A Story of a Mother's Forgiveness

DOUG MCMANAMAN

My mother was born in 1928, in Nice, France, one year before the arrival of the Great Depression. My great Grandfather arrived in New York from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. As a boy he found a job delivering phone books for ten cents a day. I was told that he was a determined man. He worked hard and made his way all the way up to becoming vice-president of AT&T, New York.

Doug McManaman


His son — my grandfather, Walter Cahill, — was studying law at Princeton when his father died.  Knowing at that point that he wouldn't ever have to work a day in his life, he chose to leave Princeton and moved to Nice, where he lived a rather Epicurean lifestyle and became known for throwing great parties for his friends, the likes of which included Ernst Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Somerset Maugham, Pablo Picasso, and playwright Eugene O'Neill, to whom he was closest.

My mother had two sisters who were teenagers when she was born, and whom she never knew growing up.  At the age of four, after spending the summer with her mother in Portage, Quebec, my mother was left to begin school in a convent in Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, while her mother — by then divorced — went off to live in New York City.  There was no abuse at the convent, but the atmosphere was neither light nor kind, an atmosphere created by nuns who, my mother would say, seemed to have missed their vocation.  Every spring her mother would return from New York and they would spend the summer in Portage.  By this time my mother's sisters would have been finished school in England and France.  Josephine, my mother's oldest sister, was fifteen years her senior and grew up in a boarding school in England, while Dorothy, thirteen years her senior, went to a boarding school in France.  Why were they separated so far from one another?  My mother explained it thus: my grandparents were not meant for parenthood, she'd say.  They traveled, and when one of their children reached school age (4 years), they would be left at the boarding school in the country where they happen to have been visiting (England, France, or Quebec), and that is where their daughter would spend her childhood and adolescent years.  Christmas and Easter were spent in the lonely solitude of the convent — at least in my mother's case.  Shortly thereafter my mother went to the Ursuline nuns in Quebec City, a convent also thin on kindness and a touch heavy on gloom, and where students were almost as cloistered as the nuns.  Only one nun, she recalls, showed her any kindness at all, an American nun, Sister Aloysius.

They'd sleep in dormitories — only the older students had their own rooms.  She was not allowed out of the convent, except on one or two Sundays a year; friends could come to take them out.  My mother recalls a few times going to a friend's for Sunday dinner.

She would spend her summers with her mother in a hotel in Portage, an old place with a long and wide verandah that encircled the entire house.  In later years they'd rent a house from a farmer who had eighteen children who lived in the back of the house they rented.  My grandmother would cynically remark that if they didn't have one child every year, the parish priest would pay them a visit to inquire of the problem.

At the convent my mother would daydream.  All she dreamed about was to have a family and raise children like everybody else.  She was at the convent until she was sixteen years of age.  She recalls her father's visit that year, appearing behind the screen that separated parents from their children; he was just a stranger to her.  But she told him at that time that she wanted to leave.  It was only after leaving that my mother first met her sister, Josephine, a warm and caring woman in whom my mother discovered a mother that she'd never really had.

My mother describes my grandmother's life as tragic.  She was bright, well read, and could have done something with her life; for she always had an income, but never worked a day in her life.  In later years my grandmother would occasionally be overcome by feelings of guilt.  She'd cry, lamenting that her daughter had such an awful upbringing.

It was never easy for my mother to talk of these days.  I thought there might come a time when I'd want to write about her life, and so when she came to live with us, I'd try to persuade her to reminisce out loud while I took notes.  These sessions, though, never did last very long.  After about ten minutes she'd become noticeably irritated and I'd have to stop.  The previous five paragraphs are about all I was able to pull out of her.

My mother's life is in some ways testimony against the behaviorist premise that a person is entirely determined by his environment.  She knew very little kindness growing up, yet she was a very kind woman nonetheless.  But my mother wasn't a profoundly religious person.  In Church, she'd often be overcome by feelings of gloom that were just too much for her to endure on a weekly basis.  And I believe my return to the Church during adolescence bugged her somewhat.  I found myself having to take on the role of Catholic apologist very early on in my life as a Catholic.

When my mother died, she was twenty years sober.  She began to drink heavily about a year before I went off to university.  I was given the task of sitting down with her one spring day to tell her that she had a drinking problem.  She appeared to be open to what I had to say and readily agreed to seek out Alcoholics Anonymous.  It was only years later that she told me she felt like cracking me over the head with her cast iron frying pan for daring to suggest she was an alcoholic.  But that year marked the beginning of a new life for her.

