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.
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.