Memory losses

Piecing together our family stories is harder now that I'm divorced.

By Marianne Jacobbi
March 27, 2011

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“Remember when I got my finger stuck in that park bench in France?” My 22-year-old son is asking about an incident from 20 years ago in the south of France. We were living in Aix-en-Provence as a family at the time, and we’d had many fun outings at the different parks near our apartment. This day, the two of us were in the park alone. But it was getting dark that late afternoon, and my son’s finger wouldn’t budge from one of the round holes in a metal bench. This was before cellphones, and, of course, I still remember the sense of panic I felt. Other details are murky: which park it was, the time of year. The memory is as cloudy as a Buffalo winter sky. (I do know that it worked out. Lip gloss to the rescue.)

Now, if I were still married and my son asked a question about his childhood, I’m guessing his dad and I would trade memories back and forth like a tag team, the way parents do. We’d fill in the gaps for each other and piece together a whole story. Or not. It’s the kind of reminiscing children love, and how families and couples build a shared history. My ex and I had family stories we loved to tell, and they grew richer and more imprinted with every telling.

“Tell the birthmark story,” one of the kids would say, and we’d be off. Our infant son had a strawberry patch on his head that turned black overnight. “You rushed him to the doctor; you thought he had cancer,” one of the kids would say. “I knew I was in trouble,” my daughter would chime in. She was a toddler at the time and with me at the pediatrician’s office when he diagnosed the problem. “It looks like Magic Marker,” he had said, eyeing my daughter with a smile.

“Tell the getting lost in the woods story.” “Tell the one about the rabbit stew the first day of school in France.” I watch my long-married friends recall their lives this way, back and forth, and they sound like the old couples in When Harry Met Sally. They’re not just husband and wife – they’re memory prompts for each other. It’s the saving grace of growing older, having that person by your side who goes back with you in time, that person who remembers your suede bell-bottoms and how you spent your 30th birthday and what happened the night on the expressway when you hit black ice going 60 miles per hour with three little kids in the back seat. Maybe that’s why people living with a partner in midlife have sharper memories later in life and lower rates of dementia than those who live alone.

Two memories are better than one.

People will tell you about losing their shirt or their house or their nest egg after divorce. What they don’t tell you about are the lost stories. Once you’re on your own, there will be gaps that family and friends can try to help you reconstruct. But they can’t really, because they weren’t there for all of it. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks, and it’s harder to do without a prompt.

If I had kept journals, they might tell me all sorts of things I’ve been trying to call up recently, like when each of my children started sleeping through the night (something my older daughter’s been asking about now that she’ll soon become a mother herself). Word of advice to the young: Back up those blogs you’re writing; you may wish you had them decades from now.

My ex and I are history – we ceased being each other’s memory prompts years ago. But preserving our family memories has become more and more important to me the older I get. So I did something recently that I’d never done before. A few days ago, I sent my ex an e-mail asking about that long-ago day in the park in France. Could he recall any of the missing details? “Sorry,” he wrote back, “I don’t remember any of the specifics, although I do recall it happened.” Shared forgetting. I guess that’s a reality, too. I’m glad I asked. The story feels almost complete now.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to

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