My mother eventually ended up working as an addiction counselor for Street Haven at the Crossroads in Toronto.  I couldn't formulate all that I've learned from her over the years, some of which include the importance of trusting in Divine Providence, and the importance of gratitude, and kindness, especially towards those who suffer.  And we had many great moments that I hope will never take leave of my memory, such as the times I'd read to her from the writings of Maugham, Steinbeck, and O'Neill.  My mother was one of the few who remained unaffected by the spell of my soothing voice, which has sent many a teenager to the deepest regions of peaceful slumber.  She'd close her eyes, and after an hour I'd throw in my own personal addition to test her level of attention:

It amused her then to see the formal way he spoke to her, jovial, for he was always that, with the same manner he used with everyone.  Who could imagine when they heard him chaff her with that charming humour of his...He was splendid, in his smart top boots and his yellow underwear, when he played polo.  In tennis clothes he looked... (Maugham, The Painted Veil)

Suddenly her eyes would open, a look of confusion on her face.  "Yellow underwear?" she'd return.  She was listening.

The Danforth in Toronto holds some of the most recent memories.  It was there, in one of the Greek restaurants that line the street, that we began talking about the Ursuline nuns.

"Do you think you can forgive the nuns for their lack of kindness?" I asked her one day.
"Oh, sure," was her reply, which was immediately followed by a retraction: "Well, no.  I won't.  Why should I?"

I didn't expect such a retraction.  I was surprised.  We moved on to discuss other things, but I'd always kept this "unforgiveness" in the back of my mind.

During the Christmas holidays of 2000 while visiting one of my sisters, my mother fell and broke her hip.  From that point it was a downhill ride but an uphill battle.  I'd visit her often at St. Michael's hospital.  The last book I read to her was Tuesdays With Morrie, a true story of a Jewish professor of psychology, suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, whose attitude towards his own death awakened sports columnist Mich Albom (Detroit Free Press) to some invaluable truths about what is important in life.  This was one book I never got to finish reading to her.  But I recall a number of points within the seventy or so pages I did manage to read that seemed to make an impression on her:

"Mitch, you asked about caring for people I don't even know.  But can I tell you the thing I'm learning most with this disease?"
"What's that?"
"The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in." His voice dropped to a whisper.
"Let it come in. We think we don't deserve love, we think if we let it in we'll become too soft...'Love is the only rational act'.

I didn't finish the book because she'd suffered six seizures one night during the March Break and fell into a coma.  After coming out of the coma — which surprised us all — she lived with a relatively severe case of dementia.  Her dementia was in some ways a great blessing.  She didn't fully understand what was happening to her, and she could not remember "yesterdays", so every day was entirely new.  Some days she'd recognize me, other days I was my deceased brother, and sometimes I was — in her vague memory of yesterday — a young priest who dropped by to visit and give her a blessing.

At the beginning of the summer, on the second or third day after her arrival, I sat with her in the wing of the nursing home that was just minutes away my house in Aurora.  I was trying to think of things to talk about.  Suddenly she spoke up:  "A priest came this morning to say Mass.  It was very nice."

I wasn't sure whether she dreamed this or whether it was real.  I tried to imagine where our local pastor would set up to say Mass on a Tuesday morning in such a small nursing home.  Gazing out into space, she said:  "He spoke of forgiveness."

I thought about this for a moment, then asked her — for the sake of something to say: "If you were to think of one person in your life that you need to forgive, who would it be?"

She thought for a few seconds and said, "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"I don't know."
So I thought for a moment and recalled a picture of my mother when she was four years old, dressed in a black tunic, ready to be sent off to the convent in Riviere-du-Loup.  "Maybe your mother?"
"My mother?" she said.  "Yes, maybe my mother.  Yes, my mother."
After a minute or two, I got an idea: "Mom, let's try something.  Close your eyes."
She closed her eyes.
"Imagine your mother."
She followed carefully.
"Now say out loud, "Mother, I forgive you."
I watched her face for about half a minute, not sure whether she was awake or asleep.  Finally, she moved herself to a more comfortable position on the wheelchair and said: "No, I don't think so."

