My daughter used to tell perfect strangers she remembered being inside her mother’s belly.
Yesterday, I asked her what she remembered from when she was really little: That time you let me eat snow!
I remember, in the Coney Island surf, a woman grabbing her by the wrist and pointing at me, Do you know that man? like I was plotting an abduction.
I remember, on the Upper West Side, her mother being asked if she was the nanny, as if a young black woman has no right entering a playground without a work permit.
I remember Is she adopted? and Where did you adopt her from? and even her motherfucking pediatrician, Do you have the adoption papers?
I remember when she learned to walk. Even though I was not around much when she was a baby, living two flights and one ocean away, she took off one morning and didn’t stop, and I was there, watching, just like I was there when she was born and her tiny wrinkled paw clasped my pointer finger and squeezed it.
I remember how my heart detonated with joy that I was there to witness her living breathing beauty with my own hands and eyes, and while that joy dissipated through my body, I felt it ossifying into a chunk of regret as my limbs and toes and the skin on my face remembered how soon I would be leaving her.
She doesn’t remember her family in Zambia, her cousins, her auntie, her Kuku, though they all lived in the same house for the first year and a half of her life.
But I remember her suffering a rare pang of shyness at a kiddie birthday party, and telling me how much she misses them, how she wants to go back because she doesn’t belong here.
Even though I’ve never met anyone who belongs so exceptionally everywhere she goes, amassing friends like an avalanche, such that this birthday girl’s mother took to posting on all the neighborhood parent groups Does anyone know Sepo’s family? because her daughter couldn’t stop talking about how much she wanted Sepo at her party.
And now Sepo is at the party and all she can remember is a phantom of her own displacement.
I remember seeking the desolate corners of playgrounds and singing songs to myself when I was her age, and I still seek those same corners when I take her to the playground and bury my nose in a book, hence that mother’s need to marshal a social media search party just to get my contact information.
I remember asking Sepo how she feels when she makes up songs: Like my soul has a new bed.
I remember she has had more new beds than most children, more new beds than many adults.
I remember, in her rhyming phase, “Thank you, wank you, shank you!”
I remember, the little ham, “Has anyone ever been a STAGE for Halloween?” and slicing those velvety red curtains.
I remember the next year, Whitney Houston AND Prince, and this year, Little Richard.
She must not remember the way she used to perform for her mother, beaming silly spontaneity, anything to force a smile or at least a response from the woman crumbling before her eyes, who couldn’t get herself out of bed, take her to daycare, or even speak words by the time I delivered her to the hospital.
But that must be where Sepo’s spark comes from, this irrepressible need to connect with everyone she meets; for some time there, sparking her mother awake was a matter of survival, and survival is something we remember even when we don’t remember it.
But she remembers sleeping on her daddy’s couch for the rest of her third year on the earth, and then her own bed, and then a move and her own bedroom.
I remember when I told her Mama was sick, how her mouth popped open and wailed My Mama is sick!
It was a repetition, a statement, but it was so much more, a sheer epiphany that this was her life now, and it still haunts me, how a two-year-old could know and see and feel so much in one moment, so chaotic, and yet so lucid.
She might not remember the last time she slept at her mother’s house because she didn’t actually sleep there, because her mother called me after midnight saying Come get her, she’s being a brat, because Sepo was crying for daddy, because her mother had kept her awake till midnight to blow out birthday candles only to realize she didn’t have candles or cake so she dragged her out squalling to the bodega, and I still see her waving a bundle of incense sticks to purge the room of her child’s ingratitude and shouting I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.
Later, Sepo remembered being scared at Mama’s house because there was a big bug in the bathroom, and maybe the bug was her mother, or maybe her memory is just a baffling Kafakesque parable, or maybe that’s what childhood is, and all of life after it.
She will remember something between nothing and everything.
I just pray she remembers how happy she was, how joyfully and bountifully human, squeezing life out of every moment like the world owes it to her.
The world does, my love. Just take it. It’s yours.