Forgiveness

For the next two blogs, we two Karen’s will focus on forgiveness. It is a part of growing older to review one’s life, and giving and receiving forgiveness inevitably surfaces.  But what is forgiveness? Here’s a psychological definition—nicely precise.

An act of deliberately giving up resentment toward an offender while fostering the undeserved qualities of beneficence and compassion toward that offender. (Freedman & Enright, 1996, p. 983).

Here’s a philosophical take, richer with the nuance implicit to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the really difficult things in life. The logic of receiving hurt seems to run in the direction of never forgetting either the hurt or the hurter. When you forgive, some deeper, divine generosity takes over. When you can forgive, then you are free. When you cannot forgive, you are a prisoner of the hurt done to you. If you are really disappointed in someone and you become embittered, you become incarcerated inside that feeling. Only the grace of forgiveness can break the straight logic of hurt and embitterment. It gives you a way out, because it places the conflict on a completely different level. In a strange way, it keeps the whole conflict human. You begin to see and understand the conditions, circumstances, or weakness that made the other person act as they did.

John O’Donohue, excerpt from Eternal Echoes

Part 1: Forgiving Our Mothers; Forgiving Inter-generational Sorrow….

This blog is about forgiving our mothers — and healing.  Too many women have experienced emotionally or toxic relationships with their mothers.  We are not among them. Yet, every childhood has its scars, and many women we know trace these to their mothers rather than their fathers. 

Both of us grew up largely in the 1950s, when parenting was quite different from today. Because of the norms of the time, our mothers were more present in our lives. Fathers were out making a living. Additionally, parents had fewer resources, and children expected, at least in part, to raise themselves.  Our parents were imperfect, but in very human ways.  Both of us also raised children in the 70s and 80s, and we tried to be more attentive/better mothers, but we also made mistakes, some of which caused our children pain.  Forgiveness is what we work on, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, in every part of our lives.  These are excerpts of our own stories.  We invite anyone who wishes to make a contribution…..

Karen Rose

The Johnson family c. 1912. Sigrid Johnson Danielson and Edward Danielson are in the middle

When I was in my late 50s, I went to a shaman – I thought of it as a kicky thing to do, and a dear friend, who is always open to alternative ways of experiencing her life, made the recommendation.  The shaman introduced himself as a psychiatrist who gave up his traditional practice to study shamanic recovery – and the experience was about as odd as I anticipated.

 I lay on a table with my eyes closed, while he was apparently dancing around me with a variety of native instruments that made subtle noises.  After several minutes of this, he stopped abruptly, and came over to speak:  “You come from a long line of unhappy women.  I can blow it out of you.”  He then put a hollow tube – was it made of bone? – near my heart and blew.  It was over.  I left, profoundly shaken but much lighter, hoping that I had not passed inter-generational sadness on to my daughters.

He was right, but I had never put the pieces together.  My two grandmothers were both, in retrospect, miserable.  Laura Rose’s father owned a sawmill on the St. Croix River in Minnesota – but drank himself and his family into poverty.  I never knew her as anything other than sour. Sigrid Johnson, from a relatively affluent immigrant farm family, was trapped in rural Minnesota with a husband and his reportedly ill-tempered father.  She and Edward Danielson (my grandfather) died in “the accident” – an apparent murder-suicide.  It was during the Depression, and their three girls were separated and dispatched to live with different distant relatives.  My mother, the oldest at 14, ended up in North Dakota—well fed and educated, but never at home.  “The accident” was taboo — neither she nor my two aunts talked about it.  According to my father, she had never discussed it with him.

Wen I was quite small I somehow understood that my job was to make my mother happy, Along with my sister, we were successful for quite a while.  She was an ideal 1950s Mommy – a good cook, active in the Democratic Party, on the board of the local Girl Scouts, happy to help with my writing, and almost always there to talk when I came home from school. When I was in high school, friends wanted to gather at my house because my mother was so welcoming.  After I left home, the weight of inherited alcoholism and untreated trauma emerged, and by the end of her life it seemed as if she was someone else – unavailable, a recluse, a non-drinker who never made peace with her addiction, and a smoker until she died, even while on oxygen.  It infuriated me to see her like that, especially when her mental illness made her largely indifferent to my children.

The shaman opened a door to forgiveness.  I slowly began to see how generations of unexamined sadness seeps through the lives of the people who are closest to us, and create pools of shared but vague disequilibrium and depression.  I am learning, albeit later in life, how to express rawer emotions in ways that bring others into my life rather than pushing them away.  Beginning to forgive my mother for what she was unable to change in her past or herself gave me a glimpse of a new kind of freedom. 

Karen Martha

In 1996, as my mother lay dying of kidney and bone cancer, in her lucid moments she agonized about the many difficulties she’d had in her life and how she had handled them. She kept saying, “I needed more time. I’m not ready. I need to fix things.”

In terms of me, her middle daughter, she felt great guilt about allowing me to be put in Taylor Home, an orphanage/home for children, when I was four. It was 1948, she was divorced and left with three girls to take care of alone. She worked days as a short order cook and nights as a bar waitress, but she could not support us. The county took her children away from her, and I’m not sure if she had choices about where we would go, but my sisters went to relatives, and I went to a home.

I suddenly found myself living in a Gothic mansion sharing a dormitory with strange and older girls, unable to see my sisters or my mother. I felt ripped from my security and at the mercy of strangers. I spent hours outdoors, sitting on a swing, twisting round and round, swinging higher and higher, waiting for someone to take me home. I was there until I started kindergarten, so about two years. My mother succeeded in getting her girls back, she remarried, and we began anew as a family.

But the story doesn’t end there, because I made it my cause to punish my mother for what she had done to me. If she tried to hug me and say she loved me, I pulled away. Sometimes I simply said, “I hate you.” She gave up, and though we lived as mother and daughter, that essential bond was never completely restored.

As my mother lay dying, she asked my forgiveness for putting me in the home. I believed I had gradually forgiven her, and I regretted that we had lost our relationship as mother and daughter. To her request for forgiveness, I remember saying, “There’s nothing to forgive. You did the best you could.” But that’s not the same as saying, “Of course, I forgive you, and I love you very much.” I never quite got to that place, and if I had the chance today, I would say that to her. I hope what I did say was enough that she died in peace.

Karen Martha and her mother, at her son’s/grandson’s high school graduation

For my mother and me, forgiveness reaches back generations. In 1924, my mother’s own mother, Ruth, “abandoned” her by dying in childbirth. My mother was four when Ruth went to the hospital to have her second baby, a brother to my mother. Ruth died in childbirth of a stroke, at age 21, and never came home. All that returned was a crying baby and a devastated father. How does a four-year-old understand this except as having been abandoned? It was a pain my mother carried her entire life. Everything about my mother can be filtered through that loss. But that’s another story.

How do you forgive someone for dying, especially when you are four? Instead, my mother carried the pain. I had the chance to forgive, and I could have made mine unequivocal. For now, I hold my mother in my heart and remember her many fine qualities. Fortunately, I have a granddaughter named after her, Margaret, whose curly brown hair, sparkling brown eyes, and effervescent personality remind me often of my mother, who did the best she could.

To be continued.