The Limits of Memory


You have insufficient memory.

Deadpan.  As if no irony were involved, my computer informed me it had aborted the task of uploading digital pictures.

I don’t ask that much of my computer, but there you have it.

I had amassed more than 1300 photos on my wee camera.  Too many pictures, with nowhere to go.

At first my rapidly antiquating computer flashed a sign that I was low on memory.  Then, having failed to get a reaction from me, it balked like a testy toddler and shut itself down, refusing to even consider loading another picture until I cleared space on my hard drive.

The only way to do this was, at long last, to go through the archives and dispense with the over and under-lit shots, the closed eyes, the needless near-identical extras.  The pictures that simply were not special enough to occupy space in my memory.

I should have known this would be . . .  problematic.

In the days of camera film, I was the person unable to part with a single blurry photograph among dozens of unremarkable playground pictures from an ordinary day.

Once my husband Jim had coaxed me into the digital photography age, I could not press “delete” and let the pixels all coalesce to black before disappearing–even in images so dark no light adjustments could ever illuminate their contents, or so fuzzy they make me seasick to behold.

Among the cleaning up and cleaning out I’ve had to do since Jim died, clearing some computer memory seemed a relatively benign task . . . . until I began travelling back in time.


Because I soon realized that it’s not the sub-par picture that’s so hard to let go of; it’s the tender shoots each snapshot of time carries.

Each represents some chance to recapture Billy Collins’ “Past“: “those few vivid moments/which are vivid for no reason at all–/a face at a children’s party, or just a blue truck/moments that have no role in any story,/worthless to a biographer, but mysterious/and rivaling the colors of the present.”

Click after click, opening up hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of and from the home where we lived for most of our children’s lives.  Jim’s home.  Outside: ice skating, building snow forts, peeking from piles of autumn leaves, swinging at low-velocity pitches.  Inside: playing games, asleep against each other, cooking contests, painting, buildings made from less-than traditional materials.  A cluttered kitchen table that almost never featured food. “Mom, can you take a picture before the tower comes down?”

Winter2005 041

They are like the pictures, taken before a tragedy, which entranced a girl in The Little Friend: “More than anything, she wanted to slip out of the world she knew into their cool blue-washed clarity, where her brother was alive and the beautiful house still stood and everyone was always happy.”

The rusty orange-painted dining room, Jim and one of our daughters intent on an intricate puzzle spread out on the antique table that only a few years later would be moved a few feet aside, canted towards the pocket-shuttered windows so a hospital bed could be brought in . . . .

I’m not entirely sure how, but my camera also had captured some short snippets of video. In one, our older daughter and our recently adopted dog Rufus swing on a hammock Jim had strung between two towering trees, one of which–after standing for centuries–would come crashing down in a rogue autumn hurricane after he died.

Though neither Jim nor our youngest child is in sight in these videos, I can see them both as they were then, beyond the glass door nearest the hammock.  I can hear Jim’s voice as he discussed with our daughter the ground rules for bringing a dog home, and see her earnestly nodding, her amber eyes full of hope and longing for our first pet.

bandSummer2006 054

This is why it’s so hard to let go of a still or moving picture, no matter how nondescript: it calls back what enveloped that moment, the picture’s dusty past and partially emptied future working together to fleetingly bring back what once was.

I think of two lines from a book I just read:  “A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films,” and “What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’re lost.” 

I reach the file of pictures taken during the month Jim died.

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I announce to the beagles, who looked up at me with some consternation.  (Or possibly hunger.  Beagles can be inscrutable, and I’d been at this for a while.)

I click to the next month and open the file.  It’s filled with indistinguishable series of overcast skies crowded with voluminous storm clouds.  The only color bursts from pictures of floral arrangements, sent in Jim’s memory, lit by artificial indoor bulbs.

“Jim would have liked those.  Especially the purple ones.”  My audience again is canine. And then I notice that the dried violet petals and lilac sprigs are just like the ones he brought to me in the hospital the day after our son Sam was born.  Back when everyone was happy.  

