Notes from Candice Ransom

A Leaf in Ice

leaf in ice

This weekend I went to Richmond to visit my sister, get my hair done (“Lord, I can read in the dark by your roots,” she said), and, not the least, to remember something.

All the way down I-95 I reminded myself, “Ask about the Mouse House.”  While my sister was putting my color on, I did.  “We all had them,” my sister said. “Mama, me, and you.”  Our stepfather had made them for us in 1980.

Back then my sister, Mama, and I were on a rampage, buying tiny little dressers and rugs and lamps that actually lit up.  (I’ve always been fascinated by miniatures—probably harks back to reading The Borrowers.)  I also collected dressed mice, much cuter than stiff dollhouse figures.  Dressed mice occupied Mama’s and my sister’s houses, too.  Hence the name Mouse Houses.

In working out an obscure detail for a new book, I thought of my old Mouse House.  I’d sold it at a yard sale years ago and couldn’t remember what it looked like.  My sister not only remembered our Mouse Houses, she still has hers packed away.  She described the structure:  peaked roof with an attic space below, the various rooms.

As she talked, my memory came back, but only partially.  I couldn’t see my entire Mouse House, only the attic that I had fixed up like a playroom with a tiny red wagon and tiny teddy bear and tiny rocking horse.

For me, recovering a lost memory is like a leaf submerged in ice.  I can only retrieve a bit of it.  Despite hard thinking, I can’t recall any more of my Mouse House.

What does it mean for a writer—or anyone—to lose memory?  I used to have almost total recall, which was often embarrassing.  I’d see somebody I hadn’t seen in years and would recall our last meeting down to the weather, what we were wearing, what we talked about, and who else was there.  People probably thought my own life was so boring that every minor event was branded in my brain.

Not any more.  I can’t remember the names of the characters in the books I’m working on.  Short-term memory loss is annoying, but long-term memory loss, those huge blank spaces in my life, is frightening.

A few weeks ago I found a 1997 journal where I’d recounted an incident from the 80s.  It had to do with a shortcut and something funny my stepfather had said.  I asked my husband if he remembered the shortcut.  He described the paved part, the graveled part, the dirt part.  I could not picture that shortcut, much less what my stepfather had said.  In fact, I didn’t even remember keeping that journal.  I went into my office and cried.

In The Memoir Book, author Patti Miller describes two ways of experiencing memory: “original” memory and “remembered” memory. “Remembered” memory is the most common: “Your daily recall of events of the immediate or faraway past which you either entertain in your mind or retell to others.”  This type of memory has a “movie” feel.

“Original” memory comes more rarely and is triggered by sensory stimulus.  Think Proust’s madeleines.  “A smell or taste or other sensory experience suddenly and powerfully brings the experience to mind . . . so strong and vivid that, for an instant, you relive the experience.”  “Original” memory can’t be sustained, whereas “remembered” memory can be played back.  I replay the same old memories over and over, like a stack of 45s.

Memory is notoriously imperfect.  In each retelling or playback the story is changed a bit.  In her book Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas says:  “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it. Maybe memory is what the mind does with its free time, decorating itself.”

Thomas advocates writing even when you can’t remember.  And so I continue to write—journals, blog posts, essays, novels, anything to help defrost memories.

As I drove back up I-95 yesterday afternoon, my partially-thawed mind redecorated my long-gone Mouse House.  I remembered keeping two of the dressed mice.  This morning I dug their box out of the trunk.  Inside were all of my dressed mice.

dressed mice

My hand went immediately to my favorite, the one in a turquoise-checked dress holding a teeny-tiny toy mouse, the one that played in the attic nursery.

10 thoughts on “A Leaf in Ice”

  1. Hearing your memories and seeing how carefully you tend to the pieces of your past makes me feel deeply grateful for your friendship. I say to myself, “now here’s a friend I can trust with my heart. see how much she cares.” Your memories my not be sharp or quickly recalled but they shape you nonetheless. Maybe warm and fuzzy is enough.

    • It seems I only remember the bad things, and not the good ones. I rely on my sister to fill in the gaps. And if I repeat the same old stories to you, like somebody 98 years old, you’re kind enough to listen to them. I do tend to my past, like a winter garden waiting for spring.

  2. Oh could have written this (though not as well)! Gabi colored my hair (a free bit of color for an honest review) and it’s really changed my face and even my feeling about myself, which I was sadly unaware of. But feeling that extra fifteen minutes of famed youthfulness, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit, especially on the loss of my eidetic memory within the last few years. Throw in “interpretations” because we all view our experiences through a lens, I feel more of a need to write with far less of the confidence… Love your posts, they are thoughtful and heartfelt.

    • Oh, my, I’ve never giving up my color. I’m so pale I look like somebody helped out of a coffin as it is. And don’t you think having our old hair color is a way of hanging on to the past? It’s enough of a shock to look in the mirror and see this 62-year-old face without adding white hair!

      We do all re-interpret memories and from what I’ve read, that’s okay. Your reinventions, even filling in the blanks with fiction, is a way to cope and perfectly acceptable.

  3. Those mice are simply sweet. What a wonderful find.
    Lately I have noticed my brain thinks differently. I too feel like I am losing ground when I can’t remember things the way I used to. Recently I woke one night trying to recall some connection from my past; it was there, but it was slipping away from me. I might have to write more to make those connections in my mind.

    • Even as I was writing the post, I remembered the detail about the rocking horse in the Mouse House nursery attic. I think I even still have it–it’s a Hallmark ornament, stored in the garage with our old collection of Hallmark dated Christmas ornaments. So writing *does* work.

      I’m still crazy over those mice. Can’t let the new cat see them!

  4. Darn. Comment was lost, and it was a good one too. Funny that should happen. I’ve lately felt a loss of something in my memory and the way I think. I wake in the night trying to reach for a connection in my head but it is disappearing from me. It might mean I need to write more, so that I don’t lose what’s inside.

    • Melissa: Your comment came through. For some reason WordPress isn’t showing them up right away, not even mine and I work through the Dashboard.

      My webmaster fixed something and I think he messed up something else.

  5. I can’t imagine feeling the loss of such a valuable resource. It’s something I’ll never experience because I never had a good memory to begin with. In fact, it’s notoriously bad – always has been. Along with genetics, I think it was a coping mechanism. To remain sane in the house I grew up in, I had to forget a lot. It never really stopped. 8-/

    • My sister never forgot a *thing* in the house we spent five years in. I’ve either blocked it out or was too young to remember much anyway.

      I use my memory in my work–much of it is autobiographical in some way or another. Now I’ll have to steal other people’s memories and use them in my stories!


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