How I forgave my mother
I was almost four years old standing at the front door, my mother bends forward so I can give her a goodbye kiss.
The next time I saw her, I was sixteen. And now, more than four decades later, I’m standing at her viewing.
Some of her long-time friends look at us sideways as they move along the receiving line. They only knew her husband of thirty-five years passed away ten years earlier, they didn’t expect to see five of her seven dirty little secrets.
As a teenager, I had managed to create a one-sided relationship with our mother. The kind where you beg to be seen. Then as adults with children of our own, my sister and I invited her to family get-togethers and sleepover weekends. Her monologues always circled back to how my father left her.
I had learned that you could reach a certain level of forgiveness by saying,
“she did her best,”
or “let go because I’m the one carrying it.”
Although that added a thin layer of balm, it didn’t give the wound the exposure it needed to heal.
I sat alone in the small non-denominational chapel after the ceremony, staring at the stained glass window, reminiscing about my mother’s appreciation for pretty things. The textured golden yellow glass with hints of red, orange and brown artistically mixed to create a picture of the crucifix and the tortured man, reflected some of the contrast of my mother.
The hard, slippery wooden pew pressed on my tailbone, so I got up and muttered a quick prayer of thanks while the voice in my head said: “for nothing.”
A week later, my older British sisters had returned home to grieve in their own way. They had love and family through their husbands and were uninterested in the box of letters we found in my mother’s condo.
Sometime later, my sister and I unfolded the silky airmail letters to prove my father was a jerk, and he caused my mother to leave.
Most times, we choked up and had to regroup, but it was like watching a train wreck; we couldn’t look away.
“My life is nothing without you and the kids,” he wrote.
“I beg you to bring them here so we can all be a family again,”
my father pleaded from three thousand miles away.
In disbelief, we read letters to my mother from my father’s mother, offering to book passage for all of us on the Queen Mary to join him. She had paid for my dad’s earlier trip to the streets that were lined with gold.
It took us weeks to read through all chronologically ordered letters, and our emotions ranged from shock to anger to sadness mixed with disbelief.
The most disturbing message of all was the final letter from our Nan, who raised us. She begged my mother to come back to England and take care of us because she had cancer and knew she wouldn’t be here long. Nan passed away soon after, but my mother didn’t return, not even for her funeral. The youngest five of us were shipped off to my alcoholic father.
A few years after her passing, I was walking the dirt trail of the woods with the dense, 100 ft. tall trees, and everything became deafeningly and beautifully silent. I stopped and closed my eyes when I heard Gaia whisper to me.
“If you want to truly heal, you have to face the truth; that she left seven small children for reasons that scrape against motherhood like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was about her despair and how she couldn’t learn to move past it.”
Mother’s dream of owning a home was ingrained more deeply than her need for keeping her family together without the love of her life. I understood her need for her physical stability, especially after the London blitz. But, instead of dealing with her husband wanting to stay in America for prosperity, she dug in her heels for several years until my father gave up and found someone else. Then she ran to Canada after him but wasn’t allowed entry into the US as a British citizen. My father agreed to meet her in Canada, and their one-night reunion wasn’t enough for either to back down. She never returned for us.
Although she remarried and was happy with her husband for thirty-five years, she never got over my father. She spoke about him at every family event, about how he left, and how she struggled financially and was unable to send for us. The truth was that she did very well in her career, it was her soul that was fractured.
As I got older and experienced deep heartbreak with the love of my life, I understood her grief.
She never recovered from losing my father and remained in such deep denial about leaving her children, that we became a compartmentalized memory.
Years later, our drunken father told us that she said,
“If I can’t have you, I don’t want the children.”
Her sorrow had no choice but to bury itself deeply. Her finger was on the dam, and she couldn’t remove it for fear of a flood.
My mother leaving was about her being unable to grieve, release and move on. She loved my father with everything she had, and he loved her back. They both had survived the war, but she couldn’t survive this.
My father eventually hid in alcoholism and my mother in denial that it wasn’t her fault.
In the movies, hearts heal, and we move on. But in life, the pain can push you to so deeply into regret, that you have to deny that previous experience existed.
She was only capable of acting life through her career, her second marriage and her visits with her children and grandchildren on special occasions. Her heart was on autopilot, able to navigate so not to crash, but devoid of the instinctual human responses.
I was a part of the puzzle pieces that just didn’t fit without the love of her life.
She spent the rest of her days stuck, and she died shattered. Her last words to the nurses were, “all my girls are coming down to see me,”… as if we wouldn’t.
I didn’t have to forgive her for not being able to come to terms with her loss. I had to genuinely understand it, let go and then forgive myself for holding on to the idea that it was somehow only about me.
Healing isn’t something that has a timeline. It moves progressively as quickly or slowly as you accept you’re ready to understand the who, what, why and when of it all.
Forgiving her freed me to remember her goodness and her beauty.
She always kept things fair, never had anything unpleasant to say about anyone and stood her ground when she thought she was right. She loved squirrels, walks and her friends. She loved as much as she was capable, and although it’s not the way I perceive a mother’s love, I finally realized that it wasn’t about me.
It’s been nine years since she passed, and I invite her to come to me. I’m still waiting. That part of me will be four years old forever.