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Reform Magazine | September 28, 2020

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On the pilgrim way: ‘I came across our pre-wedding letters’

Sheila Maxey discovers her pre-wedding letters

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During the spacious days of lockdown in June, I came across a box containing letters that my husband Kees and I wrote to each other during our engagement, from 1961 to 1962. Our daughter, Mary, suggested we read them – why else keep them? So, over the next few weeks, every time we sat down for a coffee or a tea, we would read two letters: one each way. It was so enjoyable that I felt quite bereft once we got to the wedding and there were no more letters.

Kees was a travelling secretary in Scotland for the Student Christian Movement (SCM), based in Edinburgh but also covering Aberdeen. He was much on the move: weekend conferences, nursing local groups into life, attending team meetings in London. I was trying to teach English in a Glasgow secondary modern school in a housing estate to which the Gorbals slums had been cleared. I lodged there but went home, near Edinburgh, every weekend.

Kees and I met at our university’s SCM group but were just acquaintances then. The miracle of falling in love happened afterwards. We seemed to write every other day, and poured out our daily lives to each other. Kees wrote about the books he was reading: about Christianity, politics, sex and marriage, and exciting new ways of approaching the Bible. Bultmann and Bonhoeffer were a revelation to him, and through him, to me. But he was also excited about stamp swapping (he was a keen collector) and about his experiments with cooking for visitors. My letters veered from despair about my difficult classes to excitement at the way poetry and stories calmed an unruly class down. I also worried about my new contact lenses, my mother’s arthritic knees, and the trouble I was having sewing my wedding dress. We argued about pacifism – I struggled to find my own way between my idealistic father and my more pragmatic fiancé. And, of course, we ended each letter saying how much we were longing for our next meeting.

What astonished me about the letters was how we believed that everything about us, from big principles to my latest hairstyle, or Kees’ stamps, was of real interest to the other. Of course, the 58 years which have passed since then have not been lived quite like that. We have gone on trying to listen to each other but sometimes abstractedly, and not always lovingly. As we read the letters to each other, I wondered if that intense loving investment in each other was a taste of what God’s love is like. After all, the Bible tells us that even the hairs of our head are numbered.

Some lines from a poem by Kaylin Haught seem fitting and fun:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
and she said it sure is

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I am telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Sheila Maxey is a member of Brentwood United Reformed Church, Essex

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This article was published in the September 2020 edition of Reform

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