forgetful personal historian For someone who is all about preserving stories, my memory sucks.

Just the other week my mother-in-law told me a story about a family ring. Apparently, my husband found the ring in the summer cottage and, assuming it wasn’t valuable, gave it to me to wear. My mother-in-law had to have an awkward conversation with my then boyfriend, telling him that she wanted the ring back.

I was appalled at the fact that this episode rang zero bells of familiarity. However, it never occurred to me to doubt the veracity of her story. She simply wouldn’t make up that type of thing—especially as she was in the process of re-gifting the ring to me.

I went home and questioned my husband. Did he remember the ring? Did he remember finding it? He confirmed the details. Luckily, he also came up with a good reason for my lack of memory. No, not mental defect, not repression. My mother-in-law was remembering the wrong girlfriend.

Forgetful personal historians are not hypocrites

I’m convinced that there’s no hypocrisy in me, Ms. If-Our-Stories-Conflict-I’ll-Believe-Your-Version, advocating preserving memory. Who better than the poster child of memory self-doubt to convince others to WRITE MEMORIES DOWN? (Yep, those all caps were me yelling for a minute. You’ll have to excuse me; I get passionate about these things.)

We all have fallible memories

Forgetful personal historians are some of the best. They know that to preserve memories, stories, and connections, someone has to make a permanent record of them. They’re experts of avoiding the traps of thinking that a) we’ll always remember and b) we’ll get around to “writing it down” some other day.

Tips for other “Forgetful Personal Historians”

Label Photographs

It’s laborious, I know. But memory will fade, fail, or switch to the wrong girlfriend. Whether you’re doing it digitally or with an acid-free photographic marker, label or tag your photos. You don’t have to write the whole story, but give yourself—and others—hints.

This applies to photographs that you send to other people as well. People have the tendency (you see me pointing at someone in my house, right) to “neaten up” and put things away before they get properly labeled and cataloged. If you’re sending your grandmother 43 shots of your sons at the zoo, write the names, dates, and places on the envelope, if not on the individual prints.

Take your memory for a jog and compare notes

Prompt your memory with old photos, ticket stubs, maps, and the like. Ask other family members what they remember about events. Blow the dust off that old film projector in the basement and watch old movies. Old videos are even better—voices of the past bring memories rushing back.


Research is a great way to set the scene for your memory narratives as well as to prompt your recall. For instance, just looking at Jennifer Rosenburg ‘s Timeline of the 20th Century for 1978, (First Test-Tube baby was born, John Paul II became Pope, Jonestown Massacre) takes me back. I can clearly remember discussions about Jonestown with some of my friends. Remembering that, I suddenly also remember my friend Alison D. I went to Alison when I couldn’t wrap my head around something. We not only had fun together, we tried to figure out the world together.

Dr. Deborah Abbott suggests googling yourself. You’ll find old directories and the occasional “ink” in old newspapers.

What you don’t remember can be a story too!

Many times when groups share experiences, the individuals will have varying degrees of recall later. I go into more detail about why some memories fade while others remain vibrant, in my book. Comparing shared memories and contemplating why we remember differently can be quite enlightening and entertaining.

Your Turn

As soon as you’re done signing up for my Memory Sharing Newsletter (left sidebar), go write down a memory!

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