Unexpectedly, yesterday, and for the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege of keeping company at the deathbed of an elderly relative.

My aunt Margaret Harder, 84, was admitted to hospital from the personal care home on Saturday; yesterday morning, tests revealed she had a blood clot in her lungs. Her last years have been a continuing story of failing health and memory, an unhappy story of changes and losses of all kinds, and it was determined that the best course — and the one she wanted — would be to respond with palliative care. She died at just before nine in the evening.

My aunt was a teacher. Once, as a young student, her hair got caught in the teacher’s jacket button when he bent to look at her work. Was he cross? At any rate, he frightened her, and Margaret decided then that when she was a teacher, no student would ever be afraid of her. I’m sure no student ever was. She was not without authority, but above all, there was gentleness in her. She also lavished on us, her nieces and nephews, and our children in turn, great kindness and generosity.

For many years, my aunt taught special needs students — those with physical challenges like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Yesterday afternoon, George, one of her former students with whom she remained in contact, came to the hospital. It was moving to watch him express his gratitude and affection for her and to see her lift her hand to his, the only time in the day that she made a gesture of this kind. He held her hand a long time.

During my aunt’s last hours, I couldn’t help but think of the next-to-final scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian and Hopeful must cross a cold, rushing river to reach the Celestial City. Margaret was not in pain, nor did she seem uncomfortable, but my, what a great deal of hard work it was to get across that last cold river! Yet she seemed to understand what it was for, and where she was going, and as far as we could tell, she was not afraid. And she got there, finally, resolute and well.

I thank God for the life and death of my aunt Margaret Harder.

Happy in the age of memoir

We live, it’s often said, in the age of memoir. 

On one level, a statement like that is simply an assessment of what’s obvious in so many aspects of our culture. Certainly in the media — books, television, radio, internet — the weight of communication now often rests on the shoulders of personal narrative, on “reality” by way of experience. It’s a democratization of ideas and values supported by technology, especially in social media like Facebook or Twitter, where anyone can record the progress of their existence publicly, with as much inanity or imagination as they possess, or in places like the blogosphere, with its vast potential to reference and record one’s life. (And yes, here I am, too.) 

And just this past Sunday, an example of living in the age of memoir in our church: whereas baptismal candidates at one time marked their desire for baptism by memorizing and assenting to a catechism, however formally or informally that might be presented, the five young adults who will be baptized in our congregation this Easter Sunday shared their life stories thus far, at least in relation to faith. And as they did so, they revealed the differences that individuals have, and the inspiration and insight we have come to expect when we listen to people’s stories. 

At another level, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room for critique, and for criticism too, in the notion of “age of memoir.” Even in describing it, there’s the implication of narcissism, the contagion of the me-generation, the focus on the individual at the expense of community (which in Anabaptist circles, at least, is not quite how it’s supposed to be) lying not that far under the surface.

The now battered copy of Little Pilgrim's Progress my mother read to me, which I later also read to our children


I’m in no mood for complaint or criticism, however. Beginning with the children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress which fixed itself indelibly on my mind in my earliest childhood — and was, as far as I’m concerned, a first taste of “life-writing” (a term I prefer to memoir, as it encompasses biography, confession, memoir, journals, letters, autobiography) because of its journey motif, even if not strictly life-writing itself — I’ve been steadily shaped by the expressed experiences of other people. And I still haven’t had enough, frankly.

Some of my interest is plain curiosity about others, but some is the quest for resonance with and wisdom from others which I need to live my own life. And I’m not sure that women in the particular categories I fit have been expressed nearly enough; I’m hungry for more of that too.

So if it’s the age of memoir, I’m saying that I don’t mind at all. I just want to find the right pieces of it, and think about it properly. Which brings me to a blog site I often visit, a kind of one-stop beginning for lessons, guides, discussions, and reviews in the area of memoir: 100 Memoirs. (I love the witty subtitle: “because 99 just isn’t enough.”) Shirley Hershey Showalter hosts/writes the site. She’s a former president (1996-2004) of Goshen (Ind.) College and wants to read 100 memoirs on the way to writing her own memoir of growing up Mennonite in America, 1948-1966. She picked the name for her blog from Heather Seller’s advice to new writers, as she puts it in her opening post, “to read 100 excellent examples of their genre before attempting to enter the ring with the best.” If you’re interested in memoir, whether as a reader or writer, it’s a great place to learn and stay connected.