Thousands of pictures, now winnowed down.  Waves of pictures of a growing family, until and after it has dwindled by one.

Insufficient memory?  Not nearly.


Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

153 thoughts on “The Limits of Memory”

  1. Thank heavens for USB keys, CDRs and SD cards. I took over 2000 photos of my stay in NZ with my brother 4 years ago. Some pictures, however fuzzy, still mean a lot and make me smile at the memory.

  2. I have boxes of pictures, unsorted, besides the ones that are on my computer.
    I keep attempting t go through them, I do….but….
    I get it.
    Take care.

    1. By the time our third child was born, the stacks of photographs had reached epic proportions. Still unsorted, and still impossible to let go of even one. In the digital age, printed photographs still seem to me so sturdy and lasting, even if they are subject to ordinary physical perils, and even though (or maybe because) the physical prints can change over time, ink worn away or mottled by extreme temperatures or careless packing.

      1. i have had the thought that my memory is sufficient and that i would do well with just dumping them all.
        crazy but true.
        happy medium….where is that?

  3. The memory is both sufficient and insufficient. There are many things it over-satisfies and some it cannot satisfy at all. Still, the memory is not this moment, this present being. That is another gift altogether, precious, dynamic and breath-taking. Enjoy that, too! 🙂

  4. Happy Special Day, Stephanie! The photo in my mind is of an earlier such day – the group clad in pirate regalia and taking over the Blue Mermaid tavern while in port…

  5. No such thing as insufficient memory on Stephanie’s part — it is wonderful to have such an acute memory and understanding of past events relevant to “past,” “present” and “future.” Love this post.

    1. That–and “The New Basement Tapes”–are at the top of my birthday list! And cobalt blue is my favorite color. I hope I can master the plugging-in thing….

      1. Thankfully, it’s (relatively) easy to set up backups nowadays. Mostly just a matter of plugging in the drive and…choosing the drive in your program of choice.

        Having said that, I recently tried to manually add a folder to save in Windows’ built-in File History and it was a pain in the ass. Apparently, you have to go and add that folder into “Libraries” first etc etc. Ugh.

  6. Thinking of you, a little past your b-day, and Jim, a little before his b-day. Love the photos and remembrances.

  7. This made me cry. I remembered I only have one picture of my grandpa. But I kept it near my heart. Inside a big locket. Pictures are amazing. They tell you so much.

    1. When I packed up the house, I packed up the one picture I know I have of my paternal grandfather, and it’s a comfort just to know it’s still there somewhere (even if I can’t manage to find time to unpack everything). I’m glad you have one picture, and love the idea of holding it in a locket near your heart. My aunt and uncle gave me a locket to hold a picture of Jim and our children.

      1. I don’t know. I’m the opposite. I have to get everything done right away. It drives me crazy because my mom puts everything to the last minute. I hope my comment helped. I hope you have a Merry Christmas. 🙂

  8. I connected with your blog. When I was a baby, sixty plus years ago, my folks took pictures. Then they got divorced and one of them burned my baby pictures in a rage. I would have loved to have seen them but they are gone. The earliest picture of me is in the teens and when I got married. My years till then are a blur and no permanent moments on a Kodak.

    1. I suppose there are plusses and minuses to having many years preserved (or not) on film, but I just cannot wrap my mind around a parent willfully disposing of baby pictures. It’s always seemed to me that only parents who raised children carry the lion’s share of memories of the children who once were, and pictures are the most powerful way for anyone else–including the grown children-who-were–to grasp who those little people were. (That said, I could do without pictures of my teenage years…..)

  9. I have boxes of pictures in need of an album. For some reason, they sit and sit. I suppose they bring up too many memories, and I would rather ignore them instead of placing them in a decent book. I enjoyed this post.

