Life

Nuala McCann: My hippocampus is shrinking but that moustachio-ed woman on Slemish haunts me still

This pandemic has plundered my soul, raided my ability to escape into a story. My imagination is a flightless bird. Even Gone Girl is gone to me. Instead, Professor Veronica O'Keane is reassuring in charting the workings of the human brain

Slemish – we paid it a virtual visit in honour of St Patrick’s Day this year

HEY presto, I've found it – the secret to why I'm standing at the top of the stairs, eyeing the layer of soft dust on the windowsill, and wondering why I went up.

All the lost keys/lost phones/lost glasses are to be expected. Reader, my hippocampus is shrinking.

When you hit a certain age, that part of the brain starts to get smaller – and short-term memory falters.

My friend told me years ago that our small children could soak up so much more knowledge than us because our brains are already stuffed like a heaving hot press – the kind where you open the door and a bundle of towels drops on your head.

Our i-clouds are full – theirs are empty except for Mister Men, a very hungry caterpillar and a loathing for carrot mush.

The shrinking hippocampus fact comes from an excellent authority. Professor Veronica O'Keane whose book, The Rag and Bone Shop, is my go-to lockdown favourite. It is not a light read…. but it is fascinating and, thankfully, written for the non-scientist, weaving memory and literature and poetry.

This pandemic has plundered my soul, raided my ability to escape into a story. My imagination is a flightless bird. Even Gone Girl is gone to me. Instead, Prof O'Keane is reassuring in charting the workings of the human brain… how we make memories and how memories make us.

She herself remembers that moment when she realised that she was a separate being when, as a child, she looked down at the orange button on her cardigan.

Hippocampus, amygdala, insula… the brain is an enchanting mystery and I am in thrall.

The smell of grass summons hot summer days and Tree Top Orange; the smell of Old Spice is my father in his vest at the bathroom sink, bearded in white cream, shaving.

A single blue droplet of an earring catches the sunlight as I lift it from my mother's old jewellery case; the whirr of the sewing machine spells home. She'd sit in the working kitchen and sew – why did my father call it the working kitchen… did it not work? Strange what we remember and what it says about us.

Slemish is St Patrick's hill near home where we went every St Patrick's Day at a time when tourism wasn't a thing. Off to the first Mass, a quick round of Hail Glorious and then one of our parents drove us the 14 miles out to the base of the mountain where we'd scramble to the top like mountain goats and gorge on a mountain of chocolate and sweets in the Glorious Saint's holy name.

This year around St Patrick's Day, on a trip down memory lane – it was a virtual trip, Slemish is not within the 10-mile limit – we shared memories of those days out. My sister remembered the lovely people who lived in the farm at the base of the mountain. They handed out free brown and green lemonade to help us on our way.

My brother remembered how he and his best friend had rode on their bikes out to Slemish, only to have the catastrophe of the chain breaking on one of the bikes and the prospect of a long trudge home. A man stopped to help. He took the bit of rope he used to hold up his trousers and yoked the two bikes together with it… so that they could trail the broken bike home. It was funny.

What I remembered was the old woman who greeted us at the base of the mountain. She had a thick black moustache – the kind you might twirl. I'm not over it yet.

So what do your memories say about you?

My sister has a heart big enough for the world – so she remembered the kindness of the lemonade people. My brother has a wicked sense of humour – so he remembered the man that sacrificed the twine hitching up his trousers.

And me? All is vanity – that moustachio-ed woman haunts me yet. I'm considering applying for an Invest NI grant to start up Skaramoosh – a depilatory cream company.

But what was most reassuring about The Rag and Bone Shop book was how, with age, Prof O'Keane says we take a wider overview of life.

Yes, your hippocampus might shrink, but you develop a greater sense of peace – and that counts for a lot – take it from this bearded lady.

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