Forgiving Our Mothers, Healing Ourselves By Louise Hart
"How can I love when I was never loved?" my mother Theresa once asked. When she was only five, Theresa's own mother had died in childbirth. Her father soon married another young woman in the village, and the family continued to grow. Being the oldest of 13 children, Theresa was saddled with enormous responsibility and hard work. And she always missed the love and affection of her own mother.
Mama expressed her love and care for her own five children in the only way she knew how-by doing. She cooked and baked, washed and ironed, gardened and canned. She knew little about tenderness, affection, and comforting. Unfortunately, all of her hard work didn't fill my primal hunger for attention, warmth, and love. For years I tried to mend our relationship, but I was met with little success.
Several years ago, as a grown woman with grown children of my own, things began to change when I attended a workshop. At one point we were asked to think of someone against whom we had grievances. We were to write those grievances on a piece of paper. I plunged right in: My mother didn't love me. She didn't show affection. She played favorites. She didn't listen to me. She didn't accept me for who I was. The painful list went on and on.
The leader's voice interrupted: "Are you willing to let her off the hook totally and completely?" I thought about her sitting in the nursing home near my home. She had little interest in living. Time was running out. I resolved to try once again to heal our connection. "Yes!" I shouted.
As I prepared myself for the visit, I remembered something important I had learned in graduate school: What parents need to hear more than anything from their grown children is, "You did an okay job." I thought about Mama's childhood experiences. Her family struggled to survive poverty in Germany, and there was little nurturance and emotional comfort in her own childhood. Later in life she worked very hard taking care of the physical needs of her husband and five children. She did her best. In fact, she gave us more than she had received as a child.
Driving to the nursing home I rehearsed what I wanted to say to my 88-year-old mother. She wasn't in her room or on the patio. At last I found her, slumped in a wheelchair in front of a television. "Hello, Mama," I said as I wheeled her outside to the patio. Then I took a deep breath and awkwardly began: "I know that I was a difficult child for you and I'm sorry. You did an okay job as a parent, and I am okay." Her head was limp; her eyes were closed. I didn't know if she was hearing my words.
I thanked her for all the good things she had done for me: sewing and mending and washing my clothes, growing vegetables and canning fruits and cooking healthy meals from scratch. And I thanked her for allowing me to go to college. I felt gratitude for every good thing she did for us. Then I paused, hugged her, and whispered, "I love you." Silence filled the room. "Mama, do you have anything to say?" More silence...I held my breath. Then a feeble voice murmured, "Forgive me." Those powerful words mysteriously released all of my painful childhood memories and grievances. They were her last words. Three days later she died.
The late-night call shocked me. I immediately called my daughter and went to her apartment. Kristen greeted me with an embrace and a glass of blood-red wine in a crystal goblet. Mozart's Requiem Mass was playing in the background. She held me as I cried. Through my tears, I spotted a lighted candle set in a brown box. Mama had always kept that special box in her vanity-saving it for the last Sacrament of Extreme Unction for departing souls. I gathered the box and its contents, and we walked to the nursing home.
Mama was on the bed in her room. The wrinkled body looked like her, but it was empty. Her feet were still warm. I removed a bottle of rosewater and the antique gauze from the box. With great care I anointed the arms that had held me, the breasts that had nursed me, the face that hadn't laughed enough. Greatly relieved that I had finally made my peace with her, I bid farewell to the body that had given me life. We lit the candle, read the prayers, and sent her spirit on its way.
At her funeral I conveyed to my four siblings this powerful experience, as well as Mama's request for forgiveness. The healing was not just for me, but for all of us.
After her burial, my siblings and I gathered to tell stories about her. We laughed as, for the first time ever, we told funny stories about Mama. It was a time of remembering and honoring her life. That commemoration of Mama's life was the best family celebration we ever had.