(On the Value of) Forgetting


Would you be remembering me?
I ask that question time and again
– ‘Coast of Marseilles,’ Keith Sykes

The other day, and quite completely out of the blue, my teenaged daughter Ella happened to ask me about a long-distant former girlfriend. My daughter doesn’t know this former girlfriend or what she looks like, doesn’t even know her name. She does, however, know a few things about her, like when we knew each other and where.

Ella was, I believe, asking more about conceptual relationship issues than the flesh-and-blood reality of my grad student era personal life (yuck). Because it is not my practice to deceive or hide things from my kids, I answered her questions as directly and truthfully as I knew how. Nonetheless, our exchange left me with some uneasy feelings that were hard to process and even name.

Now, I must say that I do not pine for this person. I do not wish things had turned out differently enough such that we’d ended up together in a permanent, committed relationship. I have no ambivalence about that. Still, I had to acknowledge I’d had feelings for her. I was attracted to her, and admired her drive and intellect. I’d cared for her and we’d had fun together.

Still, I was honestly unsettled after my daughter’s questions.

So, what was I feeling?

Last month, my family and I visited my undergrad alma mater, mostly to watch a football game (in which my team was thoroughly trounced, by the way). Walking around campus and sharing stories specific to that place had stirred up emotions as well. Now, this is nothing new for me and Berkeley. From my very first days there, the Cal campus has always held the feeling of ghosts for me. But this visit was different, the feelings more mixed and confused and not altogether pleasant.


It’s no coincidence this came as I prepared to visit my old grad school, to meet with current students and poke around old classrooms and re-visit an old professor to two. [And my recent visit to Philadelphia? Don’t get me started.]

There’s a Keith Sykes song performed most notably by Jimmy Buffett called ‘Coast of Marseilles’ (Full lyrics and link to listen, are below.) that’s always been one of my favorites. The singer wonders if an old love would remember him and, if so, would think well of him.

To me, it’s a profoundly disturbing thought, especially when put in the context of a real life’s experiences: real people, times, places. The truth is – and I say this with neither ironic detachment nor pride – I can clearly remember being a complete dick to some people. Cold. Aloof. Unthoughtful. Mindless. Critical. Dishonest about my feelings. Today, at this very moment, flying east to Durham, North Carolina, I cringe to even think.

Would the actual, specific people I’ve known and cared about remember me at all? And, upon remembering, would they think well or ill?

When I think back – not to mention revisit those very places, or get asked about them by certain curious teenagers – I must confess I’m nowhere near sure. And, at times, it makes me desire a much more selective memory than I actually have.


Coast of Marseilles, Keith Sykes

I sat there on the coast of Marseilles
My thoughts came by like wind through my hand
How good it’d be to hold you
How good it’d be to feel like that again
How good it’d be to feel like that again

Would you be remembering me?
I ask that question time and again
The answer came and haunted me so
I did not want to think it again
I did not want to think it again

You make it hard for me to forget
I haven’t stopped loving you yet

When I left the coast of Marseilles
I hadn’t done what I’d come to do
I spent all the money I’d saved
And did not get over you
I did not get over you

To hear Jimmy Buffet performing this song, click here.

6 thoughts on “(On the Value of) Forgetting”

  1. speaking of old time football, weren’t you also a Penn State guy for a time? How is that working out? I heard they were going all out to make the transition as unmemorable as possible.

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