Former Things - Planting a Seed Called Forgiveness
Former Things is a novel about a mother-daughter estrangement that spans twenty years. It is an intense, passionate story of how misunderstandings and unmet expectations can destroy a relationship. It is a story for women of all ages, one that will long live in your memory.
Good things often happen when you're looking the other way.
In recent months, my ability to love has been put to the
test. Some would call it the “ultimate” test, and maybe it is.
It was in April 1999 when I learned I had a grandson. My
daughter called to tell me the news after being “in seclusion” for the better
part of a year. Her news came as a shock. In the same breath she told me she
had married the baby’s father two months after graduating from college in May
1998. I had known nothing about her wedding plans. I also didn’t know she was
expecting a baby.
It was a beautiful day for her college graduation, and
immediately following commencement exercises, I invited her and her boyfriend
to brunch. We went to her favorite place in the South End of Boston, and conversation
was light and friendly. I had no idea at time that when we parted at South
Station, it would be the last time I would see her. I remember our final hug,
our “I love yous” and a promise to have supper together soon. I turned and
watched her walk away into the crowd, thinking that she was the most beautiful
girl I had ever known. I also thought how fortunate I was that she was mine.
Had I known then what was to follow – a nightmare I would not wish on any parent
– I would have run after her and held on to her for dear life. Now, 16 years
later, I continue to wonder how and why this estrangement happened.
The details of what we both endured following her
graduation are, at this point, unimportant. What is important is that there is
a handsome, musically gifted boy I have never met. And though I don’t know him,
I feel a deep love for him all the same.
I found my grandson earlier this year on the Internet where
he posted YouTube videos of himself playing various musical instruments. Though
I don’t know for sure, he may be testing his parents’ limits on some of the
music he is choosing to listen to. But since time began that’s what teens do. I
think about the Stone Age when teens may have used makeshift hammers to sound
out rhythms on the walls of caves and more recently the 1920s flappers, the
1950s Bobby-soxers, the 1980s teeny-boppers and now this current generation.
My grandson is a handsome boy. He has his mother’s eyes and
mouth and beautiful teeth just like hers. Sometimes his facial expression is so intense, he reminds me of my own father when he played violin. It's that intense expression that tells the story – he becomes one with the music when he plays. He also has a personality that sparkles.
He’s funny and clearly fun-loving,
smart and even charming. I would love to know him in person. But at this point,
all I can do is view him (and his music) from afar.
I’m not surprised that he’s gifted musically because his
mother was, too, and possibly his father. When my daughter was a little girl,
she took piano lessons for about six years. She got to the point where, while
at home for semester break, she could go to the piano and play “Maple Leaf Rag”
without music in front of her. I wonder if she remembers those days. When she
was 12, she begged to be released from music lessons. The call of her teen
girlfriends was loud and clear, and the last thing she wanted to do was
practice. So, though I thought she might live to regret it, I said OK. But
learning to play a musical instrument is kind of like learning to ride a bike.
Once you learn, you never forget. Oh, you might get rusty, but with a little
practice, it all comes back.
In one of the YouTube videos, my grandson plays a piece of
classical music. In another, he instructs viewers on another type of music
that, to me, resembles fingernails clawing at a chalkboard. I love to visit his
YouTube videos and look at him. When I study his face each time, I see new
glimpses of his mother. This past time, for instance, I noticed a dimple in his
right cheek – my daughter has one in the same place.
How she must love her boy, how proud of him she must be. I
am, too. And I think about how fortunate his other grandmother is if she knows
him in a personal way. If she does, I hope she realizes how blessed she is.
I sometimes fantasize about what I’d like to do for my grandson. If,
for example, he wanted to go to Berklee School of Music in Boston, I would love
to help him. If he needed a new instrument, maybe I could help him buy it. These
gestures, I think, are simple but loving. It’s what a grandmother would do. But
buying and spending does not equal love. While I’d love to be able to help,
even in small ways, I would cheer him on, which I think is a better gift. I would tell him he has wonderful
leadership qualities, even at his tender age, and that he might be an awesome
conductor someday. Maybe he could play at Carnegie Hall. Maybe he could be
concertmaster. Or, maybe he could join a rock group and gain fame just as The
Beatles did. Why not? Other people achieve their goals – all they needed was
some talent and a cheering squad behind them.
