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Home is Where the Memories Are




KAREN MANIRAHO, HOST: As vaccination rates rise in the U.S., many Americans are planning long-awaited reunions with family and friends.


In this piece from our commentary series, Megan Zerez reflects on the mixed feelings about her own homecoming.


MEGAN ZEREZ, BYLINE: I grew up in Honolulu. By some accounts, it’s the most isolated city on earth. Sure, it’s cool to have a hometown that’s the platonic ideal of a tropical paradise.


But these days, all I can think about is the fact that there’s a whole lot of water separating me and the people I love most.


I haven’t seen my grandma -- or Popo as I call her -- for three years now.


One year it was because I just couldn’t get enough time off. The year after that, I couldn’t afford the plane fare. This past year, it was because of the pandemic.


I’m pretty sure that before this separation, I’ve spent more time with Popo than anyone else in my life. When I was born, my mom had to go back to work just days afterwards. Popo was the one who changed my diapers. Later, she was the one who made sure I did my homework after school.


But don’t get me wrong. She’s not the kind of grandma who knits and bakes cookies -- not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Popo can be as hard as nails. When her father refused to let her finish school in Hawai’i, she took the money she made at the family grocery store and secretly bought a few shares of a local utility company. When she sold them a few years later, the profit was just enough to secure passage on a boat to LA and to pay for secretarial school. She’s been retired now for years, but every morning she still wakes up at 5 AM -- only now it’s to inspect her yard and scan the paper for coupons.


Last month, Popo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.


Whenever I see her again, there will have been three years and a pandemic’s worth of difference between my memories of her and the person she’s become.


I know things will be different. Even before the diagnosis, she couldn’t always remember who I was over the phone. Or she’d call me up to rave about a new dish she discovered, only to recite a recipe for bittermelon that’s been passed down from her own grandmother. I don’t know how much she’ll remember when I finally do go back.


I know that I’ve changed too. Last summer I’m pretty sure I got the virus. Since then, I can’t seem to hold onto my own memories so well either. Mostly it’s little things: for instance, last week, I tried to fix a blown fuse on my rice cooker last week and I realized I forgot how to use a wire cutter.


But I also worry that I’m losing the memories I have of Popo. But when I try to write them down, the words just seem to jam up before I can get them out onto the page.


I just got my second dose of the vaccine. A lot of my friends are in the same boat and they’re all planning trips home. But the truth is, I’m afraid of seeing Popo again. A little part of me believes that by staying here, staying away, I can hold back time.


I know Popo would disagree. My grandma is not one for wallowing in the past.


Recently, she called me and asked me when I was coming home again.


“You miss home?” she asked. “Come home. You’re vaccinated, what are you waiting for?”


What am I waiting for? I know that the Popo that I meet won’t be the same as the Popo in my memories. But there’s nothing keeping us from making new memories … except maybe a bit of water. And I think I can handle that.


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