This piece originally appeared in Discourse, but I am reposting it here for posterity.
I am five years old, sitting in the kitchen with my mother. She has just spent half the day baking a lemon drizzle cake, which now sits on the rack in front of me, cooling. It’s a vegan lemon drizzle cake, she tells me repeatedly. For vegans. It’s a thing she is trying out.
I, she reminds me, am not a vegan. This cake, she is keen to emphasise, is not for me, because I am not a vegan.
It’s sitting there in front of me. Moist and warm, steam still seeping out its gently-cracked top. I’m sure all the vegans are going to enjoy eating this very-definitely-vegan cake.
The phone rings in the other room.
My mother tears off her rubber gloves and rushes out of the room, to answer the call.
She returns a few minutes later. I have, in these few short moments, moved out of my seat, and am sat on the table. A giant piece of the lemon drizzle cake sits in my hand, an even larger chunk in my mouth. Crumbs lie scattered around the kitchen, like debris after a hurricane. The cake is in ruins.
“Conor! What have you done?”
My mother, understandably, is not pleased.
I look up from my unplanned mid-afternoon feast with a glint in my eye. I know something that she does not. She thinks I’ve done something wrong, but once I explain myself, she will see that I am wholly in the right.
I explain, with my mouth still stuffed full of delicious lemon drizzle cake, “I— I’ve decided that I’m a vegan now.”
We do not become the people we are out of choice, but out of chance, and necessity. A particularly interesting lecturer in a class we accidentally walk into. A parent’s keen interest in astronomy. A tantalising lemon drizzle cake on a table we just happen to be sitting at.
When we talk about our origins, we are not talking about ourselves and the decisions we’ve made, but about everything else — all the other things that shape us. Our families. Our friends. Time. Place. The significant milestones and the everyday nothings.
Understanding somebody’s past is the easiest way to understand who they are today. These are the things that have had the longest to grow into a person’s identity — the parts of ourselves that are most deeply-rooted. We ask where somebody is from, or what the first record they bought was, in the hope that it will reveal their whole self to us. Closely observed, somebody’s origins become a shorthand for their entire life.
But the past, it is important to remember, is malleable. Whilst our origins inform the rest of our life, it is the rest of that life that informs how we perceive those origins. Stories are passed from person to person, between family members, then across families — eventually, it can be hard to decipher just what of our past is memory, and what is story. Perhaps it wasn’t a lemon drizzle cake at all — I remember it as such, but at the age of five, it is unlikely I would have know the difference between lemon drizzle and a Victoria sponge. I remember it as a lemon drizzle cake because my mother’s lemon drizzle cake is affixed so firmly, so vividly, to my memory of childhood. If I place another cake in that story, it no longer feels like a story of my childhood. The memory of a past, perhaps, reveals more truth than the actual facts do.