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Reform Magazine | September 23, 2019

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On the pilgrim way: ‘Longer term memory is a blessing’

Sheila Maxey reflects on memory

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Memory is a touchy subject among old people like me because we are all experiencing short-term memory loss. What did I come upstairs for? Why can’t I remember the name of my neighbour? It is irritating and worrying. But this summer, I have been reminded that longer term memory is a particular gift and blessing of old age. After all, I have nearly 80 years of it.

The 17-year-old granddaughter of my oldest German cousin came to stay. As she walked through the door, I saw both my cousin and my beloved aunt in her face – such a pleasure. She wanted to know how she fitted into the wider family history. I gave her my mother’s little memoir, written when she was 90 and illustrated with many photos. There she saw her grandfather as a young boy – the grandfather who has been the influential centre of her big extended family and whom she was going home to take her turn in looking after.

Isobel and Jessica, our teenage granddaughters from Scotland, came for their annual visit south. Together we watched DVDs of two big family parties – when my husband and I celebrated being 70 in 2008, and our golden wedding anniversary in 2012. Isobel and Jessica were so excited to see themselves as little children, and as awkward young teens. It was also a time to see again, full of life, those who had died since then.

They love it when we talk to them about their mother’s childhood and teenage years (somewhat censored!) We are able to give them that gift. Because my parents lived so long, they were able to give me that gift too – which was not always welcome. I remember popping in to see them quickly, between local pastoral visits, and my mother remarking that, as a very small child, I used to say: ‘Don’t talk to me – I’m busy.’ I laugh now – but I think I felt a bit cut down to size then.

A dear friend – I will call her Marion – is slowly developing Alzheimer’s. She is forgetting so much, losing things all the time. Marion was a mainstay of our church, especially in catering and looking after children. Those who have known her a long time find it sad that she is not how she was. But with our gift of memory, we should be able to hold the whole Marion in our minds and love – what she was and did over the years, together with what she is now – as my mother held me, as a child and as a too-busy minister in her mind and in her love.

John Swinton, in his challenging book about dementia, gives it the subtitle ‘Living in the memories of God’. I wonder if, in old age, memories of people across their lifetime, and the stories they told of previous generations, might be a particular treasure or blessing I have to offer? It doesn’t take too much energy!

Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform

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This article was published in the September 2019 edition of Reform

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