    1. Thank you…..Oh, do I have boxes. With babies arriving in such rapid sequence, I got their pictures (and of course they’re all baby pictures in that era!) into photo albums until the third was about a year-and-a-half. The third baby’s now a college senior. It’s difficult to even approach the piles of photos now, for complicated reasons, but I also don’t feel the same sense of urgency with prints. Maybe it’s because I fear catastrophic computer failure more than physical damage to the photographs I can hold and keep.

  10. I have way too many pictures too, 90% of them taken by some other member of the family, which in a way makes them more special because each shot reminds me something about the photographer, sort of like a double memento.

    1. The “double memento” is a great point: somehow my memory keeps track of all that action behind the lens. The family picture above, for example, was taken by one of Jim’s cousins on our oldest son’s birthday in very, very northern Maine. I can not only see what’s captured in the picture, but I can see the youinger me handing off the camera to cousin Luc as he was then, and can hear Luc’s voice, too, and even envision the string of glossy photographes Luc took (on real film!) that week.

  11. We lost my mother in law two weeks ago. I think it was only in preparing her tribute slide show video with my wife that I finally got some sense of her as a complete person who had lived an entire and rich life. Here was much more than the nearly helpless old woman I had met six years ago. She was a lovely and lively child and teen and a beautiful young woman – full of life and vigor.

    In all we assembled nearly 500 photos that were then ruthlessly edited down into a ten minute slide show set to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Over the Rainbmashow. But we have all of the pictures and they will stick with me forever.

    1. I’m sorry about your mother in law, and glad you were able to put together such a meaningful tribute to her. Setting pictures to music–especially such a beautiful, ethereal piece of music–adds a dimension and layer I don’t fully understand, but which always helps me call memories back. One of our daughters took upon herself the task of putting together photographs for Jim’s “Closing Ceremonies” and an accompanying track of 20 wildly varied pieces of music which somehow all captured him.

  12. This was a good read. It reminds me when I look through my family’s photo albums with less than sharp photos but they still manage to find their place .

  13. Your beautiful but sad post literally took my breath away, similar to a sensation I experienced after my father died, simply feeling like I could not breathe because I missed him so much. I am one of four sisters and we are fortunate enough to live close to one another. Every Christmas we go to one sister’s house. Up in the den, amid the brightly lit tree, the wide screen television is on, though it is not set to any sports event or comedy channel. Appearing on the flickering screen are videos of our lives, from childhood, to marriage, to the birth of our own children growing up before us in pictures, moving memories. My brother in law is responsible. He always video taped special moments. At first, I was afraid to watch the screen, terrified to see my mother and father both of whom had died in the past few years, laughing and living yet frozen in the past. Then one Christmas, two years ago, I sat down right in front of that television and watched those long gone moments. Instead of being stricken with grief, I was comforted by the beauty of those memories and seeing my parents alive again if only for the day. I wrote a short story entitled”Magic Drinks.” It is about the memory of childhood slide shows in our living room put on by my dad. Perhaps you might read if you have some time as I feel it is a comfort. I am sorry for your loss but glad you have those pictures to remember.

    1. Your post is wonderful–especially for those of us who still have our parents’ slide carousels tucked away, and know that “click” that goes along with the family commentary as those slides go by and the projected light hits the floating dust particles. I think there’s something magical about the community of viewing, too, especially when you’re remembering people you love. At first I couldn’t look at pictures–and especially moving images–either, but eventually I was so glad to have them.

  14. Beautiful and I can relate. I’ve finally started ordering real prints of digital photos. I stopped during a crazy divorce, two years ago. As I look at the life my boys and I have built since that time, I see it as if on film reel. The pieces come together with clarity. I hope the same for you in a way that touches your soul but does not cause you more grief.

    1. Thank you so much, and the best to you and your boys. I need to do that, too, get real, touchable prints as I used to–for me it anchors the memories, and helps me preserve and share them (somewhat like it helps me preserve and share memories just by circulating my pictures on this blog, something that hadn’t occurred to me when I began writing and thought pictures were an incidental add-on to balance out posts) in a way I just can’t do as I stand and click through photo files.

