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What I Learned From Mary Aitken

I learned through the email grapevine that a dear old friend, Mary Aitken, died Sunday night at the age of 87 at the nursing home where she had lived for the past four or five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hearing of her death has made me think a lot about what I learned from her, and abut what a privilege it was to be her pastor for eight and a half years.

If you knew Mary, it might be a bit of a surprise to read the previous statement. For one thing, Mary was pretty demanding. Even when I knew her, she didn't get around that easily, but she still wanted to go places. It took a huge effort Mary to the Gardner museum, the Harvard Faculty Club and other locations for our Bible study's art discussions and luncheons. And she constantly requested that I visit her, even if I had just been to her apartment for an hour the week before. She had multiple health crises in the time I knew her, so it's not surprising that my kids actually thought her name was "Mary Ache-in".

But the truth of the matter is, I enjoyed being around Mary. It certainly helped that she loved babies and children, and all three of my kids spent plenty of time crawling around the floor of her apartment, playing with her Rock-and-Roll Elmo and eating all the candy and ice cream sandwiches that she saved for them. And she loved to talk, so I learned her complete life story within the first year of our acquaintance. From that point on, I loved to hear the way in which favorite stories cycled back and back again. Soon, we had shared memories of her past.

At one point, Dibbie and I were discussing Mary's insistence that we both come over to her apartment and watch a new video she had gotten about the trans-Canada railway. We were both a bit amused at Mary's excitement about something so mundane, but then Dibbie said, "The thing is, Mary enjoys life." I had to agree.

Mary was not a spiritual sage. In fact, she really struggled with her faith. She was haunted with regret over how her mother had died, and her inability to care for her at the end of her life. She was really bothered by several other situations of unfairness she had encountered in her life, and found it very difficult to forgive wrongs done to her. But I still found her inspiring, in large part because she was able to get really excited about small things and really touched by small kindnesses. And also, she was able to fall in love, or at least develop a massive crush, and dream of finally getting married at an age when she could only walk with the help of a walker.

Okay, so that was probably a bit crazy of her. But who cares? I think of Mary sometimes when I hear some wise soul go on about the importance of truly Being Present to the Here and Now. Mindfulness has a lot going for it, but sometimes living in a state of denial, living in a fantasy world isn't such a bad option either. When I knew her, the Here and Now of Mary's life was pretty tough, and it only got worse over the past five years. But she had an ability to detach from her circumstances and float around in memories and in dreams. Since she often invited me to come along on these journeys, I got to see their benefit too.

I loved Mary, and I loved being her pastor. I wish I could be in Massachusetts Friday to bid her farewell.

Comments

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John Olson

Thanks for writing this. I have missed her in the last few years when she hasn't been around FCS.

real live preacher

Thank you for sharing her with us.

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