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My Father's Dorm Room

By Daniela J. Lamas

I first met Harvard as the hazy backdrop to my parents’ weird college stories. I’ve been told that my father and his roommates piled guinea pig cages one on top of another to build what they called the “Pig Palace.” They owned a cat called Meez, an iguana that lived in the closet, as well as a family of white mice. My mother was there too, drawn in to the zoo by a rather inexplicable attraction to a version of my father in dark glasses and hair so huge it doesn’t fit in the yearbook photo that now gathers dust with my baby teeth and first grade poetry. Seen dimly through the warm light of memory, this campus was a crazy, permissive, nearly magical place where a mouse could survive the drop from a fourth-floor Eliot House window and where, if you only squeezed enough honey packets, you could make mead.

This is my parents’ college history, but it is my history, too, because I spent my senior year in the Eliot House suite where my mother, father, guinea pigs, iguanas and mice once lived. My roommates picked the room randomly and when they told me I called my mother.

“You know what this means?” she asked me.

Well, no, I didn’t—I felt a sense of narrative significance in the quirks of fate that directed me back to Eliot H-44, but struggled to see its shape. I go to college 10 minutes from home and end up where my parents began. Does this mean I am fated to linger forever in the shadow of their memories? I had my first slice at ’Noch’s when my parents decided to take me to this pizza place they loved when they were in college. I used to sit with my father on the big stone benches in the Square and “watch the world go by” as we listened to the sweet folk music of the street musicians. I saw the street performers and heard the musicians again as a first-year here, and when their music resonated within me I wondered how this place could ever become mine.

Three decades after my parents left it, I stand in my H-44 common room. There’s a huge mattress on the floor that my roommates Grainne and Angela found, somewhere, and a gray three-part couch we inherited from Grainne’s sister. A bag of candy in the corner from my birthday pinata sits next to tubes of nontoxic tempera paint and Angela’s swathes of brightly-colored cloth. I could tell you the story of each of these items. When I walk through Harvard Yard, past Massachusetts Hall, I remember standing outside with a notebook, witness to three weeks of chanting and marching and late-night vigils among banners and sleeping bags. In my time as a reporter for The Crimson, I have eaten lentil soup at Café Algiers with the Square’s living statue “The Bride,” seen the Rocky Horror Picture show, documented the quiet closing of countless stores. I watched women get injected with Botox at a swank Newbury Street clinic for my thesis, and have seen the sun rise while walking back from 14 Plympton St. to Eliot House.

In the sum of these moments, so slowly I barely even noticed, I have come to inhabit a version of this place that is uniquely my own. This campus is my roommates, The Crimson, the unlikely cast of Square characters whose lives have intersected briefly with my own. I have found that even if you never move from a place, time moves you, as layer upon layer of experience transforms the familiar into something foreign.

When I walked into Eliot H-44 for the first time this fall, I called my father on the phone, and argued with him about the orientation of the mouse-throwing window, the bathroom, the common room closet. My mother hardly recognized the Eliot House dining hall when she met me for lunch. There are no guinea pigs in my common room and the dining hall I know looks different from the one my mother knew. But their stories have survived in the form of memory, jostled from long hibernation by a word, an image, an unexpected association.

As my classmates and I move on from this campus where four years can take on infinite permutations, I begin to think that this is one lesson to draw from my own year in H-44. It seems that each of us could go from this seemingly impenetrable school with barely a ripple to mark our individual parting. We spend our final days here filing away photos, books and papers, scraping tape off the walls and struggling with hasty re-plastering jobs. But even as we leave our rooms as we found them, our time here remains alive in us, and in those to whom we give our stories of athletic competitions, dance performances, 4 a.m. trips to 7-11, or guinea pigs in the common room. And I know that when my own experience distills into memory, my parents’ Harvard stories will stand alongside my own.

Daniela J. Lamas ’03, a history of science concentrator in Eliot House, was managing editor of The Crimson in 2002.

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