Thursday, 21 April 2011

Open the box

I’ve been hesitating about writing about what is in the box. It seems too public. Too confessional. A little too personal. And yet there is nothing in the box, for all its secrets light and dark I wouldn’t share with a fellow pilgrim on the road to Santiago. I’ve also realised that the box contains some of the milestones of the longer pilgrimage I’ve been on. So here goes.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to dispose of the clutter in my life. The clothes I haven’t worn for a year were ruthlessly separated from the rest and taken to charity shop or dump. My books have almost all gone save a half a dozen too unbearable to part with. Ornaments, pictures, that fancy thing to peel a cucumber and the steak knives still in their box are all gone. The white walls of my home are bare. I’ve done this before in my life when there has been a major change. I’ve had that feeling that I should get rid of everything but never had enough courage or faith or stupidity to do it. Because no matter how hard I try some things just have to stay with me. Someone else can throw them out one day. These are the things I’ve found all over the place and as I have encountered them I’ve been putting them in a box. As if to prevent myself filling it up I’ve put it on a top shelf where it sits both threatening me and tempting me to open it and relive the memories inside. Just one more time. I’ve now opened it to write this.
In a corner is a simple silver box blackened with age. The cover has the head of a Pope long since dead. It contains the rosary beads given to me for my first communion over 50 years ago. I can remember the day if I try. A child in school uniform egged on by proud parents into a church which would fuel a deep ambivalence for the rest of my life. Then my eye is drawn as if to escape the sacred to a piece of paper extracted from an old wallet. Once carefully folded it was looked at so frequently in its day the creases are separating. "My true love hath my heart...never was a better bargain driven." The little boy with his rosary beads could not have known what heartbreaks life would bring and also the joys. On balance I think I have gained much more than lost.
An ancient death certificate describes a family mystery of a long gone relative who died of multiple injuries having fallen from a window. Successive generations always pondered whether he jumped or was pushed. No one was quite sure the family legend had actually occurred until I did some research and obtained a copy of the certificate. The event is confirmed but the mystery remains unsolved.
The cheap leatherette pouch also held a mystery. It came from my parents’ house after they had both died. I remember the day I opened it to find a small cardboard box in mint condition. Unopened. From inside I drew out one by one four medals of shiny metal with crisp new ribbons which had never seen the light of day. I’ve taken them out today. The box is addressed to my father and contains the Burma Star marking his war service in that country. Also there is the War Medal which everyone got. I knew he had been in the war and I knew he had been in Burma. The other two: the Defence Medal for brave conduct in a non operational setting and the Battle of Britain Medal remain surprises. Not only had he not opened the box, he had never talked about what he actually did in the war. Rather he talked about how futile it was, how politicians could never be trusted to genuinely seek peaceful solutions before armed conflict, how his own church was compromised by not condemning Hitler. Some considered his views radical but he won everyone’s respect. He was the man in the street where we lived who wrote letters for people who couldn’t write. Who spoke up for fellow workers. Who had to educate himself but made sure I got and took the opportunities which had been denied to him.
I laugh when I see two other things in the box. My own “medal” presented by President Ortega, the Order of the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution in Nicaragua for work others did supporting medical aid when that country was war torn. And sitting ironically beside it two napkin rings from Charles and Diana’s Wedding. The Old Man thoroughly approved of the first and heartily laughed at the second.
The family photographs are there nestling with memorial cards and funeral Orders of Service. One or two special pens. A small and odd assortment of photos of people I know were family whose only record are the images in sepia tones. If I threw them out all memory of them would be gone
Placed carefully in the box are the photographs of my own children at all the various stages of their development. You can see their impish cheekiness. Their growing sense of adventure. Their beauty which is all the more acute to a father’s eyes. What could not be known then were the profound challenges they would face. But there are some things we cannot change. Sometimes all we can do is pray and when that appears not to work some of us walk.
That brings me to the last items I want to show you. They lie on top of all the things that bring memories of joy or sadness. They are my credenciales. To me more important than the Compostelas rolled into one cardboard tube, the Pilgrim Passports remain separate in all their glory. A glance at the sellos brings instant memories of walking in Spain; of particular places and memorable people. They are records of my journeys of hope because that’s how I’ve come to think about pilgrimage. I think it may be the special gift of the Camino. Pilgrims are hopeful people. We hope for a bed every night. We hope it doesn’t rain. We hope the food will be good in the next village. We hope that our water will last until the next fountain. We hope we will meet someone when we are lonely and we hope that the pilgrim we have met who won’t stop talking will go away. We hope that we can be as nice to other people as they are to us because we are pilgrims. When we go to bed at night with sore bones and throbbing feet we hope it will all feel better in the morning. It always does. So in the end the credenciales represent hope in the box. I’m quite happy with that thought.


  1. Don't get rid of that last box. Keep those mementos. I speak as someone who 'lost' some childhood things when my parents died while I was still young, and others cleaned out the house. There are bits and pieces I wish I still had to treasure and to hold. I totally respect the way you are 'clearing out' so much unused 'stuff'- but do keep that box with all the special memories it holds.

  2. Oh, and your photo makes me realise I am lacking a Spanish credencial. I have two that I treasure- a French 'church' one from Le Puy, and an 'Amis' one from the pilgrim office in SJPP. But no Spanish one. Ah well, there is nothing for it, I will have to walk again some day!

  3. It was quite moving looking into your box of treasures, Johnnie. You mustn't part with it.