November 5, 2020 | Narrative
the cupboard of memories
(v)olumes, (h)indsight, (s)entimentality
In the middle of the night, while staring at my dorm room ceiling, I suddenly remembered Digimon. And no—before you ask—I don’t consider it a Pokémon knock-off. Though, like Pokémon, it does hold nostalgic value. Back in elementary school, my grandmother had an old TV and VHS set. She kept all of her VHSes in a small, unassuming cupboard: Its hinges creaked and dust coated the shelves, no matter how many times we cleaned it. There were eight VHSes in that cupboard: It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Prince of Egypt, Cinderella, Pokémon: Poké-Friends (Vol. 4), Digimon Vol. 1, Toy Story, and 101 Dalmatians. My grandparents collected them over the years, and each of these videos played a prominent part in my childhood. I spent a good portion of that night in my dorm looking up links to Digimon episodes, uncovering, with warm enthusiasm, aged VHS memories.
We spent a lot of time with my grandparents, my younger brother and I, so we probably watched these VHS movies and TV shows over a hundred times. When school started in August, we spent even more time with them. Despite living in Shiprock, my brother and I attended school in Kirtland. I was told this was because Shiprock schools, though in the same school district as Kirtland, had reached enrollment capacity. We could’ve transferred the following year, but by that point my parents didn’t see the point. Instead, we lied about our address—my grandparents had a house in Kirtland, so guess whose address we put down––and continued to lie for the next 11 years. Every afternoon, the bus dropped me and my brother off near the neighborhood post office mailboxes. Soon it was October in New Mexico, and the still fairly warm weather made the walks back to their house pleasant. We’d watch as the leaves whispered in the wind, slowly—even quietly—transitioning into a deep yellow and orange. As fall and winter approached, the sun refused to back down; it raised its chin high in the morning, and smirked as it fell in the evening, vowing to be back the next day. Most of all, I remember that fall and winter were spent with my grandparents.
When we reached the house, we’d settle inside, slipping off our shoes and collapsing onto the couch. I’d do whatever homework I had while my brother, having no homework, reluctantly helped out with chores. After 30 or so minutes, I’d finish and lend a hand to whatever they were working on—be it dishes, weeding, sweeping, laundry, or loading and unloading hay for the cows. As nighttime approached, my grandmother prepared beef stew and frybread. The kitchen was small, but all four of us managed to fit around the wooden dining room table. My grandpa was very particular about finishing our food. We couldn’t leave the table unless our plates were clean, and if we couldn’t leave the table, that meant no TV. Both of my grandparents spoke Navajo as their first language. They used simple English with my brother and I, but the Navajo words they taught us were generally shared around the table; dinner had a sound, a gentle weight, rough around the curves. After dinner, my grandparents sagged into the couch, while I chose a VHS from the cupboard—we all took turns—slipped it into the VHS player, and joined my brother sitting criss-crossed on the floor. Though it was nowhere near December, my go-to VHS was A Charlie Brown Christmas. My brother would groan, my grandmother would sigh; they both agreed we should only watch this after November, at the earliest. Only my grandpa smiled at my selection. He didn’t say anything (at least, I don’t remember him saying anything), but I think he loved Charlie Brown more than I did. The soft piano and children’s choir warm my heart to this day—subtle, soothing, and sweet. My father was a huge fan of the Sunday comics. My grandparents got them in the newspaper, and under my father’s recommendation, I’d read them relentlessly and draw earnest, heartfelt connections between the Peanuts comics and films. We each had our favorite characters. My grandmother grinned at Lucy’s “bossy” personality, her bold statements, full of unflinching confidence: “That beautiful sound of cold hard cash. That beautiful, beautiful sound. Nickels, nickels, nickels.” My brother laughed at Snoopy’s easygoing, devil-may-care attitude: dancing on top of the piano, interrupting everyone’s ice-skating. My grandpa claimed to have no favorite, but I noticed his eyes glinted with fond amusement whenever Charlie Brown threw his arms in the air: “My own dog gone commercial. I can’t stand it—aAAGHH!”