And so, this cheering squad of one grandmother is rah-rahing
her grandson on, whether he knows it or not. Maybe someday he’ll come across
this blog and wonder “Who is this woman who claims to be my grandmother?”
If and when that ever happens, I will tell him only what he needs to know. That all
along he has had a grandmother in the shadows who loves him, even without
knowing him. That I loved his mother the first time I met her at the JFK
Airport when she arrived from Korea in August 1974. That I continue to love her
to this very day.
Dear Former Things Blog Readers -- Over the summer, I launched two new blogs -- one for arts and entertainment reviews and another for travel. The arts and entertainment blog, for now, is geared to events in Greater Boston. The travel blog, by its very nature, is geared to the "Greater World." Soon, I will be reviewing Nova Star, the new cruise ferry from Portland, Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Later in the fall, I'll review the Woodstock Inn in Vermont followed by a review of Tuscany. As time permits, there may be other travel opportunities. To locate the arts and entertainment blog, visit www.stagewhispers-greaterboston.blogspot.com. For the travel blog, visit www.boomerbookings.blogspot.com(I highly recommend Poland Spring Resort in Poland, Maine where you get a lot for your money, and then some.)
We may be estranged from our beloved children, but this does not mean we should stop living and enjoying life. On the contrary, we should all look for ways to bring joy to not only ourselves, but others. Be well. Be joy-filled. Join me on life's spectacular journey. Love, Gail P.S. My next blog will target consumer issues.
On Monday this week my assignment at work was to cover a
seminar designed for hair stylists, nail technicians and massage therapists. The
topic: How they can spot domestic violence. The program: Cut It Out. My job: Write about it.
Since these workers come in direct contact with women, our county’s
District Attorney Marian Ryan visited a local salon where the personal care
workers gathered to learn what specifically to look for. Since hair stylists
work with their clients’ hair, they are the ones who would find a bald spot,
usually at the nape of the neck, where hair may have been yanked out by an
angry boyfriend or husband. Women abused this way won’t wear their hair in a
ponytail if it’s long enough because the bald spot would show. They sometimes
won’t allow a stylist to feather their bangs unless they check with a partner
first. Sometimes a man will accompany his wife or girlfriend to a hair
appointment or wait outside in a car – to keep an eye on her.
Ryan has fought against domestic violence for three decades;
she knows of what she speaks. She said it has become an epidemic. Personal care
workers across the country are now being taught to keep an eye out because family
members are often not aware of the abuse. The reason? Abusers plot clever ways
to isolate their victims from family and friends. That said, mothers and
fathers estranged from their children have no way of knowing if the children
they raised and loved are living in peaceful – or, God forbid, abusive situations.
Many, Ryan said, are being abused.
Abuse, she said, takes many forms and begins in the early
stages of a relationship. Ryan used the male gender when referring to abusers
because men are the most likely to abuse or even kill a girlfriend or wife.
Domestic violence is misogyny taken to an extremely high level. In the
beginning stages, a man will bait a woman with fancy dinners, words to the
effect that they have never met anyone like her, or shell out money for
expensive jewelry or trips – anything to reel the woman in. Once the man has
the woman in his clutches, the abuse begins. It usually starts with threats,
monitoring phone calls, monitoring how the woman spends her money, restricting
use of a car and pulling her away from those who love her. His need is not for
love. His need is for power and control. God help the woman who falls for a man
like this. She is in for a miserable life, said Ryan, unless she knows help is
available and gets it. The man’s need for power and control often progresses into
something much worse – namely, verbal battering and name calling followed by physical
abuse, including yanking hair out by its roots, blackening eyes, punching a
woman in the mouth so hard he knocks out one or more teeth. He might take control of all the money and dole it out a dollar at a time. He tells her she’s
lucky to have him; no one else will want her. He might say she’s grown fat and
ugly. Yet, in the middle of the night he might wake her from a sound sleep and
demand sex. He might decide to turn on the bedroom light in the middle of the
night and wake her up so he can fight with her, all the while knowing she has to get up
for work at 6 a.m. Abusers do not know how to love because they have never known love. Oh, they may have been given toys as a child. They may never have
gone hungry. They may have worn the latest styles and gone to college at an Ivy
League school. None of this matters if he was left to fend for himself, if he
lacked support from his mother, if she set him up to become an abuser. She may
have spoiled her boy to the point where she never said “no.” And when he
becomes a man he will look high and low for a woman on whom he can vent his
anger and hatred.
