34. Moving Past the Past

34. Moving Past the Past

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Moving Past the Past

Forgiveness means letting go of the past.

~Gerald Jampolsky

“I gave you one with Melvin’s signature on it. You remember don’t you? The oil painting with a goat in it.”

“Sorry, Nita, but you never gave me such a painting or any painting for that matter.” I looked at my wife and she nodded in agreement. “And we don’t have any with goats on them.” Uncle Melvin was an accomplished artist, especially with oils, and Laura and I had always wanted one of his fabulous landscapes. That’s why I commissioned him to paint one, a western scene with relatives around a campfire.

“Well, you probably lost it then,” Nita replied, “or gave it away to someone.”

“No, we never lost it or gave it away because we never had it in the first place.” The bickering with my sister escalated tensions in the room and pushed my patience to the limit.

“Well, all I know is that you had one.”

“That’s it, Nita! I’m done!” There was no reasoning with her. My stomach hurt and I had a headache. Disagreeing with each other had become part of every family holiday gathering since Mom died. I stormed out of Nita’s front door on Thanksgiving Day. Arguing over whether I ever owned a certain painting from my uncle had turned from ridiculous to impossible, dredging up past hurts. “I’m out of here, and I’m not coming back.”

As I drove home that afternoon, my mind played back the unresolved issues from our childhood. There were many of them: some silly, others serious. Fighting over seating positions in our car was a little of both. Thinking they could settle the problem, our parents assigned us to opposite sides in the back seat. Beads of vinyl divided the sections. My section was on the right, hers on the left. The middle area served as a demilitarized zone to separate enemy combatants. We were not allowed to cross it.

Nita would sit as close as possible to her boundary and then move her little finger across the forbidden zone. When I yelled that Nita had crossed the line, Mom and Dad would turn around to catch the culprit. However, just before they did, my sister would move her finger back as if nothing had happened. She would look at them with those innocent eyes, and swear, “I’ve been on my side the whole time.” That was a lie, of course, or at least a half-truth. All I knew was that I needed to even the score. Our foolish confrontations escalated year after year—and so did my resentment.

I suppose one should be thankful on Thanksgiving, but I didn’t feel that way. After the big upset with my sister, I just wanted to get home, fast. Fortunately, I only encountered one stoplight—at the light rail crossing on SE Burnside Avenue. While waiting for the MAX train to clear the station, I turned on the radio, trying to drown out my thoughts. Maybe it was the music or seeing the train, but something jogged my memory, taking me back to the week our sibling rivalry had turned ugly.

Nita had received a gift that week, a new GE clock radio. From then on, she played her obnoxious rock music constantly. It bugged me and she knew it. According to the house rules, she needed to shut down her music at bedtime—but that seldom happened. If I yelled for the parental police, she would turn the radio off before they entered the playroom, adjacent to our Jack and Jill bedrooms.

One night, I heard static on her radio when I switched off my desk lamp. Then I tried it again—more crackling. I soon realized that if I turned the lamp switch halfway on, the flickering light bulb would create static on her radio. The tables had turned now and Nita became the victim, complaining that I had somehow jammed her radio. I guess I’m not a good liar, because I was deemed guilty and grounded for two weeks. Nita, of course, received no punishment at all. No matter, a payback plan was in the works.

Two nights later, I lay awake in bed, waiting for Nita to finally turn off her radio and fall asleep. Slowly, I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my closet. Underneath the laundry box was my Lionel train set. Working quietly, I opened the box and pieced the O gauge track together, section by section, and eased it out my door into the playroom. I had just enough track to reach my sister’s room on the other side.

Leaving the other freight cars in the box, I placed my Steam Locomotive #2018 on the track and attached the coal car, my whistling tender. I plugged in the transformer and made sure the wires were connected correctly. With everything set, my engine left the station in my room and slowly moved down the line to Nita’s room. Then, with the electrical power at full throttle, I hit the whistle lever on the transformer. The sound pierced the silence. I heard Nita scream and jump out of bed. I tried to reverse the engine and bring it back before she knew what had happened. However, the extra power derailed my engine in the middle of the playroom. My train, of course, was confiscated and given to charity.

The retribution was sweet, but I had allowed something much worse to take root. As the years passed, our sibling relationship grew cold. Resentment and animosity lay just below the surface. I became offended at almost everything she said or did. Our once loving relationship became one of contention and ill will. The root of the problem was lack of forgiveness. Although neither of us would admit it, we were both infected with it.

I avoided family gatherings after the Thanksgiving Day fiasco. I made up excuses, but everyone knew the real reason. I had grown frustrated with all the bickering, fabricated stories, and endless conflicts. Trying to deal with the issues just brought old wounds to the surface again. I needed a solution that would help restore our relationship.

After some serious prayer and contemplation, I suggested a new strategy—that we take each other out to dinner on our birthdays—no gifts, no rehashing past issues, no teasing, just a pleasant dinner and some friendly conversation. The first time was a little awkward for both of us, but each year it became a little easier. Now we look forward to it.

I think forgiveness is a commitment to move beyond the past and start fresh. By establishing our new tradition, my sister and I made a similar commitment. It helped us reconnect, experience forgiveness, and find healing for our relationship. Forgiveness is a powerful force. It can release people from a prison of bitterness, resentment, or whatever else that holds them captive. And it doesn’t take two to forgive. One is enough to begin the process. I never asked my sister to reciprocate. I simply forgave her and offered a long overdue apology.

My lack of forgiveness is gone now. Knowing the damage it can cause, I will never give it a foothold again.

~Charles Earl Harrel

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