Letting Go of The Old Address Book

It started as a block-letter item on the spring cleaning list: Toss old bills; basement?; clean grout; FILL IN NEW ADDRESS BOOK.

The urgency of this task had been brought home to me just a few months before, when I decided to send out Christmas cards for the first time in years.

Leafing through the dingy furled pages of my now-coverless address book, I marveled at the slew of names. Just who were these people? At some point in my life they meant enough to me that I wrote down where they lived. Now I found it hard to remember who dozens of them were.

Under the B's, I'd listed a hairdresser with a little shop near the dorm who did my hair in the waning days of the Farrah Fawcett-do. Under the E's, a boy I dated the same year. We said a teary farewell in June, when he went off to Alaska to work as a commercial fisherman. After college came my first full-time job as a reporter. The pages of my address book began to fill with the names of editors, reporters, and news sources I hoped to cultivate.

Then I got engaged. In pale blue ink I added the names of dozens of far-flung relatives and my parents' business associates, who, I was assured, would be crushed if they weren't invited to the wedding.

A few months after we were married, my husband came home with the sudden news that his carefully-laid plans for graduate study in Russian literature were to be shelved for a career in the ministry. He seized my address book, and names of seminaries, pastors, and churches found their awkward place among bohemian college friends and newspaper folk.

We moved to New Jersey, Lee enrolled in Princeton Seminary, and we started meeting -- and learning the addresses of -- a whole new set of friends.

By the time we moved to Michigan four years ago, I had taken to writing the names of new friends in the margins, in purple ink so they were easy to spot.

One day, when I forgot for the umpteenth time that our accountant was listed in the nearly-empty Z page, because his last name actually begins with the ever-popular L, I made a major decision. I went out and bought a beautiful new address book. It was large, handsome, and inviting, sitting there on my desk. And there it sat, for many months, while I clung protectively to my coverless artifact.

I liked, when I faced the unpleasant task of calling my personal banker, to see above his name the name of a sweet little English lady I met on a flight to London 10 years ago. She added her name in a delicate hand and invited me to visit her for tea.

I enjoyed tracing the many addresses of our friend Aloo, a Kenyan Bible translator. Each time I followed his travels through Africa down the page, I would remember the day he finished his program at Princeton Seminary and got ready to leave for the airport. We stood in a sunny courtyard outside the library, struggling to say a goodbye rendered more poignant by the distances involved and the unlikelihood that our paths would cross again.

''We'll see each other again,'' he kept saying. ''I know we will.''

The memory of Aloo's calm faith that day has eased many goodbyes since. As Lee continued in the ministry, we would say goodbye and collect addresses of friends from Hungary, the Philippines, South Africa, China, and more, hoping to keep in touch, but confident that the joyful reunion would someday come, whether we remembered to write or not.

I'd like to say that I never used the new address book -- that I stubbornly clung to tradition, to my tattered personal history. But I didn't.

One day, I sat down and filled in the new book. I even used pencil for friends who favor a gypsy lifestyle.

If you stop by today, you'll probably find me at my desk primly paging through neatly-written addresses. But just maybe, you'll find me sneaking a peek at something tucked away between two cookbooks. Because sometimes, I need to be reminded that I used to be a full-time newspaper reporter, I used to be a free-spirited college student, I used to be a person who was never ever introduced as ''our assistant pastor's wife.''

Knowing that a book full of reminders hides on the kitchen shelf is sometimes exactly the comfort I need.

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