  15. What a lovely post. I too love looking back at pictures, and now when everything is digital, there ends up so many folders of pictures taken a long time ago. But somehow, I miss having the photographs in the albums. And how each photo brings back so many memories…. 🙂

    1. Thank you. I even miss gathering new stacks of photos outside albums–there’s a kind of hope in just having (even, dare I say, hoarding) them, knowing that when you eventually sit down and sort through them you’ll find gems and remember things you can only remember in peaceful down time from the day’s work and worries.

    1. Thank you–that’s a great way of looking at it.
      Your blog is so visually interesting and thought-provoking–you seem to have a very interesting approach to experience and memory.

  16. The eternal problem. My original blog was hacked and lost but I did manage to salvage backups and photos with a little help from my hosts. Now I have more than fifty thousand photos on my Mac and the task of going through them and choosing which to keep is like going back in time. The hardest ones to stumble upon are the ones of the people no longer with us.

    1. How awful for you–a blog hacking was beyond my imagination of a senseless and hurtful cyber-intrusion. Here’s to good, thoughtful cyber-hosts (and readers).

      For me, the photographic time travel changes over time. I couldn’t even look at family photographs–even ones without Jim in them–without falling apart for many months after he died. I don’t know when it happened (quite possibly when I began mining photographic archives for pictures to use with blog posts), but there was a point when it began giving me comfort to look through those pictures, and even just to know they exist for my children and others.

  17. Reblogged this on The Daily HornBill and commented:
    This is why it’s so hard to let go of a still or moving picture, no matter how nondescript: it calls back what enveloped that moment, the picture’s dusty past and partially emptied future working together to fleetingly bring back what once was.

    I think of two lines from a book I just read: “A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films,” and “What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’re lost.”

  18. My sorry for your loss, Steph. I feel exactly the same way as you toward my dad. Been looking at the pictures lately and (crazily) expecting for more stunning invention like the technology to convert the subject inside the photograph becomes something real. However, I can’t stop thanking the camera inventor for creating such technology so whenever we lose somebody, we still can picture everything so clearly only by looking at the picture we saved on the computer. Hope you’ll stay strong and believe that he will have a very good life by now since he has kept all the beautiful memories as well.

    1. Thank you so much–I think we take pictures for much the same reasons as we write, in the sense of your wonderful quote from Anais Nin (“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in the retrospect.”). I’ve had the same sense you had in looking at pictures and wishing they could be converted into moving images, complete with the voices of lost people we love. But photographs and memories go a long way.

  19. A poignantly written piece remembering a loved one. But I know what it takes to go back in time via the thousands of pictures on CD-ROMs, or other storage material, and I am doing it right now too. It is very tiring emotionally, that is for sure. But I’m also loving some oldies that I come across, forgotten memories.

    1. Coming across the gems–even if they’re not technical marvels of photography–can make the effort more than worthwhile. I think I needed to be forced to do the work to winnow down the photo archives, and make those gems more accessible.

  20. At some point, hard drives crash and wipe out all your photos. Going through the editing process and then having prints made of the most precious pictures will ensure that your memories don’t crash with your computer.

    1. Excellent advice….I don’t know why I put these things off as I do. I had one hard drive failure and somehow didn’t learn my lesson from that–I can’t even be sure what I lost then, but I know many pictures are gone forever.

  21. Very touching post. Its hard looking back on pics of a lost one but its also comforting when you see them smile in pics with makes you realise the happiness you shared..something that you cherish forever.

  22. This post hits home to me. I too keeps photos of my family and I. And just the other day, my husband and I was doing spring cleaning and found old albums that is about over 10 years of age. And stumbled across my girls baby albums. Had a flash back moment and nearly on the verge of tears. Children grow up so fast. huhu.

