21. The Challenge

21. The Challenge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The Challenge

When you forgive, you in no way change the past—but you sure do change the future.

~Bernard Meltzer

“How dare you read my diary?” I shrieked.

With that outburst, my stepmother slapped me across the face. “Don’t you ever raise your voice to me,” she snarled.

I had never defied her before and she had never hit me. But for the last week Thelma had questioned, accused and shown disdain for nearly everything I’d said or done.

I was sixteen. Living with her had been a challenge since she and Dad were married ten years earlier. I had tried so hard throughout the years to win her acceptance. Since my birth mother was an alcoholic and never around, Thelma had become “Mom” early on. I so wanted her to like me.

When I was younger, sometimes she and I walked through the woods exploring trails and collecting wildflowers. I would be ecstatic. But, more likely than not, in the evening when I was still jabbering excitedly about our adventure, Mom would look at me with disgust and grumble, “Stop gushing.”

Sometimes she sent me off to school with a controversial poem or thought haunting my mind. Lulled into a false sense of camaraderie, I would arrive home babbling about my day, only to be silenced by a frown of impatience or an annoyed, “Must you carry on so?”

Her mood determined my day. She could build me up so easily, and bring me down in a moment. Our rapport changed from day to day, from hour to hour, leaving me in a state of confusion and frustration, never knowing what to expect.

As I matured and began dating, Mom became less trusting and even more critical, her words more cutting. She called me boy-crazy, accused me of wearing my heart on my sleeve, and seemed suspicious of any relationship I shared with the opposite sex.

Now she was reading my diary! Her distrust hurt more than the slap across my face. I suddenly became very tired of trying to cope with the challenge of living with Mom. I went to Aunt Katherine in tears to ask if I could live with her.

Aunt Katherine listened patiently while I poured out my anger and frustration. When I finished, she sat quietly in thought. “Of course you can stay here for as long as you want,” she said finally. “But maybe it would help if you knew more about Thelma.”

I knew very little. Mom was a private person, never close with anyone and never showing affection. Before she entered our lives, I hugged and kissed my daddy each night at bedtime. But when Mom arrived, she scoffed. “Don’t you think you’re a little too old to be kissing your father goodnight?” I was only six, and I treasured those moments. But her disapproval ended that sweet luxury.

“When she was little,” Aunt Katherine began, “her mother was very sick. She died when Thelma began grade school. Thelma’s brother died a few years later when he was a teenager. I don’t know how he died, and I don’t know what happened to her father. But I do know Thelma grew up in an orphanage.”

“An orphanage? Mom lived in an orphanage?”

“Yes, but when she was in high school, she worked for a lovely family who gave her room and board and later put her through teacher’s college. That’s where she met Walter, her first husband.”

Aunt Katherine smiled. “They were very much in love. But in those days women teachers weren’t allowed to be married, so Thelma and Walter had to keep it a secret and live apart.”

“They were married and couldn’t live together?”

“Yes, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Thelma got pregnant and lost her job. Then Walter became ill. He was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after their baby was born.”

Aunt Katherine stroked the back of my hair and rested her hand on my shoulder. “She had a hard life, honey. She was left with large medical bills and no job. She was young, and heartbroken, and alone with her baby—your brother, Duane.”

I shook my head in wonder. “She’s never said a word.”

“Maybe her memories are too painful,” Aunt Katherine said quietly.

I reflected on what a sad, lonely life Mom had known. As some of the pieces to the puzzle of her personality began to fit together, my anger began to wane.

Aunt Katherine, in her kind, caring way, convinced me to go back home that night. From then on I tried to be more understanding and forgiving. It wasn’t easy, because Mom didn’t change. But now when she accused or belittled, I figured it was because she was still hurting from her past. So instead of being angry, I felt sorry for her.

Most of the time I still got very frustrated, but I didn’t feel like a victim anymore. The problems were hers, not mine. Understanding that helped me feel more in control of my life. I could choose to be angry, or I could choose to be forgiving. I chose forgiveness.

The challenge from my youth remained as I struggled through college, marriage, and children to show Mom I loved her in spite of her indifference toward me. And she tried, equally, to convince me that my tolerance and affection were signs of weakness.

Sometimes I wondered if she would go to her grave showing contempt for me. But one day, shortly before she died, Mom removed the shield that had closed me out.

“Mom,” I implored, “tell me about your parents. What were they like?”

She gazed at me strangely, then stared into nothingness. Finally after several minutes she began slowly. “When I was little, my mother became ill with tuberculosis. She had to remain in bed and I was no longer allowed to go near her… to feel her arms around me… to kiss her goodnight.

After a long pause I asked, “And your father?”

“My father… was…” Mom looked into my eyes and squared her shoulders, taking in a deep breath. As though fortified, she continued matter-of-factly. “My father was a child molester.”

I stifled a gasp.

Mom clenched her teeth and jutted her chin upwards, as though swallowing hurtful memories.

“There was a trial. My father was sent to jail and I was sent to an orphanage.” She paused, then continued slowly. “Years later, when I came home from college, my father told me he loved me ‘in a different way than a father loves a daughter.’ Then he kissed me… on my lips. And I felt… so…” Her voice trailed off.

Mom was entrusting her deepest secrets to me, the one person she had always rejected. I was finally given passage to her world.

At that moment I knew that through all those years of struggle my choice to forgive had not gone unnoticed or unfelt. It was a sad victory—the end of a hard-fought, painful challenge.

I took her hand in mine and, remembering days of long ago, said softly, “It’s okay, Mom. Everything is okay now.”

~Kay Conner Pliszka

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners