Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale watch fireworks

How We Remember

I’ve been in Texas all week, gathering with my family as we do every year. It’s been lovely, full of all the things that make my family great – big pool parties, loud arguments, belly laughs and a whole lot of ice cream. I haven’t done any work, and I haven’t even thought about writing, until now. I’ve simply enjoyed the company of my aunts and uncles and cousins and the zillion kids that are here. It’s been glorious.

And so, it was a bit odd to be getting ready for lunch yesterday when I realized that it was July 3rd. It surprised me. Not that I had remembered the day (which I always have) but that it had taken me until lunchtime to remember.

July 3rd was the day Shawn and I were married.

I talked about it with Chris – both that I had remembered the significance of the date and how it was strange that I hadn’t focused on it in the days beforehand.

I didn’t feel bad about my lack of remembering, but also, I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. Wasn’t it strange that this day – the one that only a few years ago could bring me to my knees – was now just another day?

In his work in Colombia and then in graduate school, Chris studied memory. Of course, he was working on the interaction between civil conflict and memory, not specifically about widows. But there are a lot of crossovers, we’ve discovered.

There are many ways to think about memory, but two of the most common are what I might term “functional” and “observational.” Functional memory is more about the act of specifically remembering a date or an event (or something as simple as remembering your lunch). Functionally, I do remember that July 3rd was my anniversary with Shawn.

But that’s not really what was strange about my whole July 3rd experience. I remembered that it was July 3rd, or at least I did by lunchtime.

I just didn’t do anything about it.

The other kind of memory is the kind that I was contending with. It is observational memory, which is more about not only remembering that something is happening, but giving it meaning. It’s not just about saying, “this date exists” but rather about an act that you’re choosing to engage in during that time. For me, that has meant going to Shawn’s grave or writing a blog post about him or remembering him with the kids. It’s also about my mental acts, the time when I have spent thinking about him and who he was. Once, every marker of Shawn’s life – his birthday, the day he got sick, the day he died, Father’s Day, our anniversary – was important to honor and mark in a very significant way. Now, it’s different.

The thing is, I obviously haven’t forgotten Shawn, and I don’t just mean in the functional sense. I remember these important days and I usually mark them, at least in simple ways. It’s just different than it once was.

I think, with widowhood, it can feel like you either have to be the grieving widow forever or the happy widow who has left all those emotions behind forever. But in reality, I think many widows find themselves on a spectrum.

So where am I on this spectrum?

I don’t really know. What I do know is that I’m in a very different place than I was in 2018 and 2019…and even just a year ago. Part of the reason, of course, is that I am married to Chris. I do not feel married to Shawn at all anymore, and that’s something that I certainly did feel in the early months (and maybe even years?) of widowhood. That part of me is different now. My life is with Chris.

My posts in 2018 and 2019 were all about how much I missed Shawn, and how I was marking the time without him. I looked at our wedding photos. I surrounded myself with my family and told stories about him. I wrote about how I loved him.

I didn’t do that this year. Instead, I looked at the calendar, remembered the date, and then kept doing what I usually do in Texas. I swam in the pool with my cousins. I laughed as we watched comedy shows on TV. I hugged my kids as I brought them a second bowl of ice cream.

And I snuggled with my husband.

I lived my life, and I did not do much of all to mark the date. Except, of course, to keep living, which was ultimately what I know Shawn wanted for me.


  • Lynn

    Thank you for sharing. I hope someday I will be there, probably not snuggling anyone, but the place where I carve out a life I enjoy without him… but so far it’s a slog, on the good days. Blessings, Lynn

  • Linda

    Funny this should get posted today from my standpoint. I’ve written to you before and once again I appreciate your insights and sharing your life. This year Saturday, July 23 will be the 50th anniversary of when my then 16 year old future husband and me at age 14 went on our first date to Horseneck beach in Massachusetts. We married in May 1976 but we always celebrated July 23. I have been planning to go to Horseneck Beach and I guess sit there and think? . I don’t think my daughters were going to go with me and I was assuming I’d be going alone. The other day a friend of mine sent me information about a conference on Africa and antiracism in Buffalo that goes over the weekend – July 23 -and it even though it’s about a 5 1/2 hour drive from my home to Buffalo I am now thinking I may go to that instead. I’m starting to doubt what good will it do for me to sit & mark what would’ve been the 50th anniversary of our first date. I guess it still is the 50th anniversary of our first date but my husband has been gone since Oct 24, 2020. Your story today reminded me that I can feel sad about him missing our 50th anniversary anywhere and it may be better for me to do some thing educational and meet new people and go someplace new than wallow or live in the past? He was always filled with pride about my being a teacher & meeting new people/doing new activities. The anniversary of our first date on the 23rd & then 21 months since Doug died on 24th. A lot. Big decision for me – thanks for listening!! (Reading – lol)

    • M Brimley

      This is such a lovely comment, for so many reasons. I love that you are really thinking through what will be best for you to do, because it sounds like that’s exactly what your late husband would want you to do. Thanks for writing…and whatever the decision, I know it will be what feels best at the time. And that may change in the future, too. Either way, I’ll be thinking of you.

  • EMC

    I look forward to the day my beautiful girlfriend can feel this way about the dates. Not for us, but for her.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, this is so sweet. I love that you’re thinking so much about her. And I do think that day will come at some point.