Title: The Memory Box
Author: Mary Bahr
Illustrator: David Cunningham
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co.
Audience: Written for ages 6-9. However, this review suggests the book’s applicability to both young and mature audiences.
Summary: This is a bitter-sweet episode in a young boy’s summer vacation with a beloved grandparent who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s diesase. Zach has spent every summer he can remember with his grandparents on a serene mountain lake, but this summer Zach notices something different about Gramps – he’s distant, distracted, forgetful, talking to himself and getting lost on familiar woodland trails. Rather than try to avoid or explain away Gramp’s behavior, the old couple do something remarkable and courageous: they tell Zach the truth in a supremely loving and compassionate way. One peaceful evening they begin creating a “memory box,” a family tradition in which an old person and a young person fill a box with family stories, pictures and mementos and store it in a place of honor. Initially Zach is uncomfortable with this activity dampening the idyllic vacation freedom he had become accustomed to. But as the days passed, telling and writing stories, gathering photos and souvenirs, a new and deeper bond between these three friends develops as the elderly couple welcome Zach into their approaching difficulty. Zach returns home with a profound and important mission: to continue adding to the memory box and bring it back next summer, when it will be needed.
Literary elements: The Memory Box is realistic fiction set in a cabin by a woodland lake. The language and illustrations descend quietly like the afternoon sun in late summer when days get shorter and darkness comes earlier, evoking Carl Jung’s metaphor of aging as “the afternoon of life.” As the old couple approach the autumn of their years, Zach is also transitioning from youth into an awareness of life’s limitations. Both paths converge in the realm of memory; their shared past becomes the healing balm of advancing grief and loss. The author crafts believable characters through dialogue and plot movement, enhanced with beautiful watercolor images in fluid autumnal colors. The verbal and pictorial theme of fishing conveys the emotional state of stillness and expectation. “For the rest of the summer, we remembered, Gramps and Gram and me. We especially remembered when we were fishing.” Zach’s discomfort literally dissolves in the calm waters of memory and carries him through a crisis moment when Gramps gets lost in the forest.
The seasonal and diurnal imagery overlay this short story with elements of another genre, the hero’s journey, in which all three characters play roles. As Zach is confronted with the loss of innocence, Gramps is facing the ultimate journey into the dark night of the soul. He touches that vulnerable space inside all of us that holds on to life, power, control and independence. To cope with the inevitable, he reaches for one remaining hope, that his life has meaning for his beloved grandson, in a touching symbolic act. “Did Gram tell you about this useless old man? An how he needs to find a home for special things like this,” he says while handing Zach his fishing knife. Henri Nouwen provides a parable on usefulness in his book Aging, The Fulfillment of Life: a tree that grows big and old does so because it was not cut down and used for beds and tables and chairs. It’s usefulness is not in becoming other things, but in being itself, a tree so great that others can rest in its shade. As long as there is meaning to our being, therein lies our usefulness. In the hero’s journey there is always a character who plays the role of helper. Gram is the gentle guiding presence behind this drama, positioning the two travelers on the path of memory and lighting their way with truth. This story has profound lessons for both young and old on the continuum of life.
Perspective on gender/race/culture/economics: Although the pictures portray white middle-class Americans, virtually no race or gender stereotypes are reinforced. Filial love and companionship challenged by the threat of death and loss are universal themes to which all cultures can relate. The only excluding factor might be might be economic – the privilege of leisure time in a vacation home. But the setting is not extravagant. Fishing is a humble pastime available to practically everyone.
Theological Conversation Partners: Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney, Aging, The Fulfillment of Life, Doubleday, 1974
Nouwen and Gaffney write in simple language about deep truths accessible to both young and mature readers. “This book is about aging. It is a book for all of us, since we all age and so fulfill the cycle of our lives.”
Theology: Faith and hope intervene in a family facing the anxiety of loss and approaching death.
- What was Zach’s initial reaction to the memory box? Why do you think he felt this way?
- Zach said, “This was the best and worst summer ever.” Discuss what was “best” and “worst” about it.
- Think about a time when you first realized something unpleasant was about to happen over which you had no control. How did you cope with the feelings and the outcome?
- Discuss Henri Nouwen’s observation “The elderly are our prophets, they remind us that what we see so clearly in them is a process in which we all share.” How is Zach sharing in this process with his grandparents and how has this transformed him?
- The story doesn’t mention God. Where can you sense the presence of God in these people’s lives, and what does it tell you about God?
Review prepared by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Susan Wills.
The Memory Box by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.