I’m not a grudge-holder, but I come from a long line of people famous for that sort of thing. My sister’s only child hasn’t spoken to her mother in more than a year. My father and uncle had a falling out that resulted in two decades’ worth of silence, broken only on the occasion of my father’s death when my uncle picked up the phone and lambasted my mother with 20 years’ worth of pent up language he’d waited too long to hurl at his brother.
This kind of behavior makes me sad and more than a little perplexed. I’ve been wondering what could make someone refuse to speak to a person they were bound to, not just by blood and a shared history of hardships and triumphs but, more plainly, by love. Clearly, people have a reason for fearing that their actions, whether small or large, can result in unspeakable consequences. But I believe those actions would have to be unspeakable for me to surround the people I love with a wall of silence.
My mother brought this lesson home to me years ago, shortly after one of my aunts had died. We sat down to a private tête—-tête over dinner for two: steak; fresh corn on the cob; salad. The food was simple, fresh and delicious, but the conversation was sadly lacking. After we finished eating, my mother remained at our oversized table as if she were Judas. She hemmed and hawed, until I finally erupted with: “Whatever it is, unless you’re an axe murderer, I’ll forgive you.” That broke the ice, and out came my mother’s story.
My “cousin,” my mother said, was really my brother. My mother had “given” him to my aunt to raise as her own. Their arrangement was secret—not only from me but from my three sisters and my father and even from my brother—for as long as such a secret could be kept. Each of us, I learned, found the truth differently, at a different moment in time.
For me, my mother’s confession spoke volumes: of sadness; regret; and consequences far beyond any I could ever impose. And yet, there she was: looking at me like a small, guilty child. As if I held the weight of her conscience in my hands, my heart, my mouth. “Can you forgive me?” my mother asked plaintively.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to forgive. Webster’s says the word has an Old English root dating back to before the 12th century. It means “to give up resentment”; “to grant relief”; “to cease to feel resentment”; or “to pardon,” as in forgiving one’s enemies. I believe in granting relief when I can. And so I granted my mother’s wish.
We never stopped talking.
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