This week in honor of Mother’s Day, I’m writing about forgiveness as I have experienced it. I know that it’s a controversial subject for many, as evidenced in the recent comments on my Huffington Post blog article Forgiveness–A Mother’s Day Gift.
As memoirists, of course we have to take a chance and tell our truths, which means being brave about sharing what we think and feel, despite whatever winds may blow. I’m joining my colleague Darcey Rojas in writing about forgiveness, though both of us decided this without the other knowing it–but we both had complicated mothers who had to contend with mental illness. Please go over and read her thoughtful and inspiring blog too.
This piece is about my grandmother who raised me, a complex person whom I often feared, but whom I loved as a mother. She raised me, she saved me, she was with me as I grew up. I guess that’s what a mother is.
The old woman looked at me with an uncharacteristic glow, her deep brown eyes peaceful for the first time in years. For the last few years, I’d tried to escape my grandmother, her ballistic rants and thunderstorm moods, her hatred and grudges. But it’s not so easy when Gram was the only “parent” who cared enough to raise me. Still, the last sixteen years of her 8 hour a day rants—when she was in the mood–have worn me down.
Today I came to visit her in a convalescent home, after having just seen my father, who was dying of cancer of the liver. A dark cloud hung around me, the shreds of history woven by Gram and my father, a long war they’d waged for years. When I walked in the room, I decided that one word against him, and I’d walk out. I’d had enough of their hate and anger.
The history of these battles tied knots around my heart. When I was ten, Gram forced me to write hate letters to my father, and he answered in kind, letters addressed to me, letters filled with rage: damn bastard, greedy, no-good—accusations and counter accusations. I could feel a history I knew little about—he married my mother after a quick courtship, I was born 10 months later, and he was gone the first year of my life. Mother left me with her mother when I was four. Dishes were thrown when mother came to visit, vile words flung about during visits by both parents. My psyche was littered with the debris of war, sharpened knives of wounding words, saddlebags of grudges.
Today she looked so small lying there on the white sheets, her eyes soft, her voice like the Gram who used to brush my hair from my face and murmur, “You’re my Sugar Pie.” She was mother and father, best friend, advocate for reading, history, literature, foreign languages, the piano and cello, passionate about college and learning—everything she might have wanted for herself in another era.
Her slim fingers reached for my hand. “I have something important to tell you.”
The air in the room was not so dark and heavy as it used to be at home, and she appeared to be light, as in weightless, unburdened, so unlike her. What had happened to her since my last visit nearly two years ago when I ran from the house to escape her rage and hateful words?
She began telling me about her week in the Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s, how a priest would visit her, finding her weeping every day. In the last few years, she was either enraged or crying.
“He told me that he could see my troubles, and he said he could help. He prayed with me, and then he offered me the last rites of the church.”
I tried not to react, but a jolt of fear ran through me—that ritual was conducted when someone was dying. Was she dying? I knew of her deep conflicts with religion—angry when I became a Baptist, and angry later when I decided to become an Episcopalian. She would thumb through a Catholic prayer book, but she never went to church during the years she raised me. “A bunch of damn hypocrites, that’s all they are,” she’d say. I looked at her face now, serene, nearly unwrinkled as she went on with her story. She couldn’t be dying.
“My sins have been forgiven. I feel lighter.” She smiled, again the kind of smile she’d give me years ago, when we first began. She reached for my hand again., “Honey, will you please forgive me for hating your father all those years? I know he’s ill, and I’m so sorry.”
My mind stopped for a moment, shocked to hear her speak about him without rancor, even with compassion. Forgive her? I couldn’t lie to her, but her request was so unexpected, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was 25 years old, with a lifetime of unresolved stuff, a mountain of unfinished business that I imagined had been swept under a rug that reached to the ceiling. My heart was closed for self-protection. How could I trust and open to someone who had been so focused on her hate? I’d nearly given up on her, but here she was reaching out to me. I searched for a place in my heart, a corner, a small room with a window where forgiveness might be possible.
I don’t know how much time went by. It seemed that my whole history flashed in a kaleidoscope of images—the nights in high school when I cried every midnight, the welts from her yardstick, the sweetness of her hugs when I was little, her passion about WWII, England, Queen Elizabeth, Beethoven, piano music, and mostly travel, how her eyes would light up in the Nash Rambler on the road to Iowa every summer, how she loved the train, and the silver tea service, linen napkins and continental style of living. Silk dresses. Red lipstick. How she had seeded all this in me.
I found that open window—a gentle wind blew a lace curtain and the sun blessed us. Something in me melted and softened. “Gram, it’s okay. I forgive you.”
I knelt beside her, and she smiled. “Who knows, maybe I’ll even live for awhile.”
I’d not heard her be glad about living for 10 years—more than once she’d threatened to die and haunt me. But she meant it now, I could see it in her eyes, how she was lifted from her darkness. I would learn later that there’s a name for her ailment: depression-but then it was just the way things were.
Two weeks later she died on my birthday, leaving me with the blessing of being able to forgive her. Even though it was incomplete—it would take a few more decades to deal with the mountain buried under the rug—but in that moment on that day, the light in her eyes, her apology, and my acceptance was a blessing, the most profound moment of my life.
Hi Linda. Another haunting story from you. So sad that regret, saying sorry, understanding, and forgiveness may not come until the deathbed or later. But then, how can you forgive abuse when it ruined your childhood and/or adolescence and may have damaged you for life? Or you may forgive, but can’t forget because it’s forever embedded in your subconscious. The abuse is an important part of your life story. A part of who you are.
Thank you Penelope, for joining me here. I think forgiveness is a mystery, and I’m not sure how it happens. I think it’s finding some way somehow to stand in the other person’s shoes, but we don’t always want to do that. It’s too painful or we simply don’t understand that person. It seems that there are layers to healing, and sometimes we can get to the place where we are not ongoingly traumatized, where it fades into the background of our current lives. It’s a blessing when that happens.
Linda Joy, I know mutual forgiveness between my mother and me in the days just before she died in 2001. Our relationship mirrors the one you experienced with your grandmother. How that forgiveness we reached can only be explained by miraculous grace. I still am dazzled at the realization. Yet, greater than forgiveness, she gave me the affirmation I had longed for during my 57 years as her daughter, finally and with a smile. I write daily to get this story on the page and to share it with other women of our generation. I think there are many of us enveloped on our mothers and grandmothers’ cocoons of fear, misconception, jealousy and their own mistreatment at the hands of others. Kudos on a beautiful Mother’s Day message.
Hi Sherrey, it’s great to hear from you as I’m aware that our stories parallel each other in many ways. I’m so glad you got the have that special moment with your mother–it’s such a blessing when that happens. It’s important to share these moments of hope and triumph, when human nature takes a turn that gives us a smile, and relieves the tension we have been carrying for so long as our story has resided within us all our lives. I know our memoir community will celebrate the birth of your book!!
Profound and moving. You showed us forgiveness and how it was possible. Inspiring ~ thank you. I have a forgiveness story of my own, and I am thankful that there is grace in our lifetimes that we can resolve the angst and forgive. A lot of people can’t go there.
Thanks so much Sue for sharing that you have a forgiveness story too. I look forward to reading it someday! Keep writing–it’s for us, and it also helps others. Yes, it is a blessing to be able to find forgiveness. Sometimes it just appears, something lets go, and there we are. It is not usually a cognitive decision.