Grief and memory go together. After someone dies, that’s what you’re left with. And the memories are so slippery yet so rich. – Mike Mills, American musician
Yesterday I had to write a letter. I used to write lots of letters back in the days before computers, with text messaging and the like. Some of my notes could fit on a postcard’s back, but most were two or more pages long. I remember writing one letter that was sixteen pages long, written on notebook paper, both sides. I do not remember what I said, but I am sure I wrote such a long letter for a reason. Maybe it was just drivel, unimportant and trivial things, but that stuff was important to me then. The lady I wrote to was a good friend and never complained. She also never failed to respond. That is one memory that I cherish.
I wrote the letter yesterday to another friend, older than me, who has known me all my life. We have shared many years and memories, but now I live three-quarters of the way across the country from her. Sure, I could telephone, but this time I wanted to write, or rather type, an actual letter. I was sending her a prayer shawl and I wanted to explain the purpose of it, what the colors meant to me, the different stitches. I also wanted her to know that many prayers had gone into making it. I intended the shawl to be something soft, light, and comforting, like a gentle hug from far away. Writing, though, brought back memories like her wedding, her family treating me like one of them, and her introducing me to Chinese food. There were days at the beach, shopping trips, lunches all around town, and afternoons spent organizing her jewelry box. It was all fun.
The letter was more than a page and a half, but I could have written volumes. I have many memories of her mother, who in a way, took the place of mine because mine died when I was fourteen. Her mother helped me sew clothes for college, tried to teach me to cook some of my favorite dishes, and generally listened to my babble as I sat at her kitchen table, drinking iced tea and feeling like I was at home.
I wanted to remind my friend of all the memories, including times since, like when I tried to make her mother’s spoon bread but could not get it past the “If it looks like hog swill, you’ve got it right” stage. She made spoon bread often, frequently to take to a family grieving over loss. The spoon bread, full of butter, would “slide down a throat clogged with tears when nothing else can, her mom would tell me. I mentioned the spoon bread in the letter because, if I lived closer and could get the dish to turn out like her mother’s, I would have taken it to my friend’s house. It would have been understood and welcomed since my friend was indeed in a state of grief. The shawl will have to replace the spoon bread, but hopefully it will last longer and adequately represent the sympathy and love that go into both.
I thought about my friend a great deal yesterday, running through memories like a child running through a meadow full of dandelions, buttercups, and daisies. Then I had what was indeed an insight: my friend and her family had demonstrated what God’s love was like — accepting, protecting, sharing, feeding, listening, and a hundred other things. They were not church-goers, but they still illustrated what Jesus tried to teach about loving one’s neighbor. They were not rich, but they always had an extra potato to put in the pot so I could have dinner with them. They gave me good advice and taught me things I needed to know outside of school books. They shared their time with me. If those things were not examples of what Jesus taught, I would have missed the point of that lesson altogether.
Rosa Parks once said, “Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.” That quote sums up God’s will and is a guideline to recognize God’s work in others who give without thinking or stinting. I am sure I won’t forget this insight because it has lodged in my heart when I think of my neighbors who were more than neighbors. They were teachers of an exceptional kind, the kind Jesus would have approved. They put words into action without quoting.
Look around you. Who teaches love and kindness to neighbors without saying a word about it? Have you done that in your own life and ministry? Have you investigated memories to see where you might find a lesson or insight? I did, and I am glad. I would have missed a great life lesson.
Image: Jesus invites two children to come up to him. Engraving by Antonio Banzo after Alberto Torwaldsen. From Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Found at Wikimedia Commons.