Little Tokens: The Matchbox

The matchbox is solid in hand, made of metal, and cool to the touch. There are bits missing from the enamel inlay, like someone kept the matchbox in their purse, knocking around with their keys, little turquoise crumbs disappearing to mingle with the lint and crumbs. A boy gave the matchbox to my sister, and eventually, she gave it to me. Gifting was common in the economy of our sisterhood. I can’t remember how old I was, or where we were when this matchbox passed ownership. I remember feeling surprised, and lucky that I was in possession of such a beautiful object. The muted colors, the delicate metal of the cloissoné, the tea-stained paper cardboard drawer, where the matches would go. It was old, and beautiful, and special—all things I longed for as a child growing up in a place where everything felt cookie-cutter and commonplace.

There are no matches in the box anymore. Instead, there’s an old bracelet, strung with plastic beads, the leather cord severed. I often forget that this is there, and yet just seeing it tugs at me. It’s a much older relic of our sister-friendship. Ate* made it at a church summer  camp, I think, and gave it to me one afternoon when she got home. My four-year-old self’s favorite bead was the mauve butterfly that also served to tighten the bracelet around my wrist. The bracelet made me think of Ate; it made me feel safe and loved.

I never took off the bracelet—at least, not until the cord broke. As a child, I was devoted to Ate. I loved to sit in her room and look at the beautiful and fascinating things on her shelves: a wooden jewelry box, a graceful statue of Bastet, a to-scale model of an X-wing starfighter. Even better were her sketchbooks. The pages were thick and warped with ink and paint, paper scraps and tape. I think my favorite art always reminds me of those pieces.

This bracelet-in-a-matchbox is a tiny reliquary, for my sister and me.

*Pronounced “AH-tay.” A title given to older sisters in Filipino families.


About four years, I moved cross-country, only bringing with me what I could fit in half of my car (the other half was reserved for my road trip companion, but that’s a story for another time). It was difficult leaving behind things that were meaningful to me, so I compromised with myself and decided to bring a small collection of things smaller than my palm as tokens to remind me of what I was leaving behind. This series is about those tokens. 

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Little Tokens: The Carabao

About a year and a half ago, I moved cross-country, only bringing with me what I could fit in half of my car (the other half was reserved for my road trip companion, but that’s a story for another time). It was difficult leaving behind things that were meaningful to me, so I compromised with myself and decided to bring a small collection of things smaller than my palm as tokens to remind me of what I was leaving behind. This series is about those tokens. 

It’s carved out of dark wood, with graceful lines and hints of a bony rump. I saw a real carabao once when my family and I were walking through the countryside near my grandma’s house in the Philippines. I was afraid that it would charge at me like a Spanish fighting bull because my shirt was a) sparkly, and b) bright, bright red.

The Philippines always held a certain mystique for me. It was where my mom grew up, and where my parents sent money and taped-up, packed-to-the-brim LBC boxes. I’d been there as an infant, but I didn’t remember anything from that trip. I was finally there again, but this time at the age of thirteen, with a hundred dollars’ worth of Christmas money in my pocket to spend as I wished. A dollar went farther in the Philippines, so I felt incredibly rich.

I don’t remember where or when I bought this carving of a carabao, but I know that I bought it for a shadowbox that I planned to make when I got back home. I took pictures, collected brochures, postcards, coins, and nicknacks with which to decorate the shadowbox. I had a feeling that it would be an important trip, and I wanted to commemorate it properly.

I was right; the trip was important. In the years after I visited the Philippines, the neighborhood where almost everyone in my extended family lived slowly lost its young people, with my cousins moving away to other parts of the world to find different opportunities. The Philippines that I met on that trip doesn’t exist anymore. It reminds me of the indelible marks that colonization and globalization have made on my family. My mother, and then her cousins and their children, moved away from the place that was their heart home because the opportunities were where the money was: in the U.S., in Canada, in Dubai and Singapore. I exist because my mom moved to the United States when she was 19 (even though she and my dad didn’t meet until a decade later). And sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a part of myself—the part that would have loved the afternoon downpours, the Coca-Cola sipped through a straw in a plastic bag, and the orchids that grew wild on the trees.

The carved carabao reminds me of the place that I glimpse from the corner of my heart’s eye. In many ways, it’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore, lost as it is to the tides of change, or maybe just the tides of time. Still, I want to return, to eat the fruit of the land that sometimes feels like it should have been my home. But at the same time, I am afraid to go back because I will never really belong there. This is what it means for me to be biracial and bicultural: I don’t get to inherit where I belong. Instead, I have to find a place—or choose one. Sometimes it feels like a blessing, and sometimes it feels like a curse. But most of the time I’m just proud of who I am and where I come from, and that is the better blessing.

Little Tokens: The Green Bottle

 

About a year and a half ago, I moved cross-country, only bringing with me what I could fit in half of my car (the other half was reserved for my road trip companion, but that’s a story for another time). It was difficult leaving behind things that were meaningful to me, so I compromised with myself and decided to bring a small collection of things smaller than my palm as tokens to remind me of what I was leaving behind. This series will be about those tokens. 

I’ve always pined over pretty things. As a six or seven-year-old, they helped me launch into elaborate sessions of playing pretend. I had a brown purse from a garage sale that looked like a treasure box, and in it, I kept a drawstring bag of plastic jewels; elaborate beaded necklaces I’d found with my mom at estate sales; a little brass teapot and matching, little brass goblet, among other knick knacks. Combined with a good cape, they could keep my imagination going for hours.

I got this little green bottle for Christmas from my favorite, most fabulous aunt, and it instantly had a special place in my treasure box. It contained healing potions and poisons, antidotes and draughts of anything I needed. It was forged by fairies, or smuggled by a thief. It shaped the stories I lived, and made everything just a little bit more magical.

I always feel this tug to play pretend when I find myself able to buy things that little me would have sold her hair to play with. I miss being able to build new realities so easily, like slipping in and out of a favorite dress. This bottle is a token that reminds me of that version of myself—the Kelsey who lived a thousand lives.

Now, the little green bottle sits on one of my shelves, next to a matryoshka doll and a print of “Fair at Valencia.” Its newest neighbor is an empty mini bottle of Patrón, because to this day, I can’t pass up a bottle that looks a little bit magical. I decided to keep the bottle as a nod to my past self, but it’s also more than that: it’s a small gesture of hope that the magic isn’t gone, after all.