15. The Ritual

15. The Ritual

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The Ritual

Forgiveness is the cleansing fire that burns away old regrets and resentments.

~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

The phone rang at 10 p.m. “Is this Diane Caldwell?” an unfamiliar voice asked. I knew this was it. My eyes focused on the weave of the tapestry hanging on the wall by the phone. Noticing for the very first time the way disparate threads of red and blue and black interwove to create the scene.

“Your mother died of liver failure at 9 p.m. She died peacefully.”

A wail pierced the silence. What a sound, I thought, and then I realized the sound came from me.

My mother had ruled our home as the Ice Queen. She had only to raise one eyebrow and I froze in fear. There was never a kind word or a gesture of affection from her. In fact, the only words I heard from her some days were: “Be a good girl, Diane,” spoken in a tight-lipped snarl.

While other children ran about laughing, I sat in silence, my hands folded in my lap, afraid to do anything. “Be a good girl” became like a mantra. No matter what I did or where I was, I heard it in my head.

“Would you like a cookie, Diane?” Aunt Anne would ask.

“No thank you,” I would say, fearing that to accept might be “bad.”

For my first fourteen years, I lived as a “good girl,” fearing and hating my mother.

And then I rebelled.

I ran away from home at sixteen. Ran off to New York. Panhandled on the dirty, gray streets of New York’s Greenwich Village. Hanging out with the weird and alternative. My every act subconsciously calculated in defiance of my mother.

On a rare visit to my mother in her Delray Beach home, she looked at me out of the corners of her eyes.

“I was watching an Oprah show the other day…” her voice trailed off.

I glanced up from the book I was reading.

Mother’s eyes turned from mine and studied her long, perfectly manicured fingernails. “It was about something called emotional abuse….”

Again she stopped, ran her thumb over each of her nails in sequence, cleared her throat just slightly.

“Diane,” she began in her nasal Philadelphia accent. “Diane… Diane, did I ever say ‘I love you’ to you?” The last words came out in a breathy explosion, almost a hiss.

Silence. The only sound in the room was the quiet hum of central air conditioning.

“No,” I said, holding my breath, waiting for the words I’d never heard my entire life.

The garbage truck rumbled past the edge of the complex. Trash tumbled from containers by the road. Silence hung in the room. Gears engaged and the garbage truck pulled away.

My mother rose like a ghost and walked away.

•  •  •

Now she was dead and it was too late for us. But not too late for me to try and do whatever was possible to heal the wounds that continued to fester and poison every act of my life.

I knew I had to do something. The “Ritual” was created as an act of healing.

I assembled three of my best friends. Three friends who had also lost their mothers.

I laid the table with salty, sweet, sour and bitter foods: a good cheddar cheese, fresh baked banana bread, sliced lemons, and sliced radishes. Photos of Mom ranging in time from her young adult years to her wedding photo to our family holiday pictures lay in an arrangement at the top of the table.

We munched on the cheese.

Once my parents had a Halloween party. My cousin Shirley won the contest for dressing as a pregnant bride. My mother was roaring with laughter, but I didn’t understand what was funny about it at the time. Then my mother invited everyone down into the rec room and they played “pass the orange.” People had to pass an orange from under their chin to the next person, and they were arranged man, woman, man, woman. I remember sitting on the stairs watching—amazed. I had never seen my mother act like that before.”

We tasted the banana bread.

“At rare moments she could laugh like a little girl,” I said. “Every now and then, when I was really young, she’d let me into the bed with her on a Sunday morning and we’d play this silly game called “skinny bones,” and we’d tickle each other and she’d laugh like she was no older than me.”

The lemons were passed around the table.

“Oh God,” I said. “My poor mother. She was the unwanted child of immigrants—born nine years after what her parents thought was their last child. I once heard her talking to her sister about how she had been called ‘the accident’ and left in bedrooms with tossed overcoats while her parents played cards with neighbors.”

“Once she told me that she’d stuck peas up her nose at the dinner table trying to get some attention, but then nobody could get them out. They had to take her to the hospital and her mother didn’t speak to her for weeks after that.”

Only the radishes remained. We picked up slices and chewed.

“She wore her next oldest sister’s hand-me-downs. They were nine years out of style, and way too short. Her sister was really short and Mom was tall. And she wore glasses and used to be called out of class for having head lice. I think she lived in constant shame.”

Tears flooded my eyes.

“She never knew love. How was she supposed to give it? She embraced her fancy dresses and material possessions as if they were life rafts saving her from waves of scorn. Each new outfit was a step up out of a childhood in which she suffered daily shame and humiliation. My poor mother,” I shared.

When the “ritual” was over, my friends hugged and kissed me and walked out the front door. As soon as the door closed, I broke down and wept uncontrollably—each sob a letting go of the hurt and hatred I had carried all my life. Beneath the hate was pain. Beneath the pain was fear. I let it all go until I felt something shift inside. I was suddenly lighter.

My childhood wasn’t so bad, I thought. Mother did her best. I never knew what it was to be looked down upon for my old tattered clothes. She worked hard to provide me with everything possible that a little girl could want.

“I forgive you,” I whispered to my departed mother. “I love you,” I said out loud, saying the words I had longed to hear my entire life and releasing myself from the hardness that had imprisoned my heart like a metal cage. It’s too bad it took death for me to finally let go. But it did.

~Diane Caldwell

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