13. Mary’s Girl

13. Mary’s Girl

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Mary’s Girl

Man has two great spiritual needs. One is for forgiveness.

The other is for goodness.

~Billy Graham

I didn’t know we were different at first. As a little kid, I was unaware of how circumstances set me apart in our 1960s middle-class, 10th Ward neighborhood in Rochester, New York.

Squalor isn’t a word or concept you understand at age five. By age nine or ten, I understood that my life was out of sync with the rest of the community when people referred to me as “one of the Herne girls.”

By age twelve I realized that some neighbors shunned us while others allowed me to play with their kids, in their yards, and even hang around for supper now and again. They encouraged me by befriending me.

But not much penetrated the darkness of our home, a long-neglected dwelling of fetid air, dirt-crusted windows, filth, and the smattering of bare-bulb lights that rarely worked. Around age eleven, I took charge of my one room upstairs and scrubbed it from top to bottom. There were no pretty blankets or soft coverlets, but the thin sheets I found to cover my stained mattress were clean, if shabby. The pillow had a cover. I washed the floor weekly, and dusted the broken dresser as if it mattered. And it did matter. It mattered to me.

Sometime after I was born, my mother’s brilliance was dimmed by chronic alcoholism and depression. Entire seasons went by that I never saw or heard her. She spent long months locked away in her small room with secret, silent demons. She attempted suicide at least twice that I remember, and she cried over her lack of success.

I must have glimpsed the real person within her as a small child, because during the dark years I waited for that woman’s reappearance. During those alcoholic stupors and fright-filled nights when my brother and I dumped her whiskey down a sink, trying to nudge her back to some form of normal, I believed there was another woman within the caricature I called “Mom.”

There is nothing fun about a sordid existence, but I was blessed to attend a vibrant, busy Catholic school. My uniform allowed me to fit in. No one knew it was given to us at the Thanksgiving clothing drive. The plaid jumper was clean and tailored like everyone else’s with no marks of identification. I was challenged and beloved by numerous teachers over the years, wonderful women who said I bore a true gift for writing. They made me feel special! As year piled upon year, I finally had to move out of my parents’ house. I lived with my older sister, guilt-ridden because I left two younger brothers behind in the darkness and filth.

Then one day I came across my mother’s poetry. As a teen she’d been instrumental in starting a high school magazine, a reasonably priced form of entertainment in the Depression-era 1930s. I didn’t know that when I found her folder, all I knew was the sheer beauty of her words, cadence-strung emotion done with point and pride.

Instantly I saw where my talent came from. For the first time it was clear that whatever I’d seen as a small child, before whiskey dimmed the sparkle in her eyes and slurred her words, was real. I held tangible proof in my hands in the form of her teenage writings.

That book was my turnaround, my wake-up call to forgiveness. God had blessed me with a talent through my mother. While hers may have been scourged by time and circumstance, I realized that the woman I knew personally wasn’t the real Mary Elizabeth Logan Herne, because “M.E. Logan” wrote with stunning grace and abandon.

I desperately longed to know that woman someday, but in the meantime I accepted God’s grace, my time, and my life. A teenage girl’s words on paper showed me what God wanted me to see, the lineage of hope. That day, for the first time, I thanked him for the grace of being Mary Elizabeth’s daughter. And I decided then that someday I would use my God-given talent to make other women smile and grab hold of their faith and their lives, no matter what they’d endured. With God lay hope.

My mother quit drinking when I was thirty-three years old. Once in a while she’d lapse for a day or two, but she never fell into the pit of despair again. After three decades of waiting and loving, I finally got to know her. I sensed her old dreams and bitter disappointments, but what I saw and cherished was the bright light within her shining again, somewhat shadowed, but a glow that shone with God’s love and humility.

My children never saw their grandmother drink. Their early visits to her were in the morning. Once she stopped drinking, this wasn’t a problem, and to this day, the thought of their grandmother as the woman I’d known is alien to them. To my six children, she was the petite, gray-haired “Grandma” that loved to hear their stories and tell her own. Just as it should be.

When she realized she was dying of cancer, she gripped my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I know you are serious about your writing. On that day when you become published, will you do me the honor of using my name? I want everyone in the world to know that you’re mine.”

I said yes.

My dream of publication came years after Mom’s death, but her words helped me hone the talent she gave me. And when that first book came out, a novel of love, loss and second chances called Winter’s End, it was dedicated to my mother, Mary Elizabeth Logan Herne, “from whence the talent came.”

And the grace of God’s fulfillment is in the name I use as I publish my books… Ruth Logan Herne—Mary’s girl.

~Ruth Logan Herne

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