    Owh yes! Please do visit me toos at

    1. They do–it amazes and overwhelms me to see the most “ordinary” baby pictures. There may be no such thing as an ordinary baby picture: every photo, no matter how ineptly taken, captures a miraculous moment.

  23. Beautiful post. Yesterday my Dad gave me a photo of Mum holding my youngest daughter. It was one that I hadn’t seen before. He finds it hard to express his emotions and he knew I was upset that day and thought that it would help. It certainly did 🙂

    1. It’s wonderful that you can emotionally connect and appreciate each other by a means other than expressive words. And I follow echoes (and fluffy bunnies, through meadows and elsewhere) all the time!

      1. As the saying goes actions speak louder than words and that they do. Maybe I will have to start skipping through meadows after furry creatures as a new years resolution 😉

    1. It’s an interesting–and somewhat terrifying–thought, which I think my husband thought about quite a bit. He’s the only person I can imagine having read Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” from cover to cover, and always approached technology cautiously, to make sure it never undercut compassionate care in his own work.

  24. A wonderful writeup. This reminds of how I go back to those dusty albums of the 80s and the 90s that captured some of the most precious moments of my childhood, once in a year. Our mental memory is somehow invigorated at the sight of those physical memories!

    1. Jim, who hardly kept any material possessions at all, always kept three large boxes of albums. I hope he revisited them from time to time, too, because they must have captured the same kinds of memories from when he was growing up. I keep them, too, of course, to hold onto the particular music that meant so much to him–even if I didn’t yet know him when he collected those albums, they give me another piece of him to carry. I’ve also noticed that his sisters carry on some of those musical memories, because Jim (the older brother) taught them about music and they remember what he told them about those albums and songs. One of his sisters commented on a long-ago post about what Jim taught her about the background of some meaningful Pretenders songs.

    1. Someday I’ll be able to navigate such computer essentials, I hope 🙂 My kids are trying very hard to educate me, but apparently I don’t even know the difference between uploading and downloading, let alone finding discs and drives.

  25. PSALM 104
    1. Praise the Lord , O my soul. O Lord my
    God, you are very great; you are clothed
    with splendor and majesty.
    2. He wraps himself in light as with a
    garment; he stretches out the heavens
    like a tent
    3. and lays the beams of his upper
    chambers on their waters.
    14. He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for man to cultivate- bringing
    forth food from the earth:
    15. wine that gladdens the heart of man,
    oil to make his face shine, and bread
    that sustains his heart.

  26. One of the worst feelings 😕your device has run out of memory to store all your wonderful photos. What do I do with them now? 😂technology truly can be problamatic at times

  27. I have so many pictures of other people. Not nearly enough of myself. But as the photographer who’s the one to take a picture of me? 🙂

  28. I really enjoyed this post. I have a cell phone recently informed me that I too had insufficient memory. So I started deleting and now it works. Luckily this didn’t impact my computer where I have 22,798 photos and I still haven’t downloaded my most recent pictures. But several years ago I scanned about 100 very old family photos. Now where did I put those? I have several external hard drives full of photos and lots of DVDs with photos.

    Insufficient memory? Maybe mine is flagging too? But then the words rush back into my head. I compare myself with my friends and acquaintances and we are all doing the same. So we are all ok. But just those words bring up so many thoughts.

    Thank you for liking my photo on my blog.

  29. Lovely. I am breathless at times when I discover a forgotten photo or a note scribbled on the back of a utility bill. These flashes of light illuminate the fog of aging and bring us once again to that moment in time which is forever. Thank you.

  30. Since I became a Mom, I take lots of pictures of my children, my family. I know that it is one way of capturing and preserving memories. Looking back at them makes us appreciate more what we have, life.

  31. Having recently lost my mother who passed away at the ripe old age of 97, I can relate to what you say here. Perhaps in years to come you will do a bit more sorting out – as time passes it will be easier. My deepest sympathy to you on your loss.

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