Some memories live in music

It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t. Like, why did Angie and I decide to drive around and take photographs of fancy houses? I have no idea. But I remember sunlight streaming through the windshield, and the weight of the old Nikon around my neck, and Natalie Imbruglia’s voice lilting over the speakers.

That day, that day, what a mess, what a marvel…

We parked in front of a two-story behemoth, all white stucco and Spanish clay. The high-arching trees of Tanglewood threw dappled light onto the road and across our bare arms. Our shoes shuffled down the sidewalks, skipped over puddles of yesterday’s rain. We photographed ourselves in the water’s murky reflection.

Every secret shared… Why do I drink the feelings dry?

My broken heart was finally mended. I had time, distance, perspective — and now a handsome friend texting me flirty messages. Angie’s heart was more freshly torn, and I ached for her. But we were together, muddling through the humid day, talking and not talking about the things that had hurt us so.

Everything wrong gonna be all right, come September…

This neighborhood seemed like a good place to dream about the lives we would lead someday. Safe behind wrought iron gates, happy in high-ceilinged homes. It was the future, full of possibility, still tinged with the past. The first boy I had seriously crushed on lived down one of these streets. Flame-colored hair, sea-colored eyes.

Tie a silver ribbon around the pieces that remain…

When we finished our rolls of film, we got back into the car and drove away. With the windows down, I let my hand float outside, fingers buffeted by the air. We sang at the top of our lungs.

Later, most of the pictures would turn out to be crap. Some memories can’t be developed in a darkroom or preserved behind plastic.

We slid the 4×6 prints into photo albums anyway.

Unexpected encounters with grief


We’re standing in the front atrium of our high school, forty or so girls in rows of ten. We’re all in matching warm-up clothes, and there’s a boom box up front, blaring hip-hop music. We’re rehearsing for our halftime dance number.

Suddenly our coach comes hurrying down the hall. She pulls the team captain aside and speaks quietly into the girl’s ear. The girl crumples. Without a word of explanation, she walks away, supported by the arms of our coach. Practice pauses while the other team leaders figure out what to do.

Later we learn that the captain’s father has been in poor health for a long time. She’s only a few months away from graduation, but they don’t think he’ll make it. Eighteen years old and facing life without her dad.


September 11th starts as television broadcasts from a faraway city. Then it becomes rumors whispered in the hallway between classes. Buildings falling, dust clouds flooding the streets, a plane crashing into a field.

I’m in third period calculus when a front office aide interrupts the lecture and hands a note to our teacher. He reads it, then asks the pretty blonde girl two rows in front of me to gather her things and go with the aide. Terror and tears gather in her eyes as she leaves the room.

Later we learn that her brother worked in the Twin Towers. That’s all we ever hear.


It’s the summer after my freshman year of college, and I’m getting ready to go to my parents’ office. The bathroom radio plays Top 40 hits while I brush my teeth, wash my face, and get dressed. Through the closed door, the phone rings, but I know my dad will get it.

He knocks a few minutes later. I open the door and find him braced against the frame, his head buried into the crook of his arm. My brows furrow, but even then I’m not alarmed. Just confused.

Later, at my uncle’s funeral, I will think about that moment over and over. I will hear my dad’s voice, calm but thick, as he tells me that his brother is dead. I will think about how we are never really ready for something like that. Never expecting to lose someone that we love.

But I will also remember the strength that my dad showed in the moments after. He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.

I don’t know if I can be that strong that quickly. But I’m glad to have a model for it in my life.

Clothes for an empress


I duck into a circular rack of clothing, a giddy smile on my face. Soon Mommy will notice that I am not by her side. She will, at least for a moment, panic. She will think that I have wandered off and gotten lost, or maybe even been kidnapped.

But then Mommy will come to her senses, calm down, and search for me. She will call my name in a sing-song voice and bend down to peek under the clothes.

I pick up my feet and tuck them onto the bars. Now I am invisible. I am a monkey nestled into a tree. I am a chameleon blending into my surroundings.

Still, I know somehow Mommy will find me, and I will shriek with glee. Then we will go to the next store and play again. This is my favorite game.


My mom’s closet is a treasure trove. Sometimes when I am home alone, I go inside and rifle through all the sweaters and dresses and shoes. There are jackets with shoulder pads from when she worked in an office. There is a thick winter coat from when she went to school in Philadelphia. There are even skirts and shorts from when she still lived in Taiwan.

My all-time favorite thing in my mom’s closet is her bright red qi pao. Long and silky, embroidered all over with blossoms, fastened from ribcage to collar with delicate butterfly clasps. It is the most beautiful, regal thing I have ever seen. A Chinese princess dress. And it belongs to my mother.

The first time I put it on, I am too small in every way. A few years later, I try again, but I am still not quite there. Finally, in high school, the hem falls to my ankle as it should — but the sleeves and chest are tight, and the stiff high collar won’t even close around my neck.

Wistfully I realize that I have outgrown my mother. I will never fit her qi pao.