Women in abusive situations are pounded to the pavement
emotionally. They begin to believe no one will want them other than their abuser.
Their self-esteem is non-existent. They feel like failures, unworthy of anyone’s
How very sad for these women. And tragic. Those of us who
are estranged from adult married daughters or daughters in a non-marital
relationship have the added worry that the daughters they love might be in such
a situation. Mothers of sons might equally worry. Women have been known to
abuse, too. What can these mothers do from afar? Other than holding their breath
and hoping for the best, not much, except to pray.
I can only help by writing
a message on this blog to victims or potential victims, victims who
might be our very own children.
Daughters (and sons):If you find yourself in an abusive
situation, contact your mother. She will never turn you away, no matter how
long you’ve been gone. She may even understand – maybe she’s been in an abusive
situation herself. One in three women, according to Attorney Ryan, have been in
an abusive relationship at one point in their lives. Don’t despair. And don’t
believe your abuser when he says he’s only interested in your own welfare. He
isn’t. Don’t believe him when he tells you no one loves you. Your mother does.
Men who abuse are only interested in using you, hurting you and humiliating
you. You deserve better. You deserve the best. Help is available. Don’t wait.
Call the one person in the world who does truly love you – your mother.
The dog days of summer have arrived in all their lazy glory.
I hope you’re enjoying every minute of this phase of summer because in just a
few weeks we’ll be turning the calendar page to September. And those who live
in a four-season climate know what follows. Last winter was especially brutal
in New England with that Polar Vortex bearing down on us.
This time of year it seems okay to lay around on a Sunday
afternoon with nothing more to do than think up new ways to use wild
blueberries in a dessert. Today, as a matter of fact, is Sunday and a few hours
ago I made a blueberry cobbler with Maine blueberries and one pie crust from a
Pillsbury box. My husband Tony and I love blueberries, especially now that they’re
in season, but we like the wild ones best because they give off so much juice.
The big ones are cultivated and not nearly as tasty.
The dog days are also a great time of the year to read. If
you’re not already in a book club, think about starting or joining one. It’s a
great way to socialize with like-minded people, and reading a good book in
general takes your mind off your problems. Another little project might be to
learn some phrases in a foreign language that you can use when you visit
another country, say France, Italy or Spain. Next March Tony and I are going to
Italy, and I’ve made it a goal to speak the language by learning one phrase
every week. I’ll teach him what I learn, and we’ll have fun learning together,
adding yet another dimension to our marriage.
The point is to take a time out from what bothers you deeply
and think about something else for a while. For people who visit this site, that would be
estrangement from a family member or even a close friend.
Time outs can be useful for self-discovery. What areas in
your life need the most improvement? What can you do to get yourself where you
want to be? In the late 1980s, I found Al-Anon, or maybe it found me. It doesn’t
matter now. What does matter is the personal growth that came my way.
In all 12-step programs – the one I’m most familiar with is
Al-Anon – people who attend meetings and follow the 12 steps are asked in Step 4
to take a “fearless and moral inventory” of their character defects (we all
have them by virtue of being human). In Step 5 they are asked to “admit to God,
to themselves and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs” and
in Step 6 they “become willing for God to entirely remove all these defects of
Learning how to live according to the 12 steps was one of
the best things I ever did for myself. It was in these “halls of hurting people”
that I learned I was powerless over another person’s choices and that I could
not control what they chose to do. We all have free will. I learned that the
only person I could control was myself.I had no power over what someone else wanted to do, even if the behavior
was destructive. I had no power to make someone change. I had no power to force
someone to do as I said. What I did learn was that I could control how much
negative behavior I was willing to accept. In short, I learned to set
boundaries and stand firm. The teaching was “say what you mean and mean what
you say, but don’t say it mean.”
