Many years ago, when my mother-in-law, Eleanor, was in her early 80’s she made a startling comment. She said she was lonely. This was startling to hear because Eleanor was seldom  alone. Her daughter, Margie, lived with her and she enjoyed regular visits from her four other children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Seeing my surprised reaction, she explained that she was lonely because she didn’t have anyone to talk to who remembered the past. Her husband, brothers and sister all died many years ago, as did her closest girlfriends. People from her childhood and young adulthood were long gone and she missed remembering life events with them. “Without these people to talk to about the past, it’s as though that part of my life never happened”, she said.

Eleanor’s comment sparked a change within me. I became a more patient and interested listener of elders’ life stories, a more empathetic ear to their past. I also came to treasure my best and closest friends as my personal life Memory Keepers. I’m very blessed to have had deep friendships with a group of wonderful women, none of whom know each other (the only common denominator is being a friend to me) and some of whom, due to living miles apart, I count on for luxurious marathon phone calls at least a few times a year. I rely on these fabulous women to reminisce and reflect on our lives as we and the culture change and evolve.  We’ve been there to witness the big choices in life. With my precious Memory Keepers, my life has a pattern. These women have lovingly, non-judgmentally and tenderly held my deepest joys, fears, mistakes and triumphs, and I, theirs. These are the women with whom the sentence that starts with “remember when we…” sparks the joyous re-telling of the stories we’ve recited many, many times. Our stories, like a slow unraveling of memories particular to just us, are reliable sources of fondness and delight amidst a life of change and uncertainty.

There’s Judy, my best friend from 7th through 12th grades. Judy holds with me the memories of that awkward and exciting age of first crushes, fashion choices during the 60’s, High School teachers, friends and boyfriends.  And, of course, everything that has come since then.  Although my sons don’t personally know Judy and her daughters don’t know me, we know a lot about them. We keep tabs on our kids’ college years, career moves and relationships and through keeping tabs, I feel a genuine love for Judy’s daughters as I’ve “watched” them grow up through Judy’s stories.

My best friend from college is Donna. Both upstate New Yorkers, we were endlessly teased by the predominately New York City students for our accents and for being “hicks”. Donna and I fortunately met each other after the first few days of Freshman year, commiserating about the roommates to whom we had been randomly assigned and just couldn’t bear to spend the next several months with. Donna and I found another new friend, Vicky, and the three of us became roommates and best friends. When I visited Donna at her home in Utah several years ago, we spent hours looking at photos from college and reliving those wonderful years. Donna and I reliably have marathon phone sessions on special occasions and whenever we need each other.

Gale was my first girlfriend upon moving to Minnesota in my mid-twenties. We shared the excitement of young marriage, the birth of children and balancing our careers with childrearing. Neither of us had relatives in Minnesota, so we, our husbands and kids became our Minnesota “family”. Gale and I shared the precious memories of young adulthood.

Kris entered my life at Middle Age. Seven years older than me, Kris taught me how to age with grace, beauty, strength and optimism. Kris and I spent hundreds of hours at coffee shops, sharing the challenges of impending empty nests, finances and health. As with my other Memory Keepers, I could trust Kris with the details of my life. She was my sounding board.

With the passing of first Gale and, now recently, Kris, I’ve begun to understand Eleanor’s loneliness. When a Memory Keeper dies, the conversations of shared stories abruptly end and life becomes a bit more silent. But space has generously opened in my life to nurture deepening friendships with other awesome women friends: Tina, Ann, Kathy, and other women with whom shared stories of life stages, careers, spirituality and now, the not-so-distant retirement years makes us trusted Memory Keepers of each others’ lives.

And as loved ones pass away, we can remain the Memory Keepers of their lives by thinking of them and talking about them. 

“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,’ my mother explained shortly before she left me. ‘If you can remember me, I will be with you always.”

― Isabel Allende, Eva Luna