Category Archives: Memories

Of coco-pops, bruises and mathematics

Childhood memories stick around. They hide for years, under your skin, deep and out of  view; but they’re always there. Some time ago, I found myself musing over breakfast wares at the supermarket, weighting options. An isle I’ve regularly perused, weekly or so, without nothing more noticeable happening than eventually making my mind up over one of the few “no palm oil” cereal boxes. Not on that day, though. That day, that ever un-chosen box, as innocuous and colourful a carton as it had always been, triggered something it had failed to trigger earlier. Memories are like tame beasts. They need just one wrong movement, a change of conditions, an inadvertent flash in the corner of the eye to go back to being the wild animal that will eventually go for your throat. It was maybe my daughter’s fault: by being born, she allowed my childhood memories to resurface so violently.

Coco-pops in the cool morning air are among the most characteristic memories from my childhood holidays. I do not remember those comforting bowls of cereal with fondness. Their cool crispiness would dot a line through my long Italian summers, day after day. Waking up, making my way through bright sunlit halls to the kitchen. My father was out, for a morning walk or a swim down at the lake, or just grocery shopping. Taking the cereal box out, so I’ll be done with breakfast before he’s back, urged by mother or granny. Three months. Three months in which school was out for a kid like me to make the garden the largest of playgrounds. I remember my brother and I turning that big boulder over there, by the bend in the driveway climbing up to the house, in a ship; our destination the lake, bright blue in the gap through the trees. Later. First, out of the box came the cereal.

I remember stretching breakfast. Chewing slowly, taking half-spoonfulls, pausing long to watch the sky and the trees through the window till the cereal lost its crunch, became soggy, discoloured and puffed up. My father would be back in the meantime. He would come around by the kitchen window and address me, bright. Am I ready?, we should start as soon as I’m done eating. His smile conveying excitement and expectation, trepidation even. Imprinting. Trying to induce excitement and expectation, trepidation even, in me. My father’s intelligence often got in his way, placing itself thick and heavy between him and common sense. His rational being applying all the science it contained to the world around it, regardless; laws of physics to the motion of pebbles skipping on water, cognitive science to fashion the minds of his children.

I cherished those bowls, back then. I really liked coco-pops, especially when their crunch hadn’t yet given way, and the cocoa flavour would go so well with the cold milk. I can hardly recall that taste. It blends with the bitter anxiety that would clutch me at that time. I couldn’t see through the next few hours before I could sail my ship with my brother, walk down to the lakeside, learn to swim in my father’s arms, or feed the pigs on the farm down the dusty road to the lake. Their thickness dense and blurred as a rain-battered window. I’d see myself staring at that white space, not having guts enough to let paper and pencil touch in fear of writing the numbers wrong. Mathematics. Mathematics, the authoritarian heritage in which he was brought up, and his struggle to keep up with his brothers. Of course, you should start with the most difficult exercises, once you’ve cracked those ones the rest is easy. Summer mornings, spent walking backwards, blindfolded, through a mathematics textbook.

I especially liked to keep the rice in my mouth, swallowing only after the crunch was gone. The kernels stinging delicately and popping on my tongue as they absorbed the moisture and released the air. Of course I wouldn’t fill my bowl immediately. I would drop a small handful of pops at a time, so they’d always be fresh in the milk. I would touch my legs and feel the dried blood from yesterday’s wounds. Spinning wildly till our knees gave way, riding fast and breaking hard, our bikes leaving marks in the gravel, slipping on the pine needles on our way down to the garage by the backside. Each marked the skin of my thighs of a new web of scratches each day, the storyline of summertime games. Underneath that were the blue and the black. Putting the comma in the wrong position, dividing and forgetting the remainder, failing to see the solution. Each would mark my thighs, too. My father prodding me on and encouraging me to do better, never shouting. It was easy, after all. I had already been through harder ones. He just  hit, with bare hands or with a stick, or a length of baseboard if handy, writing memories below my skin, deep, in black and blue ink that wouldn’t scratch off as dried blood from healed wounds.