The 12 steps also brought me face to face with myself. I was
just entering middle age when I discovered Al-Anon. The steps encouraged me to
take a hard look at the choices I had made as a young woman, and it forced me
to acknowledge that my mother, in all her wisdom, had been right when she said
I would live to regret some of them. Young women rarely listen to their mothers
because mothers are “out of touch.” They’re “old school” and “uncool.” But they’ve
also lived through thick and thin and know from experience that youthful and
willful choices often bring misery. Good mothers only want to protect their
children by dispensing advice. But unless advice is asked for, it’s usually met
with “mind your own business.” And the 12 steps teach people to mind their
business and let people mind theirs.
It’s all about keeping the focus on yourself. At first
glance, the slogan “keep the focus on yourself” seems to be saying “become
This thinking is wrong. What the slogan really means is to not
focus on someone else’s flaws; focus on your own. How easy it is to cast blame.
How human it is to not want to take responsibility for the breakdown of a
Over the years I’ve used a magnifying glass to examine my
flaws, and what I’ve found is not pretty. I’ve been an enabler. I’ve been weak
in my convictions. I’ve threatened and not followed through. I’ve allowed destructive
behavior to bring me and others down. The list is long, too long for this blog.
I’ve worked hard over the years to watch for areas that need improvement. I’ve
made progress but will never achieve perfection.
Nor will any of us. Realizing that we have imperfections
just as other people do conjures compassion, first for other people and then
for ourselves. From compassion rises empathy. That’s what we need most –
empathy for our children and others lost to us.
Once we become empathic, we can “let go and let God” (another
12-step slogan) where our children or other loved ones are concerned. It’s in
an empathic state of being when our love is most pure. When empathy comes from a
true place – not counterfeit – it’s powerful. It just might be the driving
force that brings about reconciliation.
It has been said that when you pray for someone, you cannot resent them at the same time. When your intentions for someone are pure, then what rises out of prayer is a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the person you are praying for.
It is while in prayer that you contemplate more fully the person. You begin to view them as fellow travelers on the same life journey you are on. Because of this, you become kindred spirits because you share common ground.
When you achieve this level of understanding, you also begin to feel compassion and empathy not only for the person but for yourself. A realization comes to you that everyone on Planet Earth is journeying through life, just as you are. Everyone alive is making mistakes, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and doing things that hurt others. It's simply human nature.
Developing compassion and empathy for someone who has hurt you does not come easy. It takes a great deal of maturity to rise above what has happened that has driven a wedge between you. But it can be done if you understand something basic: Hurting people hurt other people.
That said, whoever has hurt you -- a son or daughter -- is also hurting. His or her hurts most likely have come out of unmet needs or expectations. Somewhere along the line, they have suffered and may still be suffering, just as you are. It's natural and human to feel compassion for those who hurt, so it stands to reason that compassion can develop and be extended to those who have hurt you. Imagine for a moment a child who was raised in a home in which there was no predictability. On Monday everyone would seem to be happy, but by the end of the week no one would be speaking for one reason or another. From all outward appearances, the child in this family seems to be okay, but appearances can be deceiving. The child may have deep hurts over the way a parent or both parents have behaved. He or she may have been asked to take sides, or they may have been encouraged to reject a parent. Both are detrimental to children. These hurts can follow children into adulthood and when they begin to sort out in their heads what took place, anger can arise and estrangement often takes place. Parents who are wise will let go with love until their estranged child is ready to reconnect. But in the meantime, parents can pray for their children and ask God to protect them from further harm. It is in the act of praying that compassion for them will rise to the surface. Compassion, when it arises from prayer, does make a difference. Studies have been done on people who are suffering various illnesses. Researchers have split people into two groups -- those who are prayed for and those who are not. Guess which ones overcame their illnesses? If you say "the ones who were prayed for," you're right. Compassion and prayer go a long way. It has been said that all of life runs on some kind of invisible electric current. If this is true, and I believe it is, then the positive, healing thoughts we send along this continuum are bound to reach the children we loved in the past, continue to love now and will continue to love in the future. It is written in the book of James that "the prayers of a righteous man produce good results," (summarized). Tonight I offer a prayer for estranged children everywhere: May your burdens be light, as a wisp of cotton is light; but may the love that surrounds you be heavy, as a woolen cloak is heavy. May you have protection from Almighty God from anything that may bring harm, and may your heart soften toward those who have hurt you. May you then find it in your heart to forgive and begin anew. And a prayer for estranged parents everywhere: May you search your heart and acknowledge your imperfections. May you hold your lost children in the light so it will reflect in your heart. May God bring you comfort and healing and soften your heart toward those who have hurt you. May you then open your heart to receive your child, to forgive and move on and begin anew.
