chilis. My family’s voices would mingle with the clacking of our yellow Labrador’s nails on the distinctive peach tiles that glowed when the sun hit them, reflecting off the matching peach walls and accenting the cherry red kitchen cabinets.
Nostalgia isn’t only about dwelling in the past. Its definition comes from the Greek words nostos, meaning “return,” and algos, meaning “pain,” conveying a desire for the physical return to home. In The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is motivated to battle hardship by the memory of home and family during his quest for glory. The psychologist Dr. Constantine Sedikides notes in a New York Times article that nostalgia can provide roots and continuity within life. A yearning to recreate an experience reminds us to create new experiences that may later become nostalgic.
Until I turned fourteen, I traveled back and forth on my own personal odyssey. Every Sunday morning, I would wake up with a knotted stomach, knowing that I would be sent to my father’s house with its sterile white tiles and eerie silence. Despite the isolation and discomfort I felt there, I held on to the promise of returning to my home the next day.
Two years ago when my parents first brought up the idea of selling our house, I balked at the idea. As recently as last summer, I sought refuge in my home when the pandemic upended our realities. I knew it was time to sell the house when my parents no longer considered it a haven, when I realized that India is to my mother what my childhood home is to me. While those peach tiles are the canvas for my nostalgia, my family members who infused our house with the meaning of home are the colors I paint with. In a 2015 New Yorker article, “In Translation,” the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about teaching herself Italian, and how she underwent a metamorphosis as a writer in order to express herself in a new language. She cites her favorite book as the Metamorphoses of Ovid, a story about a nymph that transformed into a tree to escape the lovestruck Apollo. “It’s not clear where the nymph ends and the tree begins...it portrays the fusion of two elements, of both beings,” she wrote. When my childhood home was put up for sale and our family sofa was replaced with a staged one, I untethered myself from the physical house. Loss metamorphosed into nostalgia— the fusion of bitter and sweet. While I can no longer return to my physical childhood home anymore, the smell of South Indian food and the sound of my family’s laughter as we wrangle our unruly dog into a hug, live in me and drive me forward. As Dr. Sedikides states, “nostalgia increases the motivation to pursue one’s most important goal.”
My home now is a Brooklyn apartment— one that I have chosen for myself. Just like for Odysseus, the thought of home and family illuminate dark and tumultuous paths ahead. Those holiday lights currently hanging in my new home are a testament to that.