My mediation partner Sig Cohen and I are in the final stretch of a book tentatively called How Do You Want to be Remembered? In some respects this is a “how-to” book complete with its share of lists like, “Ten rules for …“ But I wanted it to be more than practical advice; I wanted it to also throb with the beat of human hearts. In a chapter called ”Letting Go,” I described, memoir-style, my challenging relationship with my mother to illustrate one kind of letting go.
We often hear, “You can’t change the past.” That’s true in one sense. The “facts” of any story may be clear and unalterable. But the meaning is not found in the facts. The meaning lies in the life experiences we bring to the facts and the interpretation we take away. There is a way to change the grip of the past. It’s called reframing.
Reflecting on a painful experience can give it a new meaning. Like an old family photo, reframing changes how it looks. New details emerge into awareness. A new frame opens possibilities for forgiveness and reconciliation, for personal growth, and for moving on from a very painful place.
A few years ago I wrote my spiritual autobiography to fulfill the requirements for ordination. In the process I reflected on things that kept me bound to the past in unhealthy ways. At first I asked myself, “Why did this happen?” But then I realized that was the wrong question. Only God knows why bad things happen. The more helpful questions for me were, “What can I learn from that? How can I grow from it? How can I work with God to use it to help others?”
Those are still good questions when stuff hits the fan.
The deepest sadness of my life was that my mother and I never bonded. When I was born, my father was unemployed and my parents were living with Dad’s parents. It was not a good time to have a baby.
My mother was a pretty woman, but from early childhood I remember her disapproving gaze and tightly pursed lips. She did her motherly duty as she saw it, which included liberal spankings, most of which I did not deserve. I could sometimes win her approval by making good grades and getting recognition from others, but I never in all my life felt she loved me. (I did feel loved by my father and grandmother and aunt, so the absence of Mama’s affection was painful but not emotionally fatal.) And as I grew older I really didn’t like her very much. I thought she was lazy. Although she had been a teacher and a social worker before I was born, she did not take a job after I started school. (I was an only child until I was nine years old.) Every single afternoon when I came home from school, the house was a mess and Mama would be taking a nap.
God knows we could have used an extra paycheck. We were working-class and money was always a struggle. We never had a washing machine like the other neighbors because Mama didn’t want to do laundry. Daddy’s work clothes and the family sheets and towels were picked up by a cleaning service and delivered the following week. I learned to hand wash and press my own school outfits. Later Mama washed my sisters’ dresses, but until they were old enough to iron they wore wrinkled clothes to school. Sometimes I ironed them out of embarrassment, secretly fuming. Mama was always “too tired.” Doing what? I wondered.
We were poor but she bought a lot of vitamins from a door-to-door salesman and visited a lot of doctors, though nothing improved. I secretly thought she was a hypochondriac, squandering the money Daddy sweated to earn as a carpenter in the Miami sun. I was full of judgment.
Not until I worked on my spiritual autobiography did it dawn on me that Mama must have been clinically depressed. And one day, long after I was grown up, she confided that the only time her father ever touched her was to put his hand on her head to check if she had a fever when she was sick. I suddenly understood why she liked to visit doctors.
These two revelations, her depression and the deprivation of a father’s touch, freed me to see my mother in a new light. And something else happened.
One day I was in the car alone with Mama when out of the blue she said, “Daddy says you don’t think I love you. Did you ever think that?” (Thankfully, she did not follow up with, “But I do.” Truth-telling was one of her rock-solid values.) The question shocked me. I recognized Mama was making herself vulnerable in that moment and I had no desire to go on the attack. But I wanted to answer honestly.
After a pause I said, “Well, when I was little I saw that other mothers would kiss and hug their children. You hardly ever touched me.”
She said, “When you were nine, one of the neighbors asked me about that.” Her voice broke. “I don’t know why I didn’t. I just couldn’t.”
It might seem hard to hear your mother say she couldn’t touch you, but it freed me to know I hadn’t imagined this! It wasn’t my fault!
I said, “Mama, I think you did the best you could.”
It was true. In that moment I forgave her.
Mama and I never did develop a touchy-feely relationship, but when she was in her 90s with Alzheimer’s, I helped Daddy care for her in my home. And I was glad.