The holiday season brings families together. Sometimes there is past and present pain and brokenness that require love and forgiveness. Here’s a touching story of a love reborn two days after Christmas. ◊
How long should it take to forgive someone? What does it take to help one get over the pain and hurt caused by another – even a family member? This short story, written by a young daughter about her struggle with forgiveness of her own mother, never fails to touch my heart at Christmastime.1
My mother’s alcoholism became apparent to me when I was about nine years old. For seven years I watched as her illness made a grayish, skeleton-like animal out of an intelligent, charming beauty I loved. Liquor tore her apart and tore us apart too, my brother and sister and father and me, and all the other people who loved her, which included anyone who knew her.
As for me, I changed as much in those seven years as I thought my mother did. I began to hate her because hating hurt less than loving her and watching her destroy herself. Later I felt her drinking was directed purposely at the family, and I steeled myself even more against the sympathy that made me vulnerable to soul-ache. I like to think now that had I known what she was suffering, I would have helped her. But I didn’t.
I was 15 my father carried her limp, gray, emaciated form out to the car and drove her away, and I remember distinctly the overwhelming relief and exhilaration I felt that hot June day. She was going away for good, far away to a rehabilitation center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my father was divorcing her. I would never have to see her again. I didn’t, either, for almost 2 years.
During that time, I thought about my mother as little as possible; I was happier then than I had ever been before, ignorantly happy. To appease my niggling conscience I read the letters she sent us, full of a love that disgusted me, but I never wondered at her struggle to regain her sobriety, her sanity and her self-respect.
She won that struggle without my help. When I was 16, she wrote to say that she was leaving the rehabilitation center for an apartment and a position as a secretary in an insurance company.
I could not believe she was really well at last. Secretly I resented her licking it without us when she couldn’t with us, and cynically, almost hopefully, I expected her to start drinking again within a week. But her letters kept coming; enthusiastically, crisply, she wrote of her activities at work, of decorating her apartment, of skiing weekends.
My mother seemingly ignored the fact that we never answered her letters and she kept writing until we finally did answer them. Courtesy, I told myself. But the truth was, I had to admire her spunk. After a lot of internal struggle I accepted one of her invitations to visit, and two days after my 17th Christmas I boarded a plane for Minneapolis.
I have never felt so frightened as I did when I stepped off the plane that wintry evening. My mother must have been frightened too, but as I glimpsed that unfamiliar, familiar face in the crowded waiting room, she hurried to me and hugged and kissed me and kept her arm around me as we walked away. I wanted to shrug off that arm – one of the principles of my hate had been that I never allowed her to touch me – but she kept it there, and in my confusion I talked furiously.
We picked up my luggage and stepped out into the shocking cold and the cobalt night. As we drove noisily through the dark and snow, fast along the flat highway, my ego and I began to recover from our fright, and my hauteur and hate came back. I answered reticently, even curtly, her questions about my sister and brother, about my friends, about school.
Sometimes with deliberate cruelty I spoke of things to remind her of her losses – my brother’s new tallness, the beauty of our Christmas tree, the family jokes around the dinner table at home – a hundred things that could only grieve and sadden her. Never did I speak encouragingly of her amazing return to health; never was I enthusiastic about the details of her new life in Minnesota; not once did I display a particle of affection.
Yet my mother kept her composure and retained in our conversation both untiring interest and, more remarkably, love. By the time we got to her home I was a little ashamed of myself, which only served to make me nastier toward her.
We walked into the warmth of her apartment and I held my breath. My mother adored daintiness and airiness and how beautiful she had made that room! Gauzy white curtains floated at the windows, filtering the light onto the snow outside. The floor was blanketed richly in yellow, the light blue furniture was gay with sprays of tiny white flowers and around the room she had scattered great bunches of daisies in crystal bowls.
For Christmas, tables were adorned with graceful candles and delicate silver angels. The little gilt bell that had tinkled Silent Night for us so many years at home was now on her desk, and next to the large window stood a dainty little fir tree, bearing bugles and teddy bears and Santas my mother had made by hand. It was all so lovely, so bright and warm and homelike that it caught at my heart.
I stood looking at that room while my mother bustled around putting finishing touches on everything. When she was done she led me to her room, which was as delightful as the other, and exhausted, I got ready for bed. My mother was to sleep on the living room sofa while I was there, and she too prepared for bed, all the while chattering lightly. I allowed her to kiss me good night before she left the room, and then I climbed into the bed’s softness and lay watching the snow swirl against the window. My door was open, and for a long time there was no sound but the swish, swish of the icy flakes against the glass. I lay awake for a long time and inside I was as cold and hard and relentless as that snow.
When I finally began to get drowsy, a frighteningly familiar sound started me awake. It was a soft sound, a sound I had heard often in the night, and I got up quietly and padded out into the living room. The fir tree’s lights twinkled gently, and in their soft light I saw my mother huddled on the couch, her face in her hands. She was weeping as she had wept many times, alone and in the dark. I stood silently for a moment and watched her, and then my heart couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to her and put my arms around her, and from that moment have never ceased to love her.
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. – Colossians 3:13
1“Mother, I’m Here” by Kris Welland, published in The Guideposts Treasury of Hope, Carmel, New York, 1976, pp. 119-122.