When Memory Fails

As we go through life, there are events that seem so memorable that we will never forget the who, when, where, how and why of them – like the day you graduated from college, or the day you coached your wife through delivering your first born. Then there are the mundane things that aren’t quite so memorable, but that you do need to remember at times – like when did the new roof go on the house (so you can budget for its replacement) or when did you take that cherished road trip with your grade school kids (so you can find those digital photos filed by year.

At 67, my spouse and I have been married for 43 years. We do remember (usually) when our own children were born. We sometimes even remember when they actually graduated. But when it comes to questions like, is it time to re-stain the house? or When did the sewer line go in and replace the septic tank? Those things we have a bit of trouble remembering.

When memory fails, use an assist.

It isn’t that we are getting senile (or so we think), it’s just that life is crowded with events and putting them in order is sometimes difficult. We use tools to assist in many ways – from the alarm clock that wakes you to the calendar you keep online. My assist is a time line of events in my married life.

How to develop a time line of events for yourself.

Start with current events.

Documenting things close in time to the event typically results in more accurate documentation, so start with what happened this year.

Keep it simple.

Use a simple tool, one to which you have access and with which you are familiar.

I use an Open Office text document kept in a file on my laptop. It is simple to add the new years data at the end of each year and easy to print out to put in my paper file.

Go back and fill in prior years.

As you have time, go back to the start of your time line and add major events. Start from memory, but check facts when you can and when you have time (by looking through records you may have kept).

Keep it high level.

Most of us have limited time and unlimited desired ways to spend our time. Don’t obsess over recording every action, thought or accomplishment in your time line. Record the year’s happenings that were important to your family (birth of a child, death of a parent, where you vacationed, major accomplishments of family members) or that you may need to remember down the road (like when the roof went on the house).

Put it in context.

I share my time line with my grown sons, so I like to put in some context on the world as it was that year – major economic, political or natural events. Your descendants might someday use your time line to help them build their family history. They might think you were a real loser if you state that you were laid off in 2009, without reminding them that the world was in a great recession and times were bad.

Format it for quick reference.

Organize and format your time line so that the meat jumps out from the rest. Put the important things first, or in bold, or highlighted or whatever format fits for you. Organize the information by year but also consider organizing by category if that seems appropriate. You might, for instance, want to have a category for life events (birth, marriage, death, divorce, etc) and a different category for household maintenance type things (like the year you bought the washer/dryer, or the year you refinished the kitchen, etc). That way, you might be able to find the information you seek faster.

Mine is organized by year, with our personal events listed first for the year and then a section for ‘environment’ type events. I bullet each event item and insert dashes between each year.

If you are more concise than I, you could put it in a sort-able spreadsheet or database.

Use your time line.

Instead of digging through files to figure out what you want to remember, first consult your time line! Give your descendants a copy to share with them part of your life’s journey. Use it to write that auto biography you want left behind when you are no longer roaming the Earth. Be remembered.

Do you document your life? How do you do it?

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