I was stunned.  Of course she can't forgive her mother at this time.  She was abandoned.  I've never been abandoned, and so I have no idea what it must be like to live seventy years with painful memories of abandonment.  Did I really think that a simple exercise in the corridor of a small nursing home was going to heal years of dark and sorrowful memories?  But I knew then what my work was for the summer.  She was not ready to die, even though she'd had enough.  My work was to help get her get ready for death, that is, to help her through the healing process towards forgiveness. Her dementia was just the condition that would enable me to succeed. So I returned the following day, brought her to the same spot, sat down on the rocking chair, and we talked.  After a while I began:

"I heard there was a Mass here yesterday"
"Was there?"
"Yes.  And I heard the priest spoke about forgiveness."
"Oh, did he?  Oh, yes, I think I remember something like that."
"Hey, mom, let me ask you, if you were to think of someone in your life that you need to forgive, who would it be?"
There was no hesitating this time around.  Immediately she replied:  "Oh, I'd have to say my mother."
"Really?"
"Definitely my mother."
"Hey, mom, why don't we try something.  Close your eyes."
She closed her eyes.
"Imagine your mother."
"Oh, my!" she said.  "She's right there."
"She's right there?"
"I see her so clearly."
"Why don't you tell her how angry you are for abandoning you when you were four."

She hesitated.

"You have a right to be angry," I said to her.  "No one should ever abandon their child if they have the means of raising her.  Tell her how angry you are."
And so she did, speaking with great emotion, and telling her how mean it was to leave her in a foreign country in the Fall, only to see her the following summer for a vacation on the beach.

I began to feel scared, and wondered whether I was a little out of my element here.  How am I going to bring her back out of this anger? I wondered to myself.  But somehow I managed, and eventually brought her back to her room.  She'd wrap her arms around my neck, and I'd lift her up out of her wheelchair and into her bed, place my hand on her forehead and whisper a prayer in her ear, which always seemed to calm her and send her into peaceful sleep.

The following day I read from the same script: "Let me ask you, mom, if you were to think of one person in your life that you need to forgive, who would it be?"

I continued this for a number of days, allowing her to spend some of her anger.  And much to my own dismay, I even spoke on behalf of her mother, but I cannot remember what it was that I said.  Eventually my mother was able to say what she was unable to say weeks earlier: "I forgive you, mother."  Doing so brought about a noticeable change in her.  She seemed much lighter the following day.

But a sadness came over me one night as I left for the parking lot.  Her work was done.  She has forgiven her mother.  What more is there for her to do?  There's no reason for her to stay around.  I knew that it wasn't long before she'd be going home. When the phone rang the following Saturday morning and displayed the name of the nursing home, I knew that this was the beginning of the end.  She died two weeks later and was buried on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I can't begin to express my gratitude to God that He did not allow my mother to die without the opportunity to forgive her own mother.  For it is not possible to enter into eternal life without learning to forgive everyone we need to forgive (Mt 6, 14-15; Mk 11, 25-26).  This is true because no person will allow himself to receive God's unlimited forgiveness unless he himself has chosen to forgive everyone in his past.  For "the amount you measure out will be the amount you receive."  (Mt 7, 2).  No person will allow himself any more than what he has measured out.  From this perspective, there is a fundamental justice that no one will allow himself to violate.

Sin creates a debt that exceeds an individual person's ability to satisfy.  To be forgiven, the human person requires a forgiveness that has no limits, or that exceeds the limits of human nature.  The person who harbors unforgiveness against another, who places a limit on what he chooses to forgive, renders himself unable to receive the divine forgiveness, which has no limits.  According to the etymology of the word, to forgive is to 'give afore', to consent to give the offender his offense against you.  It is an acceptance of the suffering we previously underwent as a result of his offense against us.  Our redemption is precisely an act of forgiveness, Christ's acceptance of the suffering caused by sin.  All forgiveness is thus an entering into this act of redemption.

This life has a lot to do with learning to put up with one another.  It has everything to do with learning to forgive one another.  Whenever I come across a student who is difficult to put up with, my memory rarely fails to bring forth images of myself at a certain point in my history.  In this way I am reminded of the people who had to learn to put up with me.  I then realize the debt I owe them and that the opportunity to put up with this rather obnoxious student is precisely the opportunity given to me at that moment of paying that debt.  The more students like these that I encounter, the more I am forced to recall the debt I owe to friends, parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, and colleagues.  And I marvel at those students who don't try my patience at all.  They seem to operate on a different wave length than any I've been familiar with.

If we learn this difficult work of forgiveness, we've done our work, and, for some of us at least, there may not be anything left for us to do.  Only then are we able to open ourselves up to receive the unlimited breadth and depth of God's forgiveness of our own sins against Him.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

McManaman, Douglas. "A Story of a Mother's Forgiveness." (March 2003).

Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.

THE AUTHOR

Doug McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is currently the President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

Copyright 2003 Douglas McManaman


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