07/27/2013 08:06 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2013

The Freezer That Rang And Other Tales Of Memory Loss


I once knew a woman who told me she took away her son's cell phone to punish him -- and then ended up having to buy a new one because she couldn't remember where she hid it. I thought it odd at the time; after all, how could you possibly misplace something as valuable and important as a phone?

Until I did it myself. I lost my cell phone and didn't find it until... Well, it's kind of embarrassing, humiliating and all those other words I need a thesaurus to find, so before I own up to this gaffe, I'd like to talk about the obvious -- the way our memory changes as we get older.

There's something we start to lose with age (and it's not weight, dammit) -- it's brain matter.

I first noticed the serious and disturbing nature of this situation when I returned to school for a Master's degree about a month shy of my 50th birthday. Classes were held twice a week. I thought the hard part was behind me after I completed the lengthy application and was accepted into the program. I loved learning, so schoolwork seemed entirely manageable, even welcome after so many years of being removed from the classroom.

And now that my children were in high school, they could pretty much fend for themselves, with one caveat -- I'd allow them to get fast food on the nights I had schoolwork. Trouble was, the twice-a-week classes were rounded out with so much work due for the following week that every night I had schoolwork. I was none too pleased with their diets of greasy, fat-laden awful food (they were thrilled, to say the least). But I digress.

After so many years of not doing any really serious reading -- the kind that I had to analyze, dissect and actually remember for more than a few days after I digested the last word -- I had forgotten (oh no, here it was -- the first sign of memory loss) just how much work college could be. I faced an inordinate amount of work for each of my two classes; in addition to books to read there were papers to write and others to critique in-between. So, in my quest to be teacher's pet (not really -- I was way too old for that -- all I really wanted was to come to class prepared) I set out to divide up the pages of reading so that each day, I would read part of the assignment and by the time the new class rolled around, I'd have it all finished.

I was on a roll: 120 pages divided by seven -- not so bad. Roughly 17 pages a day. But what I forgot to factor in was my waning attention span (another thing that seems to diminish along with brain cells) and the fact that I did not want my children or husband to be malnourished. Too guilty to concentrate, I tried my hand at quick and easy meals, which weren't always so quick and definitely not always easy. And sometimes my reading got pushed to the next night and the next night... until the easy 17 pages were now an intimidating 34, or even 51. (It was akin to the sudden weight gain that sneaks up after age 50... first it's two pounds, then it's five and before you know it, it's in the double digits.)

But you know what the biggest problem was? By the time I finished my reading, I had forgotten what I read on that first day -- even the second day -- those first 40 pages ago. I'd stride into class, arrange my notebook and two black fine-point pens in front of me, position my steaming hot Venti Starbucks to my right and hunker down in my seat, ready to nourish my brain, anxious to spew forward my brilliant revelations. The discussion would begin -- and what a discussion it was!

Only I had NO CLUE as to what anyone was talking about. Was I in the wrong class? (The sprawling campus was still unfamiliar to me.) No, the faces were familiar (in fact, they were, for the most part, beautifully unlined, smooth and youthful faces at that) but the words, thoughts and conclusions were anything but.

After the first few classes that rendered me mute by virtue of my newly discovered sieve-like brain, I realized I had to change my ways. It was time for some pre-emptive measures. I began jotting down my thoughts on index cards as I read. (Never mind that the first few times, I forgot to bring them to class with me. It somehow helped cement the thoughts better in my memory). And when I read, I made sure to block out all possible distractions -- I turned off the phone and my email and sat downstairs, far away from the refrigerator or any other sources of temptation. I even set a timer for one hour so that I would force myself not to move and do something else until the bell went off. (Why did I suddenly have the urge to vacuum instead of read??) Oh, yes, I almost forgot: Post-it notes to help me remember random things that tumbled into my brain as I read, like phone calls I had to return and birthday cards to send.

Some other things I tried to help build my memory were following a routine (I'd try to sit down and read at the same time each day); writing everything on my calendar (never would I again trust that I'd remember important things like doctor appointments after missing one that I waited five months for). I made sure to keep up with my exercise schedule, as I knew that exercise helps build stronger brain connections and helps strengthen your memory.

And here's the biggest one: I tried to avoid, when I could, the thing that always gets me into trouble -- multi-tasking. I do think a lot of us confuse memory loss with the consequences of multi-tasking. After all, think about all the times you're juggling so many things at once that it's just impossible to do any one of those things without the other ones suffering. It's like cooking on a six-burner stove; something is bound to get forgotten and burned to a crisp.

As I started to say earlier, I managed to lose my cell phone. One minute it was in my hand and the next -- pffft -- like magic, it was gone. I spent the good part of a day looking for it, checking every possible place I could have left it -- the car, my pocket, the closet, the bathroom, even the garbage... twice each time. I tried calling my own number, hoping to be led to the missing phone like Hansel and Gretel tried with breadcrumbs. But like the hungry birds that ate said breadcrumbs, something equally hungry devoured my phone. Finally resigned to the fact that I'd have to buy a new one, I decided to make a special dinner that night. After all, my family had all been so supportive of my attempts at shutting out the world to do my never-ending stream of homework. They deserved a great home-cooked meal; a nice change from their junk food dinners.

As I opened the freezer to take out some shrimp, I heard a familiar ring. My phone! Mystified, I frantically dug through the bags of frozen berries and bread until I found it. And then I remembered. I must have absentmindedly released the cell phone from my grip the day before when I returned from food shopping. While I was loading the freezer with my new purchases, rushing to get downstairs to read, the dog began to bark.

A cute little girl was at the door, selling Girl Scout cookies. How could I resist the S'mores, my all-time favorites? Hold on, I said, let me get my checkbook out of my bag. Somewhere between the freezer and the front door, to my pocketbook and back again, my cell phone dropped from my grip, ending up in the deep freeze.

Cell phone scampi, anyone?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Marilu Henner's Memory Makeover Tips