I wrote the original version of this about 20 years ago and have re-edited it a bit. (I’ve had a few more insights into relationships & forgiveness in the intervening years). I have practiced forgiveness long enough that I have forgiven all the people who hurt me as a child, and myself for the ideas I once held about myself as a result of an abundance of the difficult events I reveal here. What a freedom comes of forgiveness! We don’t have to let those who once hurt us suppress our lives, limit our choices or dim the luminous nature of Love that is borne in each of us and seeks to express as us…
She Hit me: Forgiving My Mother
Rev. Dr. Susanne Freeborn
I changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school. That was only 45 days before graduation. This was not because my father was in the military. It was mainly because my mother was single–with 5 children by the time I was in high school. My parents never married. It wasn‘t for want of a proposal by my father that they did not marry. He begged my mother, but she was having none of it because her first husband had deserted her when she was still a teenager, and she was not going to let that happen to her again. It mattered not to her that my father loved her or that they had two children together. She was not going to be hurt again. Then my father killed himself a few years after they had separated, when I was only seven years old. He drove his truck into an enormous Coastal Live Oak tree at 60 miles an hour somewhere near Fresno, California in the great San Joaquin Valley. He left a suicide note they said, I wasn’t allowed to see or hear it.
There is not much point in going too deeply into a description of the pain and suffering of my childhood, just a sketch will do. Remember the Fifties and Sixties? Being a single mother was not common then, nor was it understood, supported and God, there was no respect at all. We would be called “That woman and all her brats.” Women didn’t make even close to equal pay, child support was not enforced, nor was it reliably collected by the state even if there was a court order in place. Our family life was a serial travelogue of spots between a rock and a hard place.
We were all bastards. One of my two sisters still doesn’t know her father’s name. None of us had five different sets of school clothes, and making friends was a dangerous business if you knew that you were only going to end up moving away right after you finally made some friends. And leave we did, because we were evicted from our home repeatedly when my mother ran short of cash. During my sophomore year of high school in the spring, when all the promise seems to be returning to the planet, we had to eat corn meal mush for two months straight because there was nothing else. We were very desperately poor and it was very hard for my mother. She came home exhausted from her job as a cook and beat all of us out of her frustration and anger.
At one time we were taken from her by the state and sent to live with our grandparents after a neighbor saw her beating me with a stick of lathe. A couple of years went by and then they sent us back to her, though nothing had really changed, except what house we lived in. During those years I fell prey to sexual molestation by two of my uncles and a male babysitter. When it was discovered, my grandmother acted as if a nine-year-old girl could actually be provocative to her sons, who were much older than I, one of them in the Navy. She taught me to feel guilty about the inappropriate behaviors directed toward me by men. She said men only wanted one thing. I didn’t feel safe in the world unless I was with my Grampa, but I couldn’t always be with him.
I tell you this so that you will understand why I had to come to know forgiveness intimately. Children who have a difficult childhood usually think that they are in some way responsible for what went wrong and we blame our parents for what we perceive as their failures to love, protect and provide for us. We, and our families, are fundamentally wrong in our own eyes. My poor mother was damned from the beginning. If the circumstances weren’t difficult enough, Freud was let loose on the world prior to her arrival and I was taught to profoundly blame her for everything. However, blaming Mom and my father brought me no peace, and only more suffering and a state of perpetual victimhood. I loathed being a victim.
I don’t remember exactly what it was that brought the miracle of forgiveness to me. But sometime during college, when I was around 28 years old, I was pursuing Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland and I began to see the culture that my family had lived in a wholly different way. I saw the terrible economic and societal pressures my mother had faced and saw that she had not given up on taking care of us, even though she was alone and without much help. Even if she had to lie to the landlord or creditors, she had always done her best to keep us safe. No matter what. And I began to realize why she had been angry and that in her grief and anger she had hurt us.
I became a little less overwhelmingly angry and disappointed with her and began to forgive her. I began to let her love me the way that she did instead of the way that I expected her to love me like June Cleaver. I began to love and respect her for how she had taken care of us, swallowing her pride, setting aside things that she had been taught, like honesty, so that we would be OK. She didn’t expect much from life, so she didn’t, couldn’t, have great hopes for us in matters of education or future professions. I saw the price she paid. She simply ensured our survival. She thought life was hard and so it was. She really didn’t have much time for being a soft, warm & loving mother. She was more like Sisyphus, continually rolling our family up a hill, never reaching the top, never being able to relax or to rest. Love does not always fit others pictures of what it ought to be. When you live only to survive many things look as if they belong only to others. Still my mother kept a roof over our heads that had a door to the world.
Realizing this allowed me just enough space to see another possibility for my own life. That I had all the say in the story of my life. My barely blessed mother let in just enough light under the door for me to see another kind of future. My life was very hard when I was young, but it has been one miracle after another since the day I began to forgive my mom.
I had to forgive my mother so many times that it seems like I have made that choice an infinite number of times. Yes our life was hard. Yes, I was horribly, overwhelmingly angry. Yes, I thought for a very long time that it was all her fault. Then I thought it was my fault. Along the way to forgiving Mom, I forgave myself into a life of freedom and joyous self-expression.
My Mom lived with me after having experienced a series of strokes, and I took care of her as tenaciously as she took care of me when I was a child. I kept flowers in her room because she said that “they look like happiness” and because, for me, flowers symbolize the grace of God. A grace that allowed me to see the error of the judgments I made as an innocent child against her and against myself. Mom died in January 2000. I am so fortunate that I used my time and my life the way I did prior to her death. That the wisdom of forgiveness revealed itself to me and I was able to share it with her, I couldn’t be more grateful for the peace that existed between us when she made her transition.