Several years ago I read a book that made a big impression on me. A major part of the impression was the discovery that I was not the only child on earth who felt that her mother saw or foresaw evil whether it was there or not.
My childhood memories include more than one spanking that proved to have been for crimes not committed. Mother thought I had done something wrong, or she thought that both my brother and I had done something wrong. She dispensed justice despite our frantic protests, and when she learned the truth that we were innocent of the “crime” for which we had been punished, she simply said, “It wasn’t a lick amiss. I’m sure you did do something I failed to punish you for. It will do for that.”
Before you judge my mother to be a monster, know that she had many valuable qualities, many endearing qualities, and if you weighed her good deeds and evil deeds in a balance scale, I doubt hers would be evil in a greater proportion than yours, or anyone else’s. She was a very normal saintly sinner who was sometimes a sinful saint.
In A Woman of Salt, Mary Potter Engel tells a profound mother-daughter story, with parallels to the story of Lot’s wife, who became a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God’s direct order and looked back at the destruction of Sodom. It is a book worth reading if for nothing other than the interpolated midrash. Reading these midrash taught me that there might actually be more than two sides to any story. That discovery all by itself is a valuable insight when applied to challenging relationships.
The central character, Ruth, looks back at her childhood and remarks that “my mother’s eyes [were] everywhere, watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” As she turns to look at her past, she asks if she might be better off if she escaped her past, and then she asks if perhaps it is a good idea to look at the past as long as she looked with the hope for a sign of God’s mercy. Then she asks, was that what Lot’s wife was doing?
I look at my past with that hope, too. I play and replay scenes from my past in my mind, asking if God’s mercy was at work in dark and painful interactions with my mother. Fortunately, God has not turned me into a pillar of salt. Happily, I have actually found some hope.
I did not find my hope until after my mother died. The traumas that marked our relationship made it hard for me to grieve. People need to grieve the dead, but I could not grieve her death until I had made peace with her life. Several months after her death, I made it my Lenten project to forgive my mother. I had learned enough to realize that forgiveness would be much more about pulling poison from memories in my heart that it could ever be about telling her that I forgave her. I could not tell her anything, because she was dead, but the poison in memories of her was corroding all my memories. I was able to see only one side of my entire life story. I needed some new perspectives, perhaps a midrash.
I felt exactly what Ruth, the central character of Woman of Salt felt when she said that her mother was always on the alert for any sign of evil in her daughter. My mother was alert in the same way. She accused me of wanting to hurt her when I failed at a goal she set for me. She accused me of trying to kill her when I invited her to go with me to a movie that scared her. She put me on a diet when she thought I weighed five pounds too much and quizzed the mothers of girls I visited overnight to find out if I ate outside my diet while visiting. (The mothers found those questions peculiar enough to ask me if my mother were well.)
For many years, memories like these were the only memories I really knew I had. I thought the miserable memories were the only ones. That is why I finally realized that I had to forgive my mother. I could not go on thinking of her as a vindictive person who hurt me. I needed to be able to remember that she had also blessed me. I needed to remember that she searched high and low in three counties for a specific pair of shoes I said I wanted. She stayed up all night making a dress for a church festival, literally sewing me into it five minutes before we left for church. She stretched an already stressed family budget to send me to college, not wanting me to work, for fear it would hurt my grades. She taught me that the will to succeed makes any goal achievable.
My experience learning to forgive involved a lot of prayer and meditation on Bible texts. I wrote poems about my experiences and my feelings, and as the weeks of Lent passed, those bitter poems became prayerful. Some might even have qualified as nascent midrash, the bare beginnings of my own midrash. I was beginning to see more than one facet of my experiences. As it happened, our church scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation the Wednesday before Easter that year, and I attended.
I did not know what to expect, but I came full of hope that my effort to forgive my mother was finally about to bear fruit. Toward the end of the service, people were invited to the altar if they wished the pastor to pray for them. I went forward, and I expected the pastor to ask me why I was there. He didn’t. Instead, he looked me in the eye as he marked the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and then he prayed. When I heard the words, which I do not now remember, I burst into tears. They were about my relationship with my mother, and he could only have spoken those words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Grief for my mother’s death welled up inside of me and flowed out in streams of tears. I forgave her with all my heart, and as the poison of my anger and pain flowed away, I remembered a thousand reasons to love her.
After that experience, I discovered that forgiveness is never a done deal. As my mother would have taught me, it takes will to succeed at anything. When you lose the will to forgive, for example, you stop forgiving. You start poking at old wounds and simmering over old anger. To forgive requires a commitment to do it and do it again and keep doing it.
I still know that my mother’s eyes, like those of Ruth’s mother in Woman of Salt, were always “watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” However, because I have forgiven my mother, and I am forgiving my mother, and I will forgive my mother, I also know that she was alert to the evil of sinful human nature in me, because she wanted to teach me how to reject evil and choose the good. It was her hope that in me, the evil would not dominate my good qualities and destroy them, as happens in the lives of people without mothers attentive to the truth of human nature.
That is why I can look back now with hope that I will see the hand of God, acting in mercy in my life, even through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. Maybe especially through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. I am discovering that there actually are more sides to my own story than I ever realized while I was fixated on only the story of injustice and shame. My memories are more like the collection of midrash surrounding Ruth’s story in A Woman of Salt.
I hope my own children are able to see the same thing. If you want to know what Ruth learned in Woman of Salt, you must read the book for yourself.