Mine is a visual memory.
Key events, dates, conversations I recollect through outfits worn, accessories chosen. Maybe that’s why I tend to overdress: not to be remembered, but so that looking back I would have something to remember.
A tulle-and-lace ballerina dress, after all, is harder to forget than jeans and a nice top.
My brain, I imagine, is a lot like a photo album, a collection of shapes and colors and patterns, of visual elements, the right combination of which unlocks the corresponding memory.
Max Factor lip gloss, an orange bohemian top, capri jeans, and red paisley headband equals my first high school party, where we had mock-tails at a now-closed resto-bar in Greenbelt and watched the late screening of the film Jumper.
Bad perm, tinted Nivea lip balm, and off-white mini-dress with a green lace-up neckline and puffed sleeves (trimmed with green chiffon ribbon embroidered with white and pink tulle flowers) equals the day I met my now- best friend. It was in Friday Youth Service. I was sketching instead of listening to the sermon. My now-best friend wore a black tank top and bell-bottom jeans.
Blue, long-sleeved shirt and black jeans (second hand), with gold leather ballet flats that were falling apart and stage makeup from Arabian Nights by David Ives equals the night I admitted to that boy from college that I had a crush on him. We sat on the stairs near Telengtan Auditorium. I cried the entire time. He kissed me on the cheek and thanked me and said he was sorry that we could never work out.
(He walked me to my car. In the dark, in front of Li Seng Giap, he grabbed my arm and asked to kiss me on the cheek again. It felt like goodbye. It wasn’t. I would be in love with him for three more years.)
When most people see my mother and I together, they’re always quick to say I look just like her. Never mind that I’m shorter than she is by an inch. Never mind that I’m of stockier, less curvy, more boyish build. Never mind, even, that most of them have never seen my father, or else haven’t seen him long enough to recognize, in my face, his strong, square jaw and slightly menacing smile.
(There is a reason why I use my eyes, not my mouth, to smile.)
Despite all that, most people aren’t wrong: I do resemble my mother, the same way that a married couple tends to resemble each other after years together. We have the same expressions, the same twitch of the mouth and scrunch of the nose. We favour similar styles of hair (except mine is usually a crazy color). We share shoes and clothes and bags.
In short, we’ve been constantly together long enough that we’ve learned to mirror each other. Or, rather, as a daughter, I’ve learned to mirror my mother. And this goes beyond appearances: we share the same workaholism, the same obsessive devotion to our jobs, the same tendency to cram every waking hour with something to do until we inevitably crash and spend a whole day in bed eating junk food.
Even if our personalities appear different at first blush, they are rooted in the same tendencies. I am my mother’s louder, more brightly-colored copy, but in a lot of ways I am still a copy.
Except for one thing.
Mine is a visual memory. Except when it isn’t.
The song Fly Me To The Moon. A loud baritone with a rough rasp. A man shouting. These do not equal specific memories, but they do bring to mind specific years with a specific person.
I remember growing up with my father like a CB radio shifting between stations. He left our house sometime between me being three and four, and I don’t have many visual memories of those years except for what I can reconstruct from photographs. But I remember the sounds of him: his baritone crackling of static from when we would talk on the phone. The edge of irritation in his voice when I would disagree with him. The sound of his roar, which could render me from hyperactive child to deer in headlights.
With age comes visual memory. Now, I remember Dad with Baclaran plaid shirt and blue wool jacket (lunch date), with coral Bench long-line shirt and white peasant skirt (big argument at fifteen; he refused to speak to me for what felt like a year), with different green dresses when things started getting good again (first good Christmas, second good Christmas, college graduation).
But those early memories, through the fog of childhood and repression, are all audio. They don’t exactly trigger anything so much as fill me with a sense of resignation. By now, I am used to them. Because I hear them every day.
I hear them in the sound of my own voice.
One of my friends has a mother who sings. I listened to her on Facebook Live recently.
My friend claims little resemblance to her mother. Most days, I would agree. If you squint, you can see the outlines of the daughter in the face of the mother: the shape of the eyes, the turn of the mouth. But it is nothing like the carbon copy-paste of my mother into me.
My friend admits that she more closely resembles her father. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen her father, but my friend is mostly honest, so I’ll take her at her word.
In music, we learn that there are tones and there are overtones. Tones are the sounds you intend to play, the notes on the sheet music, the clear do re mi fa. Tones you can hear.
Overtones, though, are different. They are the notes under the notes, the ghost of a harmony. You don’t hear overtones so much as feel them, bubbling up the longer a note is held in the air. They’re the reason why some combinations of notes go together and others, instinctively, make you wince and send a shudder up your spine.
You could say that tones make the melody, but overtones make the music.
When my friend’s mother sings, I hear the daughter in her overtones. I hear my friend cracking her bad dad jokes in our weekly work calls. Or the way she siren-wails “Whaat’s happeniiiiiing?” when our brains both turn to mush in sync.
In the mother’s calm post-set spieling I hear the rapid-fire, nervous patter of the daughter’s MANCOM reports. The mother’s advice to “Wash your hands, wear your mask,” delivered in sing-song, becomes the daughter’s frequent use of musical puns.
The more I hear my friend’s mother’s voice, the more I think her daughter looks like her. It’s as if the subtle overtone ringing in my ears clears my vision, so that I can see more than just the ghost of a resemblance: the same nervous smile, the same self-conscious laugh-lines, the same way of both looking and not looking at you when they speak.
My mother and I have the same accent. For some reason, our English sounds trans-Pacific, somewhere between Hong Kong British and Singlish and Australian. My mother met my father in Australia, when she lived there for six months. When we visited, last year, her friend drove us up to North Head, where they would go on group dates, sitting in their cars overlooking the ocean, drinking and acting like American teenagers in those old movies.
I was only in Australia for six days. My accent is more heavily Filipino-flavored, unless I focus on clipping my consonants and rounding the vowels, or unless I am really nervous, when apparently I turn British.
I look like my mother, then, but I don’t sound like her. The more I hear myself, the more I see my resemblance to my father: the same raspy baritone, the same loud and boisterous laugh, the same blood-freezing roar.
My mother and I are both mezzo-sopranos, though her range goes higher than mine and mine stretches wider than hers. If I focus, though, I can mimic her singing voice, but only just.
People have mistaken me for her on the phone, but perhaps that is because the crackle of phone static disguises that which is patently obvious to me: our overtones are too different. Mine aren’t hers.
After all these years, my dad’s voice still fills any room he’s in. Even if he doesn’t talk as much as before, by the end of any day spent with him my ears ring with the familiar echo. Even if I out- and over-talk him.
Perhaps, it’s because I out- and over-talk him.
A final confession: my resemblance to my mother is not accidental. The clothes I grew up watching her wear to work eventually found clones in my closet. I followed in her literal footsteps, first borrowing her heels then eventually buying my own, so that even the sway of my hips would match hers. I wore red lipstick to meetings because that was what I remembered from her makeup bag.
For years, we even parted our hair on the same side.
I’ve taken great pains to look like my mother, and even more to act like her. When I face her old colleagues, it is a point of pride that they say, “Oh my goodness, she reminds me exactly of you, Melanie.”
That is, until I speak.
No matter what I do, close your eyes and you’ll hear someone else’s overtones.
I look like my mother. But, I guess, I will always sound like my dad.