35: I Was So Wrong

35: I Was So Wrong

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

I Was So Wrong

There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.

~Bryant H. McGill

My mother was young when she had me, practically a child herself. By seventeen years old, she had become a mother, lived through the torment of broken homes, and survived a car accident that broke her back and nearly paralyzed her.

For as long as I could remember, my relationship with my mother was strained. After high school and college, when I had moved on to a professional career, I continued to avoid her. I made excuses not to visit, even on holidays.

When my girlfriend and I decided to elope, the first thing I felt was relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with a wedding and my family being present. I sent my mother a text message early that evening giving her the news. At 2:00 a.m. when she saw it on her phone, she called me. She thought it was a joke. When I told her it was true, I could hear the tension in her voice. It wasn’t hurt or disappointment… it was worry. Her voice trembled as she went through her list of questions: “Are you serious?” “Are you sure?” “Is this really what you want?” “Is she pregnant?” After that, I expected her to ask me when I was coming home or for her to complain that it was a big event and she wanted to be there. She didn’t, and I began to realize how much I had disappointed her with this and many other decisions.

I called her back the next day to ask if my wife and I could visit after the wedding. She sounded very excited at the prospect. I set the date and a couple weeks after the wedding, my wife and I made the trip from upstate New York to Maine.

My mother invited some family to the house. It was early October, so the weather was still nice enough to have a cookout. Most of the family was quiet, seemingly shocked that I had actually gotten married.

The family tried their best not to bombard my wife with questions. A large percentage of them had never met her, including my mother. She tended to the guests, remained in the background until everyone had left and it was just her, my wife and me in the kitchen at the table. My mother put a cup in the Keurig coffeemaker and then disappeared into the back room. I heard her shuffling around in her closet. She returned a few moments later with a cardboard box labeled “Joseph.”

She didn’t ask my wife if she wanted to see what was inside. She didn’t make a joke about pulling out embarrassing photos of me naked in a tub at age two. She quietly opened the box and looked at me. She got up to get her coffee, mixed her French vanilla creamer into it, and sat back down at the table. It was hard to know if she was doing this for my wife or for a few moments of nostalgia for herself, or even me, but I know I was the most affected by what happened next.

There were no embarrassing photos in the box. There were no photos at all. My mother had saved nearly every one of my art projects, stories, and report cards. She pulled the things out one at a time, took a second to glance at each one and set it on the table. My wife laughed at some of the crayon masterpieces where angry strokes had made it difficult to see the lines I was supposed to color inside. My mother smiled at each item she took out, and occasionally a tear ran down her cheek.

Then my mother began to pull out letters and poems she had written to me. I had no idea these existed. She handed each poem and letter to me with a solemn expression on her face. I tried to imagine her at nineteen, twenty-one, and twenty-five years old drafting notes to her small child. I took the notes and letters she had written and read them. I thought about all the years she had collected those things. I looked through the dates on them and kept reading until my mother had finished going through the box. I didn’t have memories of the letters she wrote, but I remembered the time periods—times I wouldn’t talk to her or I’d shut her out for reasons I can only find shame in now.

I resented my mother for things she had no control over, for the poverty we suffered through, for my biological father never being around. My mother kept writing those words, kept spilling her love for me onto those pages because I was too stubborn to accept her words. There were times, most of my life actually, that I shunned every hug she tried to give me. I’d roll over in bed at night, away from her, when she tried to tuck me in.

All of those years, my mother kept my things, some of which I know she had to pick out of the trash. She kept telling me she loved me even when I wouldn’t listen. Then, she sat at a table, at the quintessential moment of my manhood, and went through all of those moments again—decades of time lost. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been.

I stayed awake that night, reading and re-reading my mother’s writing. My wife and my mother had gone to bed, and I sat alone at the kitchen table, my hands shaking cigarette smoke into chaotic dances, trying to find a way to apologize and knowing that even with another lifetime, I could never match the love she gave me in just one of those poems or letters.

~Joe Ricker

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