The Irregular Memory
By Ann Richardson

The following is an excerpt from The Granny Who Stands on Her Head: Reflections on growing older

Conversations with my husband often go something like this:

“I saw that nice guy just now in the supermarket and said hello.”

“What guy?”

“You know, the one we met last summer on a boat – he was tall and very nice. He had a wife with red hair and I think there was a small dog.”

 “‘Oh, yes, that guy. He was very nice. Are they living near here now?”


“Shall we go see that film that is on down the road?”

“What film?”

“‘You know, the one that was made by the same guy as that terrific film that made us laugh out loud.“

“Oh, yes, good idea. What time is it on?”

How many conversations take place among older couples that sound something like that?  Never a name in sight – or any that really help. Anyone from outside would be baffled. Yet we often know what we are talking about. These conversations can be annoying, as we don’t always get the connection we want. And they can, of course, go on a lot longer, but this seems enough to demonstrate the idea.

But they are not the real problem. What really bothers me is when I can’t remember the really important facts that I should have at my fingertips. I am not talking about who was President in 1953 or what is the capital of Switzerland. No, it is all those little personal facts that you ought to remember but can’t. And it can get you into trouble if you aren’t careful.

When we were younger, my friends had husbands and children and you could generally remember their names. I had met them, after all, and knew something about them. I could picture them in my mind. But now they have grandchildren who I’ve never met. They’ve talked loads about them, of course, but my memory isn’t what it was and I lack the visual framework. It is so hard to keep up. How many grandchildren did they have? From their son or their daughter? And wasn’t there one with a problem, but which one and what was the issue?

You meet for the occasional chat and try to re-make contact. Didn’t this friend have a daughter with twin boys? Or was that someone else? Were they born a long time ago or are they still small? Time goes so fast, they are probably older than I think.

Well, I can usually find a way of saying “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember the names of your grandchildren”, which gives leeway for them to offer number, age and gender. And which child had what grandchildren when. Sorting that out will get you back on track.

But there is more. Take their grown-up children, whose lives I have heard a lot about over the years, but I haven’t seen them for ages. Sometimes, there is a vague memory that there was some problem in the past that I was told about. Was there a son with a messy marital problem – did they get divorced or sort it out?  Or was it the daughter? I should know, but it has completely gone from my head.

Or was it a work problem? Did the daughter get fired or made redundant? Little details can be very important. It looks thoughtless to have forgotten. Perhaps I can get by with “How is that son of yours getting on?” and hope that covers all contingencies. With luck, I won’t have to reveal my forgetfulness.

But then comes the killer. We might be friends with an older couple who we don’t see often, and I can’t for the life of me remember whose parents are still alive. I can’t say “How’s your father doing?” if he died two years ago in difficult circumstances, which they told me all about. But I also don’t want to offer condolences if the man is in rude health.

Two people means four parents. Oh dear. And this does matter to people. It’s not like the names of grandchildren. This happens more often than I want to think. I’ve never found a good solution, aside from keeping the conversation going long enough and hoping it comes up naturally. Sometimes, a friend will say “After my father died…”. And I breathe a big sigh of relief.

One should really keep a notebook for all such information – little lists of children, grandchildren and what they are all up to. And definitely the deaths of parents. It would make conversations a whole lot easier.

But there is a very good chance that my friends have the same problem as I do.


About the Author

Ann Richardson has been writing books for many years on differing subjects. Her most recent book is about why she likes being old and is partly a memoir. She lives in London with her husband of over 55 years.  Her website is


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