In today's edition of The Boston Globe a story was published about a sexual abuse bill that's been put on the Massachusetts governor's desk for signature. The bill concerns the statute of limitations for those who have been sexually abused. Instead of 21 being the cut-off age for filing a claim against a perpetrator, the age will be 53. The bill, the writer said, will bring potential justice to victims who have not claimed sexual abuse before. There is also potential for the floodgates to open. People who have been abused in childhood this way will likely file lawsuits against their parents, though they will not be able to sue institutions or organizations that oversaw their care at the time of abuse. A day care center or some kind of youth club comes to mind. If the measure is signed, I know two grown daughters who could file suit. In 1999, when my grief was fresh over the loss of my daughter I made the acquaintance of a woman whose daughter had been sexually abused by her father. Around the same time I renewed the acquaintance of another woman whose daughter had also suffered in the same way. The two women told me very different stories about their daughters' experiences but both ended with a lengthy estrangement. The first woman came to a support group I had formed 15 years ago called PEACE (Parents of Estranged Adult Children Exchange). The meetings were held in a conference room at my place of work and drew about 35 people each week. One woman came to grieve the loss of one daughter through estrangement and the loss of her other daughter through death. The daughter who lived approached her mother in adulthood and told her that her father had sexually abused her for about eight years, from about age three to age 11. "How could you not have known?" the daughter demanded of her mother. "Mothers always know."
The woman was shocked for two reasons: (a) That her daughter had been the subject of this type of abuse and (b) that her daughter thought her mother so scatterbrained that she would not notice if something was amiss. Mothers don't always know, nor do wives.
The heartbreak of her story is that not only did she lose this daughter to estrangement, but her older daughter -- who did not claim any type of abuse -- was sick with a chronic disease, and it ended up killing her not long after the younger daughter made her claim and exit from the family. The woman and I talked privately about this, and she insisted she had no idea what was going on in her own household. I believe her because wives and mothers are often the last to know about a lot of things (like not knowing about infidelity). We do our best, but we cannot police everything that goes on in our homes. The woman thought that if this behavior had been going on, it must have happened while she was grocery shopping or working her part-time job. She carries a load of guilt for not being astute enough to know what her husband was up to. Since then, I've researched the topic and have learned that abusers develop clever ways to keep others, including mothers, from knowing what is happening. They threaten. They lie. They plead with the children to not tell mommy because daddy will end up in jail. The second woman to tell me a similar story was actually the mother of a little girl who was my daughter's playmate in elementary school. She was a frequent visitor to our home, and I never suspected a thing. She was a good and sweet little girl who never once exhibited any behaviors that would suggest trouble at home. She was extremely good at hiding her pain, too. Eventually, she disclosed the truth to her mother and made her exit. She now lives out of state and is not in touch with either of her parents. She, too, insists that her mother should have known. She has never married because men turn her off. The same is true for the other young woman who suffered abuse. My question to both of these daughters is this: How would your mother know if you didn't tell her? From what your mothers say, you seemed perfectly normal while growing up. You did not act out in a sexual manner the way most sexually abused children do. You both seemed to have good relationships with your fathers. There may have been clues that were missed but would never have attributed to sexual abuse of a child. Women have a tendency to think the best of the people in their families, and most women would not be able to stay with a partner who was abusing their child. A few women might have an inkling something is off due to strange bedroom behavior but most women shrug it off -- possibly as a defense mechanism. The knowledge that their children have been betrayed in such a way would be horrifying to ponder, let alone accept. I hope both of these young women are in therapy so they can try to heal the past. Sexual abuse, I have read, is difficult to get over. Various behaviors can result in adulthood, from hoarding to carrying on the sexual abuse in their own families. One woman wrote a book on the subject -- Laura Davis ("I Thought We'd Never Speak Again"). Laura told her mother about being abused as a child, and her mother dismissed it, accusing Laura of having a "false memory." Laura swears the sexual abuse did happen and because her mother was so convinced Laura was lying, Laura gave her mother the heave-ho. Eventually, the two reconciled with an agreement to "agree to disagree." It'll be interesting to see what happens when the new bill is signed into law. We could be reading quite a few news stories about adult children filing lawsuits against their parents or other caretakers. And what will be gained? The only thing I can think of is that justice has been served and knowing that the abuser will not be able to hurt anyone ever again.
