My mother’s journals sat in a box in my garage. They covered 40 years – from soon after she chose to follow Jesus, on our Oregon farm, to living in Israel, Russia and Azerbaijan, working as a linguist and Bible translator. And before she died, she’d asked me to destroy them.

“But Mom,” I’d protested, driving her home from one of her many doctor’s appointments during her final months with cancer. “Those are the stories of your life. They are a treasure.”

“I don’t want anyone reading them,” she said. “You have to promise.”

I didn’t promise, figuring we’d talk more about it later. But the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were so busy and I was so far away and Mom’s disease progressed so quickly, she died before we ever spoke of it again. Emptying her shelves of books in the cold, hollow weeks that followed, I discovered Mom’s journals – each neatly labeled on the spine with a date – and remembered her request, aghast that I had not pleaded with her to change her mind.

Several I skimmed, sitting guiltily in her bedroom chair, wanting to honor Mom’s request but longing to better understand the private person who lived a life full of adventure and work – work that often seemed more important to her than me. Did I not have a right to know my own mom? In the end, I stacked Mom’s journals in a cardboard box and wrapped it round and round with packing tape to give myself time to decide.

Over the following years, I asked for advice from my brother, who felt that we should honor our mom’s wishes. And friends – older and younger – who said it would be terrible to burn something so irreplaceable. Round and round I went, like that thick roll of tape, which is how the box ended up in a corner of my garage until I found it last week while cleaning up for winter.

‘Mom’s journals,’ said my handwriting on the side, written nearly four years before. The air was snappy with the coming winter, the wood stove puffing away inside our little house. And somehow I knew that if I didn’t make a decision now, I’d never make it. So I carried the box into the living room and sat on the floor beside the stove. One by one, I scanned pages filled with Mom’s tight, elegant cursive, stopping to read only when my name or my brother’s jumped out.

But the name that jumped out most often was the name of Jesus. More than a record of Mom’s life and doings, these books were a record of her passionate pursuit of the one she’d spent her whole life seeking. They were not written to me, but to him. And the truth is, we are each of us a mystery – not only to those we love best, but to our own selves. The parts of my mom that I knew and loved, nothing could ever take away from me. And the parts that I didn’t, were between her and God. So, one by one, I mournfully laid all but three journals, which I couldn’t bear to part with, in my stove on a bed of bright coals where flames licked the edges and transformed the pages into glowing sheets of fire.

The next morning, I scooped the ashes into a metal bucket and scattered them around the plants in my prayer garden, hoping their charred remains would nudge my holly and azaleas and arborvitaes to grow – and maybe me too. Then I walked back inside, knowing that the real treasure wasn’t my Mom’s words but her faith in Jesus – a treasure indestructible that she had passed on to me. And I knew that I had chosen well.

Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now.