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25 years of goodbyes, and I still don’t get it

The first thing I learned about goodbyes I learned as a child, and it’s that no matter how conscious and prepared you feel, you’re never truly ready

“Missing” is the feeling we get from the projection onto the future of something that was and no longer is, or will soon no longer be. Goodbyes do not concern the present, the exchange of farewells, but the perceived or anticipated absence that follows.

I was 7 years old at the time of my first goodbye. I remember that evening as if it had been just yesterday night. Thinking back, my parents must have been trying to figure out how to best break the news to me. Yet, its weight fell on my shoulders as if propelled downwards by some newborn form of gravity: suddenly, my body was glued to the pavement. My best friend Carlo and I were born a handful of hours apart, some Friday in February 1985. In the same hospital room; an older friendship cannot exist. Now, he’d be moving abroad.
A child’s world is extremely simple, and simple things matter. Those Saturdays spent in the garden, bike-riding, playing, hiding from the little brothers, building wooden toy-trains, marked a simple but steady rhythm that was as old as the Earth itself. It was sacred, immutable and part of life as much as sunrise and nightfall were. It was not in the last Saturday spent together; my first goodbye was in the moment that rhythm was broken.

My next goodbye came soon after. Tranquillity after a decade of turbulent Argentinian politics, allowed my grandfather to invite my mother and us children over. It wasn’t in the months of preparations, suitcase making, ticket purchases and transatlantic phone calls, in a child’s excitement for such a trip. It was in the airport security.
I remember swallowing tears while hugging my father before walking past controls, holding on tight in the waiting hall, and giving up at take off. I remember the hostess bringing orange juice and telling me in a Spanish ridden accent that my dad wouldn’t want me to cry, that he’d surely want me to be happy and enjoy my trip.
They followed in quick succession. We’ve been to Bahia Blanca three or four times at the same time of the year for years in a row. I can’t recall traveling once with dry eyes.

***

The second thing I learned about goodbyes I learned as an adult, and it’s that it doesn’t become easier with time, nor with experience.

People come and go for a wealth of reasons; without much fuss or leaving a void which may or may not heal in time. Sometimes it is us leaving people, places, habits, lifestyles behind, permanently or temporarily. Goodbyes are not as simple as something that is missing. The psychological moment, the causes, the history of the ties that are being cut and how we perceive our future in their absence make each goodbye unique. Goodbyes are difficult to comprehend:  each can hardly prepare for the next.

Fast forward a handful of goodbyes to 2017. It started with a friends’ text, hey, she wrote, let’s meet on Tuesday afternoon! Sure thing.. But let’s make it not be sad, she added. She was leaving, for good, hubby and daughter and all. For good. Or not really, she’d be back at some point, but I would be gone for good by then, wife and daughter and all. Haven’t seen them since. Sure, we text and they check our mail. But they’re missing.
Thrice it’s been like that, I’m going for the summer, hubby and daughter and all, but we’ll be back once you’re already gone. Thrice without knowing whether it was me or them leaving. Hugging goodbye and fighting back a sense of suffocation because adults do that.
Then, I went myself. For good, wife and daughter and all. One last beer, one last wave of a hand. It wasn’t in the moving company taking my stuff abroad, in the bureaucracy, in handing the keys back, in packing up and cleaning and friends’ visits. It was in that last evening, when the goodbye visits are over but you’re still there, and would want to hug goodbye again. It was in those unexpected hugs right before catching the taxi.

Now I’m sitting here, writing a post about goodbyes in a city I don’t belong to. Having a child is like carving your heart out of your chest and fitting it in a puppet to pump your own blood in the wrong body. You need that heart beating next to you, because you realise you’re an empty shell now.
Knowledge that you’ll have to soon be far away for a short period that is far too long leave you thin and naked of your own skin. Every second is an anticipation of that one goodbye, over and over again each time your child is not with you. Each time someone takes her from you, they’re stealing your most precious instants.
Absence is a hole through which your soul leaked out the moment you turned around. Every second, every minute, a reminder of what you’re missing.
This goodbye was not in that last kiss before leaving, not in the hours spent holding her tight, and still I don’t know where it is.