(December 14, 2000)

At an art-supply store sale one recent morning, a woman called out, “Hi, Debbie.” I looked at her, smiled, and thought, I know you, but I have absolutely no idea who you are.

“Hello,” I replied.

“How are the girls?” she went on. Uh-oh. She not only knows my name, she knows I have daughters. Is she a mom from one of their schools? I had an image of her at a play-doh table.

“Fine, thanks,” I replied. “Isn’t this a great sale?”

What was I saying? Why didn’t I just ask for her name and how we knew each other? Of course it’s what I should have done right away. But I didn’t, and the more she talked (“I hear your husband is retiring!”), the more embarrassing it became for me to admit I’d forgotten who she was. I moved on to the calligraphy aisle.

I stared at pens and racked my brain: Who is she??? I’ve always been proud of my memory. My high school friends are amazed when I recall their birthdays. But after living in the same town for 26 years and knowing people from work, school, soccer, theater, volunteering, what-have-you, I sometimes feel as if the file folder in my brain for Bay Area names and faces is crammed full and jumbled up. I only make matters worse by adding new people all the time — and by getting older.

We met again in picture frames. “Are you still writing?” she said.

“Oh, yes.” Looking for clues I asked, “And how about your work?”

“Now that Nathaniel is in eighth grade, I have more time for my art.”

Eureka! Well, I didn’t have her name yet, but if she has an eighth grader and I have an eighth grader, then I bet her son and my daughter were in school together. The file folder in my brain may be a mess, but I’ve kept rosters and directories from all my kids’ classes and schools.

When I got home I checked in my file cabinet, and sure enough there she was: Nathaniel and Allison were in a toddler class together in 1989.

Those awkward 15 minutes convinced me always to ask if I don’t remember someone’s name — and to keep saving those rosters. And when I see her at the sale next year I’ll remember to say, “Hi, Karen.”

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.