In my own closet, there are a number of items I should probably get rid. Star Trek t-shirts, all XL, because as a kid I hid my body. My dance team uniform, stiff and cliché, but a reminder of the joy you can find in stepping outside your comfort zone. And way in the back, two tiny dresses that I loved in pre-school, one handmade by my best friend’s mother, the other frilled and polka-dotted, affectionately dubbed the Blueberry Dress.

I will never wear any of these things again, but each one tells a story about who I have been. About who I am. And maybe someday I will have a daughter who hides between hangers or presses her nose into the mothball scent. Maybe she will want to read my life in my clothes or try them on for herself. Maybe she will be fascinated by that “otherness” in me and want desperately to connect to the “otherness” within herself.

The cold never bothered me anyway


My first memory of snow is fleeting. I was just four years old when my parents bundled me up and hurried me out the front door of our townhouse. The three of us stood in the courtyard under a gray-blue sky, marveling at the soft white magic falling all around. My mom had on her fur coat. I’m not sure I even owned gloves. For a little kid growing up in Houston, snow was as mythical as unicorns, and that day the flurries only lasted for a few minutes. But it was enough for my dad to help me make a tiny snowman, four inches tall.

When we went back inside, I sat by the window and watched the snowman melt. Though I was sorry to see him go, I was too amazed by the whole experience to truly feel sad. Snow was real and I had seen it. Anything was possible now.


Thirteen years later, I was a freshman in college, feeling happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. (Thank you for the great lyric, Taylor Swift.) Those first few months, I spent a lot of time in my room, chatting online with friends who were hundreds of miles away, and struggling with school work for the first time in my life.

One night, early in December, I was looking out my window when snow began to fall. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Voices sounded down the hallways, growing louder with excitement. One of the boys peered into my room and invited me to join a small group going outside. Together we ran down five flights of stairs, too excited to wait for the elevator, and burst out of the dorm into the frigid air.

We built a snowman, four feet tall instead of four inches. We had a snowball fight. We made snow angels, which I had never done before. We even tried sledding down a small hill, sitting atop flattened cardboard boxes from the recycling bin. And when we were done acting like kids, we trudged back upstairs, dripping and exhausted, and we microwaved water for ramen and hot chocolate, and we opened our textbooks with a renewed sense of purpose.


For a few weeks now, the Midwest has been besieged by extremely cold temperatures, thick snowfall, and treacherous road conditions. Schools have been delayed and canceled so often that the kids are probably going to have to make up an entire week. My neighbors groggily dig their cars out every morning, sometimes taking ten minutes or more.

But the truth is, as long as people stay safe, I don’t mind this weather. I love the way the world looks blanketed in white.  I love curling up on the couch to work, and Riley pressing his soft warm body against mine. I love the hush, the smell, the glow.

Today, Riley and I walked across a field that had been completely covered by a thick layer of snow, with a thin layer of ice on top. My boots crunched through, making a faint trail along the edge of the woods. But Riley was apparently light enough that he didn’t break the ice. Instead, his paws scurried across the surface as he ran ahead and turned back, ran ahead and turned back. I smiled at the swirls of snow dancing in his wake.

An incomplete history of places I’ve called home

This post was inspired by Shari’s “Home Sweet Home.”


A simple brick townhouse at the end of the row. Two stories tall, with a small courtyard and a single-car garage. We had a soft blue sofa against one wall, and a baby grand piano by the window. We kept our pet rabbit in a cage in the kitchen.

I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s study while he worked, reading the 1983 Farmer’s Almanac and declaring Thomas Jefferson my favorite president. I remember the big vanity in my parents’ bedroom where my mom would brush my hair, and I would point out lumps in my ponytail in the mirror. I remember trying to slide down the stairs on my stomach and getting rug burn. I remember looking out my bedroom window and imagining I could fly.


A one-story “ranch” in the back corner of a tree-lined, U-shaped street. (But we don’t call them ranches in Texas, because that term means something else here.) The owner before us was a middle-aged playboy who bricked over the yard so he wouldn’t have to mow. There’s a fireplace in the center of the house, allowing both sides of the living room to enjoy the warmth and the flickering light.

I remember climbing up to the split-level library and sliding the bookcase back to reveal a secret passage to the attic. I remember having a sleepover with three girl friends in middle school, all of us splayed out on the rug underneath the dining table, talking into the late hours of the night. I remember my first boyfriend knocking on my bedroom window, unable to climb in because it had been painted shut. I remember sitting on the roof for hours, singing made-up love songs and writing stories in my journal under the moonlight.


A two-bed, two-bath unit in a condo complex. All the doorknobs, cabinets, and light fixtures are straight out of a builder’s catalog — plain and old-fashioned, but ours. Big sliding glass doors look out over a woody hillside, where deer and squirrels like to pass by. Art adorns every wall, a growing museum of our world travels.

I remember taking couch cushions into the kitchen so I could sleep by Riley’s crate on his first night at home. I remember the excitement of putting our new bed frame together — only to find that we had left a crucial piece back at IKEA. I remember hosting a dinner party for nine of our friends, tables and chairs crammed into whatever space we could find, the air warming with the scent of pheasant and squash, our ears swelling with the sound of voices and laughter.


Over the years I’ve learned: home is just a word, until you fill it with memories.