To my Nhà Cũ,
I am a ceremonial person. I like to commemorate small moments with meaningful adornments. Therefore, one would expect the departure from a childhood home to be a momentous occasion, a celebration marking the event. A reason to host a house-cooling party, a special dinner or even a quiet family gathering for a prayer of gratitude. But I was 10 when I left you and my parents don’t particularly share my ceremonial nature. Looking back, the lack of an official goodbye still doesn’t feel right to me. I think about you occasionally, even more now that I live hundreds of miles away from “home”… wherever that is.
Sometime soon, our inhabitance in our current house will surpass the years lived within your walls. But our family will always regard you as Nhà Cũ (Old House) and our current home as Nhà Mới (New House).
I remember the first time I saw Nhà Mới. Although Dad filled my imagination with the construction of a pool, a backyard grill, a wide-open balcony and the prospect of my own room, I was drawn to the fact that Nhà Mới had stairs. I am unsure where my affinity with stairs originated. As a child, I remember feeling attracted to the luxury of space, the privacy afforded by a two-story home and the gateway to such physical expanse in the form of simple steps. Throughout the years, this additional space had a significant role in maintaining my sanity from family arguments. The quietness of the stairs became a refuge from long days at school, a harbored environment of creativity and reflection.
Still, there are moments when Nhà Mới becomes isolating. I miss you in this extra space. There are moments when I miss the comforting sound of Mom cooking dinner while I work on my homework at the dining table. There are silences that make me yearn for the times when Duy and I were forced to share the TV in the living room because we only had one.
I went back to visit you. I only observed you from the outside, but you seemed different. The years must have separated us from each other. Even though you were no longer ours, there were still some of our emblems marked on you, some indications that you had been ours at some point in your existence.
Your paved driveway is still nothing notable, but its grey slope sends me back to the second grade. I see us there now — Dad, Duy and I are playing basketball together on that same concrete pavement. We’re rushing past each other, dribbling the ball, aggressively defending our positions. We’re playing highly competitive H.O.R.S.E. games, which will pay off in the number 24 jersey my brother will wear upon joining his fourth grade basketball team.
My frog statue still resides on the edge of the raised garden bed. It peaks above the dense foliage of the baby’s breath that I had “grown” as a kindergartner by aimlessly scattering seeds across the dirt. Its tarnished eyes look up towards the few specks of clouds in the almost clear blue sky. Here in your garden, it’s as if I am 6 years old again. My arms are tightly wrapped around the weighty body of my frog statue, I am proudly carrying it toward its new habitat. I set it down gently, remembering the kindness of the neighbor with gray curly hair who gifted me overwhelming bliss in the form of a ceramic friend.
There is the lone large palm tree, though much taller than I had remembered it. My mind begins to picture figures under the shadow of its leaves. I observe us in your front yard on a cool evening. It takes the effort of the entire family to move the palm tree from Mom’s truck to its crater in the ground. But the long hours of frustrated heaves and excessive sweating is worth it. The palm tree is symbolic. It garnishes our once-desolate lawn with the signature of Southern California.
Your white vinyl fence looks as suburban as ever. All at once, I watch my 7-year-old self grabbing onto its pickets, stumbling in the new pair of roller skates that Dad had bought for me at the Big 5. I feel the bruises on my knees and the scrapes on my arms. These marks are the products of my adamant refusal to wear uncomfortable knee pads, the residue of the informal skating practices I shared with the next door neighbor.
And then I step back to look at all of you. Outside, you haven’t changed. But I know, inside, you have.
Once upon a time, I ran up the pathway to your door, danced around in your grass, lived within your walls. I’m a stranger now. It’s an odd feeling. Years of being home shrunk down to a mere familiarity.
I know we didn’t move far. It’s only a 20-minute drive that separates Nhà Mới from you. Maybe the fact that you were so close is what kept me from ever fashioning some dramatic goodbye. The notion that our family hadn’t left you for good would somehow always tether me to you. You were, at least, lingering in my proximity.
I’m older now. I have left Nhà Mới. I live in a new city, a new home, one, for the time being, we will call Dorm. If there’s something I learned from this move into Dorm and this temporary move away from Nhà Mới, it’s that I don’t miss you.
I miss memories.
I miss the person I was when I was with you at that time in my life — the child in me that has only known the comfort of your walls. The strange realization that I will never be that person, that child ever again. The first 10 years of my life were lived in your memory and so I miss the careless freedom of my 10-year-old self, of 9-year-old me, of 8-year-old me and so on. You were the house that raised me. So much of my child belongs to you. So many cliche family mementos, birthdays, family reunions, sleepovers, backyard dinners, late night school projects.
As I prepare to leave Dorm and settle into some yet-to-be-named apartment, I’ll hold on to the memories of my freshman year self who lives within the space of a stained carpet, a creaky bed and boisterous neighbors. However, this time, I’ll give Dorm some proper goodbye.
Until we meet again,