Our Relics, Our Pasts
ART BY AUDREY NJO
I spent about a year, from the ages of two to three, carrying a stuffed, felt Beanie Baby moose with a brown hide and rounded orange antlers around with me. It was gifted to me by the elderly woman who lived across my family’s apartment complex in Clifton, New Jersey. She had seen me, a rotund, stumbling toddler, the day my parents and I moved in, and the very next day she had brought over a trash bag swollen with toys. I cast all aside but the Beanie Baby moose.
I attribute my attachment to the toy to my intense devotion to objects when I was a child. I remember all of the building blocks that I played with, the set of wooden toys that I had acquired when I was young: the yellow blocks, red pillars, green triangles. I remember that I used to lay the yellow wooden blocks flat on the ground in order to construct a vast, open floor and would forge a gate with the pillars and triangles to represent a shrine of some sort. When my father attempted to pull me away from my construction to eat dinner, I squirmed and shrieked and pressed the round wooden pillar in my fist, wet with tears, against his cheek in protest. I still remember the feel of the piece in my hand.
I carried this intense devotion over to my toy moose. Perhaps it is not even the appearance of the toy that I cling to in memory (it was a badly bruised, poorly washed thing), but the feel of it in my hand, the weight of the beads inside it that would rest in my palm when I spread it out flat, or the feeling of the toy when I would roll it over to the edge of my hand, when I tipped it and the beads shifted, filling the back legs of the moose till it swelled unevenly like a water balloon held by its knot.
There is a photograph of me as a toddler holding this toy hanging in the hallway of my home back in New Jersey. The photograph was taken by my parents when we visited Baltimore. I’m wearing a pink puffer coat, the hood lined with fleece, and my hair is chin-length, bobbed and rounded; my bangs reach just past my eyebrows. I’m holding the moose between my hands. I am not looking into the camera, but downwards and to the left, lost in whatever interior world five-year-old me spent her time in (a consequence I attribute to growing up as an only child). My parents told me that I was shy as a kid, muted and passive, curious yet often lacking in energy, harmlessly selfish as any child is. But such descriptions are abstract and confusing to me. I have no personal memories verifying such accounts. I only possess vignettes in my mind, none of which possess an internal monologue of any sort. I wear my hair long now, and I don’t remember the last time I had bangs, besides in that photograph.
If this story ended in a typical manner, I would have gone out to the city one day with my parents, gripping the baby moose between my hands, before accidentally leaving it on some department store shelf or dropping it on the subway. I would discover that my hands were empty on the car ride home. My parents would say, “Oh honey, there’s nothing to be done,” and I would weep and wail, and then one day, I would forget about it. But it didn’t happen like this. I did lose the toy, but I don’t remember when or how, if I lost it at five or at fifteen.
I probably did really love this toy, I probably even believed it had a soul of some sort—but this is all speculation, no better than an outside observer peering through a window into a dinner party they aren’t a part of. I was this girl at some point, and I now didn’t know her, and it wasn’t until nearly 15 years later, at age 20, by mischance, in jest, a glance at an old photograph, that I remembered that I owned that toy and how I loved it before I lost it. I suddenly realized my hair hadn’t been short in many years and I couldn’t remember why I loved that toy. I didn’t drop it, I didn’t leave it behind. I lost it unknowingly, in a haze. It was 15 years later that I became grieved, delirious with regret: how could I have let myself lose it?
In many ways, it is a futile question. We are all growing and changing each day, and common sense tells us that the person we are now is not the person we were then. Certainly, the things I carry now are not the same things I carried when I was two or ten or fourteen. The things that we hold in our hands and roll between our fingers in our pockets eventually lose their warmth, and we forget about them. They are relics of the past, versions of ourselves that we don’t quite remember.
From time to time I ask my parents about themselves when they were my age or younger, but their self-narratives are hazy and uncritical. “Your father was a real troublemaker,” my mother says, and my father shakes his head and waves his hand at this unprovable account. “Who knows,” he says, “I can hardly remember.” My mother has similar sentiments. “I’m not the same person I used to be,” she tells me. At 16 my father started carrying a pack of cigarettes in his front pocket and ran away from home for the first time when his father died; now he keeps a pair of reading glasses with him and plays pickleball on the weekends. When my mother was a child she brought around a jianzi with her and woke up early to catch birds; at 29, she left for America with a suitcase half-filled with books and a wad of cash in her pocket.
It appears to me an inescapable fate, and I wonder about the day when someone will ask me to recall who I was, or what I carried, and all I’ll have to say is “It’s gone, it’s past.” In a moment of freedom and loss, I’ll brush aside the things that meant everything to me then, that mean everything to me now, as though they’re dust, lint, and I’ll think to myself, how could I have let that happen?
The versions of ourselves and the objects we have owned will come and go, slowly, without acknowledgment, without recognition; against our will, against our knowing. It will be a look over the shoulder as an afterthought, by chance, in jest, to realize that who we were has gone and passed. Who knows, I can hardly remember. I’m not the same person I used to be.