“Preserve your memories,” singer and poet Paul Simon once wrote. “They’re all that’s left you.”

They rise up with our prayers, memories of those who were just here, but now, in the blink of an eye, are gone. They fill our obituary columns, life stories cut short by a coronavirus that mocks this season of redemption.

The Memory Tree  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And on this most wistful of Christmas Eves, they weigh down a tree inside a tiny church in Bowdoinham.

“I wanted everybody to realize that each life lost is such a special person,” Marilyn Davis said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I feel the connection to these people, and I just wanted to honor them.”

This is the fourth Christmas the First Church of the Nazarene in Bowdoinham has erected a “memory tree” in its welcoming, Victorian-decorated sanctuary. But where in past years the cards and mementos have sprung from the lives of the small congregation – before the pandemic, weekly worshipers typically numbered in the 20s – this year is different.

As of Wednesday, 311 wooden ornaments, each the shape of the state of Maine, hung on the stately tree. They represent the lives lost statewide since the first COVID-19-related death of a Mainer – a man in his 80s from Cumberland County – was reported way back on March 27.

Marilyn, who lives in Turner, still travels to Bowdoinham for her spiritual fulfillment. How can she not? Her father, the Rev. Harland C. Joyce, founded the church in 1948.

“I was only 3,” she said.

It was around October that Marilyn began thinking about the looming holidays, the spiking pandemic and the inescapable heaviness that has made this a year like no other.

She thought of the people she knows who have been through COVID-19 and thankfully survived. She thought of the one person she knows who is still battling the coronavirus in an intensive care unit. And she thought of Fred, her husband of 53 years, who died in 2017.

“I’m kind of glad he doesn’t have to go through this,” Marilyn said. “I wouldn’t want him being in the hospital all by himself.”

She also thought of the memory tree and approached the Rev. Christina Couch, the church’s pastor, about doing something a little different this Christmas.

“Marilyn said it would just be nice to remember, acknowledge that this is kind of a statewide loss,” Couch recalled in a separate interview. “It’s something that we’re all going through together even though we may or may not know somebody who has passed due to COVID. Statewide, we’re mourning together.”

Marilyn went online, determined that whatever ended up hanging on the tree, it must have originated in Maine. She found the state-shaped ornaments at Casey’s Wood Products in Wiscasset and placed her first order. It would not be her last.

“I just ordered a hundred more on Monday,” she said.

Like so many other Mainers, Marilyn and Pastor Couch have been struck over the days, weeks and months by the frequent briefings from Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In particular, they’ve noted the compassion Shah has shown – one of the seven characteristics of the worldwide Church of the Nazarene is “purposeful compassion” – as he begins each session with the burdensome task of announcing, and honoring, those most recently lost to the pandemic.

“He’s always reminding us to be kind,” Marilyn said. “I think it was last week or so that he talked about the person who was 100-and-something and how he had lived through the first pandemic, a world war and the different things that each person lives through in a lifetime. How each life is so precious.”

So, wanting to do still more, Marilyn sought and received her pastor’s permission to write a letter on behalf of “The church family at Bowdoinham Nazarene” to Shah and to Gov. Janet Mills, whose empathy has also shone though the darkest days.

She told them about the tree, how each ornament has a “2020” etched on it along with a number signifying where that person fell in the total death toll, the month the death occurred and the person’s age and county. If it was a woman, a pink or rose ribbon is attached; if it was a man, the ribbon is blue or green; if unknown, it’s white.

“We want to express our thanks to both of you, for all you have done to watch (over) the state of Maine,” she wrote. “You both remind us, on a weekly basis, that the lives lost are of individuals who are valued citizens of our beautiful state.”

There will be no Christmas service at the First Church of the Nazarene. Bowdoinham is a small community and, being good neighbors, its congregation traditionally defers to the larger gathering each year at the Second Baptist Church on nearby Church Street.

But the tree will be there, bearing silent witness to what happened in 2020, what is still happening, what will continue to cast a long shadow over Maine into the New Year.

Then, we pray, it will finally end. This time next year, we will emerge from our isolation like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, delirious with the joy that comes simply from being alive, being together, being human again.

Until then, let us all look back. Let us think of those we’ve lost. Let us preserve their memories.

They’re all that’s left us.


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