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Reform Magazine | September 23, 2020

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On the pilgrim way: ‘Memory is a precious but unreliable gift’

Sheila Maxey on the gift of memory

Memories can be such a rich pleasure but also a ball and chain. A friend of mine feels that she cannot take certain steps in her life because her husband (dead for nearly 20 years) would not have approved. And then there are the hurtful words or actions which I sometimes struggle to leave behind. If I regularly meet the person, life goes on and the hurtful past is overlaid with other experiences. It is more difficult if we rarely meet; then, I just have to keep praying for the blessing of forgetfulness.

Kees and I have had such an enjoyable summer down memory lane. To celebrate our 55th wedding anniversary we went for a 12-hour sail on the river Blackwater from Maldon to the very mouth of the river. For more than 30 years we sailed that river in our little dinghy, and so we spent much of the day remembering – the island where we used to moor and picnic and the tide nearly took our boat away while we napped, where we once capsized in a squall, etc.

Our current home project is to catalogue all the papers and publications Kees has hoarded over the past 50 years. We started in our bedroom, where shelves up to the ceiling have tried to accommodate it all. The dust was inches thick as we got down reports on consultancies in Swaziland and Lesotho and Namibia, reports on peacemaking and election monitoring in South Africa and much, much more. In amongst it all, I found my diaries of visits abroad during my Church House days – to Ghana, Korea, the US, Northern Ireland, and World Council of Churches meetings in Romania and Switzerland. Perhaps I will enjoy reading them again and marvelling at the wonderful opportunities I have had.

But, for me, the special treasure was finding a little sheaf of the emails I sent to Kees in autumn 1998 when he was in Swaziland. As I re-read them, a shaft of light illuminated a small patch of my past, producing mixed emotions. Those were difficult months: my father had just died, aged 100; my mother lived next door with a live-in carer; our son and his then wife, with two toddlers, lived with us for three months; and Kees was abroad. As I read, I felt sorry for my clearly over-burdened self. But I also found that the emails corrected my memory: I had screened out the painful fact that sometimes my mother did not know me, and, on the other side, I had thought the strains in our son’s marriage were part of the burden of those months. In fact, my emails regularly comment on what a happy little family it was and how I enjoyed my then daughter in law!

Memory is a precious but unreliable gift. At my stage of life, it is likely to become even more unreliable – at least as far as short-term memory is concerned. But I hope to continue to feast on God’s rich gift of memory for many years to come.

Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform

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This article was published in the October 2017 edition of  Reform

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