Everyone has the capacity for several different types of memories, one of which is the flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is a highly precise snapshot sort of memory, one that sticks with a person for a very long time, perhaps even for a lifetime. What is interesting about flashbulb memories is that, unlike the more widely known photographic memories, flashbulb memories are often inaccurate, skewed, or warped, and not just by time, but by the root cause of the memory and that eventâ€™s emotional and physical significance.
One way to read Joseph Riippiâ€™s A Cloth House is as a series of interconnected flashbulb memories. The novella is made up of very short passages from the perspective of the protagonist, an unnamed woman, and most passages cover a brief memory of a person, thing, or event from her childhood.
Â â€œWhat I Mean by I Remember Mother Leaving the Room
What I mean is I remember the sound. Her white sneakers across the creaking wooden floor slats; her breathing, sighing, exhalations. She would say she was in no mood for this. But she never need say such a thing by that time; I was old enough then to notice the thoughts behind the words and faces of other persons. She was Em, 22, my mother, and there was something about me not right with her. She was 17 when she had me, 16 when she decided it, 15 at first pregnancyâ€™s risk, not knowing these decisions would mean she would be mother to this daughter, unendingly. Not knowing she would never be dancer nor painter nor woman of the cityâ€”none of that which she dreamed. She longed to be a part of that city on the mainland. But I would be strange, this daughter. This kind of daughter who never left the yellow sheet of her own imaginings. Strange how similar this daughter was to herself, Em might have thought once. I remember this well. Em did not remember it.â€
Riippiâ€™s prose sometimes carries the cadence of poetry and always reads naturally, almost effortlessly. Every passage is clear, keen, and sensory, like the reoccurring image of the yellow sheet: â€œI could not distinguish my motherâ€™s smell from that of the yellow sheet. Like pine and soap, like crisp and salt, it was sewn into and held within the nature.â€
This collection of memories comprises a narrative that focuses on the protagonist and her familyâ€”her parents and younger sister. From very near the beginning, it is clear that this family was torn apart, that they suffered life-altering disasters. As a child, the protagonist hid from her painful reality by escaping to a world of her own creation beneath her yellow sheet. A Cloth House is her attempt as an adult to make sense of these emotionally devastating incidents.
As the story progresses, the vocabulary changes, the protagonist becomes less confident in her recollections, repeating words such as â€œmight,â€ â€œperhaps,â€ and â€œmaybe.â€ Early on she laments her motherâ€™s desire to be a dancer and a painter. Later she says, â€œOther than skipping houses down Beach Road North, I know nothing real of her dreams as an adult. I assume at the painting, assume at the pottery.â€ The present moment is fleeting, and although the memories left in its wake may last a lifetime, they are subject to human error, never flawless. Does the accuracy of our memories matter? This is the lingering question. The protagonist appears to believe so, but her father offers an alternate view: â€œI wonder if we are both remembering her different than she really was, different in an unintended way, and I ask him to verify things. My father says itÂ doesn’tÂ matter how it really was, that when he is gone too, I wonâ€™t know any better, and thatâ€™s fine by him.â€
Though itâ€™s a quick read (can be finished in an hour or two), A Cloth House will put a death grip on your heartstrings. Itâ€™s a mystery that unravels on every page and, above all, a beautiful examination of the way our lives and memories are shaped, by love and anguish, birth and death, blessings and tragedies.
~Thomas Michael Duncan lives, writes, and works in central New York. Visit him atÂ tmdwrites.tumblr.com.~