Charlie Brown was my favorite, but my brother was more of a Pokémon and Digimon person. When asked why, his eight-year-old answer was always something along the lines of, “It’s cooler.” Whether “cooler” had to do with the thicker lines and bright colors, the distinct ’90s anime music, or the constant action, remains a mystery. I have no idea where my grandparents obtained Pokémon and Digimon VHSes—perhaps at the flea market, or maybe the thrift store. Nevertheless, they became a staple of their VHS cupboard. My brother and I both knew Pokémon was a series, but what we didn’t know was that Digimon was also a series. At the time, I paid no attention to Digimon’s opening sequence; it all sort of meshed together in a bright, digital fever dream. Thinking back, I was nothing but confused while watching Digimon—perhaps it was because our Digimon VHS had only two episodes. My grandparents paid even less attention to the anime; they sat with us, but I could tell they were more preoccupied with the daily newspaper or mail. My brother and I weren’t particularly attached to the two series at the time either. They were like Disney movies to us, entertaining and heartwarming enough, but nothing unconventional, profound, or even that memorable to us. But now, if you mention Pokémon: Indigo League or the 1999 Digimon series, the amount of heartening nostalgia I feel is overpowering. When I looked up Digimon back in July—being away from home and in quarantine provided the time—I didn’t recognize the original Japanese opening. But the moment I heard, “Di-Di-Di-Digimon, Digimon. Di-Di-Di-Digimon. Digimon. Digimon Digital Monsters, Digimon are the Champions,” I swear my heart stopped. I was captivated, suddenly transported back to my grandparent’s snug living room. Fond recognition melted like frothed hot chocolate in my throat and pooled near my stomach. How could one two-minute opening sequence cause so much nostalgic affection—dare I say, nostalgic ache? Late ’90s anime typically had English translations of their openings, though this isn’t as common anymore. But the Digimon opening on our VHS was the English version, and though I’m definitely biased, it’s still a BANGER.
As the days became shorter and the weather colder, we’d continue to rotate between those eight VHS tapes stowed in the cupboard. My grandmother loved Disney’s Cinderella. She’d laugh at Cinderella’s mice friends, comparing my messy hair to a tangled mouse’s tail. There’s a scene in the movie where an annoyed mouse untangles his tail in the morning. Nearly ten years later, I still roll my eyes at the memory of her teasing. I’d like to think my hair has settled down since then, especially since I brush it daily now. My grandpa preferred The Prince of Egypt, which included certain scenes that terrified ten-year-old Danielle. But twenty-one-year-old Danielle considers the film a masterpiece. At ten, I didn’t appreciate the delicate hand of storytelling, the beautiful, cool art tones, nor the amazing orchestrations. The Prince of Egypt is one of my favorite films now, right up there with Labyrinth and Coraline. These VHS tapes brought us together as a family during these cold winter months.
As we enter another November, I can’t help but fondly remember the times we slurped stew around a weary wooden table, eagerly eyeing the cupboard in anticipation of that night’s movie selection. We’d spread the VHSes on the floor to contemplate the decision, my brother and I hunched over, attempting to sabotage each other’s choice. After both of my grandparents passed, my aunt sold their house and those VHSes disappeared from my life forever. I didn’t think much of the tapes while in high school, but now, being home and re-experiencing the comfort and familiarity of New Mexico winters, I can’t help but wish I kept them. In Navajo culture, you’re not supposed to keep a passed loved one’s belongings. It’s common to burn their things or give them away to those who need them. Culturally, I understand why I couldn’t have kept them. But I do think about how the VHS tapes were a tangible, physical sign of my grandparents’ subtle affection—of the years we spent together, full of tender, loving memories. Sure, they’d be useless with today’s technology, but I’d like to think the sentimental value would be more than enough. The VHS cases were dented, faded, torn in some corners, bought secondhand and given a new home in my grandparents’ dusty cupboard. Though I don’t have the tapes, the sense of home I found with my grandparents, their love and stories, live on in a stubby cupboard near my heart—hopefully with less dust.