In general, people tend to think of gifts from God in terms of new babies, new jobs with high paying salaries or homes on the waterfront. While these probably are gifts straight from heaven, I wonder how many people give thought to the little gifts we receive every day.
This Father's Day morning my day was pretty much mapped out the moment I opened my eyes and stepped out of bed. The plan was to wish Tony a happy Father's Day and give him a kiss, enjoy a cup of coffee while reading the headlines, put away the laundry, toss out our old bed pillows and put cases on the ones I bought at Marshalls yesterday, shower and dress, go to church, come home, sit in the sun, write a blog entry and go to a violin recital at 2 p.m. Dinner at my stepdaughter's house to honor her father would follow. It's how I have to plan out my days -- very organized and packed to get everything in -- because during the week I'm consumed by my job.
I considered skipping breakfast so I would not be late for church, but decided against it since skipping breakfast is to skip the most important meal of the day, according to doctors and nutritionists. So I poured myself a small bowl of granola, oats and raisins with a little milk on top and ate.
A few minutes later I brushed my teeth and off to church I went. No sooner did I put my key in the ignition then turn over the engine than I heard familiar strains coming from a classical music station I listen to. As I continued to listen, I looked at the digital readout above the radio controls and saw the word "Meditation." Sure enough, it was my very favorite composition for violin "Meditation" from "Thais," written by Jules Massenet in the 1800s. His genre was opera and one was titled "Thais," and "Meditation" was featured in his work.
Seconds later it dawned on me that this was a gift from God's heart to mine. It didn't take long for me to figure out why. First, today is Father's Day, and my father has not been alive since 1982 so other than to reflect on his life and hope that his soul lies safely in the arms of God, I have not honored him in any particular way. Second, my father played violin.
A poor boy who lived on the back shore of Nova Scotia, my father was born to play and he got hold of a violin when he was about ten years old. A friend on the road where he lived had one, and my father had a jackknife. A trade was made, and from that point on my father struggled to learn on his own. And one day he mastered those strings.
It occurred to me as I listened to "Meditation" from "Thais" that had I skipped breakfast I never would have heard this heart-wrenching piece because I would have been in church. Truly, the rise and fall of the notes, the building crescendo, the dramatic finish still cause shivers to run up and down my arms whenever I hear it. The work is so beautiful that tears build in the corners of my eyes.
It occurred to me, also, that this particular Father's Day is all about violins because 45 minutes from now I will be seated inside a church in my town where students of Dr. Caroline Lieber will perform for their recital. I will be there not only to enjoy the music but to take photographs for the newspaper where I work.
I feel God's closeness and, by extension, my father's. I may be overly sentimental and romanticizing things, but who cares? The point is that though my father is no longer with us, his music remains. Whether there is a deeper message, one from God, is irrelevant. It's what I feel inside that counts.
Today, many fathers are joyous to know that their children value them enough to honor them in meaningful ways. But just as many fathers are in misery because the children they love are not in touch.
What I would like to say to these fathers is this: You may have made mistakes, some even that seem beyond forgiveness. But if you've tried to reach out to make amends and have been rejected, take heart. Not all is lost because in reaching out you touched God's heart. He knows us, knows our needs, our yearnings, our faults and our virtues. Let Him take the lead. Let Him bring your children home in His time. And if they never come home? Well, it's not okay but it's something you'll have to endure, just as Christ had to endure the cross.
Eventually, we will understand the why's of estrangement, maybe not in this lifetime, but certainly the next.
A peaceful Father's Day to all.
P.S. Though I listened to the entire "Meditation" this morning, I still managed to get to church on time.