Learning To Forgive Is As Important As Learning To Say ‘I’m Sorry’
“It won’t be long,” the nurse said, closing the blinds against the morning sun.
My mother’s chest rose and fell in widening intervals. Her skin was ruddy, her hair matted around her face. She smelled like baby powder.
I had flown to Florida the day before, after my mother’s sister called from the hospital in Miami. “Get here,” was all Aunt Lila said on that early August morning in 1992. Mom had just received the first of two experimental chemotherapy treatments. She was comatose by the time I arrived. I slept in a chair by her bed and awoke the next morning, surprised to find her still breathing. I caressed her arm and kissed her forehead. Then I left.
“I’ve got to get back to New York,” I told Lila in the hospital lobby, expecting her to urge me to stay.
“Do what you have to do,” she said.
Mom died the next day. I’d tried to forgive her but I hadn’t gotten far enough. If I had, I wouldn’t have left her side.
More than 20 years later, I think about my mother, especially on the High Holy Days, when Jews repent, forgive, and seek forgiveness from those they have wronged.
Forgiveness can be a struggle.
Especially if you’re the Jewish child of a single, alcoholic mother, who raised you on a diet of poverty and abuse, defying every stereotypical notion associated with being Jewish, and filling you with so much shame that you decide you can’t possibly be Jewish.
I was that child.
My stormy and impoverished life looked nothing like that of the Jewish kids I knew. I grew up in a home where financial hardship and worry were constant; dislocation was frequent; and emotionally violent eruptions, routine; a home whose brokenness was humiliating enough without us also being Jewish. By the time I started 8th grade at Parkway Junior High School in La Mesa, my mother’s depression and drinking had left her jobless and dependent on public assistance.
From then on, I referred to myself as “the welfare Jew.”
Yet, I loved the ten days of the Jewish calendar that my mother observed when I was very young, before her tailspin into dysfunction began: The High Holy Days.
Mom grew up in a Jewish but not religious home. For her Hungarian immigrant parents — as for many Jews — being Jewish revolved around the practice of holiday rituals, including cooking lavishly for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
As an adult, my mother maintained this tradition until personal tragedy struck: At age 29 she became a widow with two small sons to raise alone; nearly ten years later, she married the abuser who would father me. Traumatized and heartbroken, she began to drink. She also began to disengage from Jewish tradition and her faith in God. “What kind of God lets a Holocaust happen or lets a man in the prime of his life with a wife and two little boys die?” she would say whenever I asked if she believed.
For some reason, however, she seemed to revere Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these days of introspection, Jews take stock of the transgressions we have committed during the past year and repent through prayer and performing good deeds, in the hope that God will inscribe us for a sweet year ahead.
This was not how Mom explained the significance of these days. According to her, the more sugar-dipped challah we ate on Rosh Hashanah, the sweeter the next year would be; while, Yom Kippur was the day when we apologized to God for our sins.
She never went so far as to call these days ‘holy,’ but I could tell by the way she bowed her head and wept while lighting the yahrzeit candles that they held deep meaning for her. She said each candle represented someone she loved — her mother, her father, and her beloved first husband — who could see them burning from heaven. She said that having the candles burn was like having them pay us a visit.
At five, I was less interested in what the High Holy Days meant than in how they transformed my mother from an emotionally volatile alcoholic into a contemplative woman who cooked all day, polished the silver, set the table with her best lace cloth and dishes, lit candles, and prayed. I loved these days because they suspended time: Mom didn’t go to work. She didn’t talk on the phone. Most importantly, she didn’t have a Scotch in the late afternoon or rage at me. She was peaceful and my world, tranquil. The High Holy Days were the only times when our house was calm. I never wanted them to end.
In a way, they never have
Long after my mother’s death, I continue to cherish these days for the serenity they create, their mandate that I look inward to identify the parts of myself that cause me to hurt others, and their call for me to become a better person by performing good deeds, apologizing in person to people I have wronged, and forgiving those who have wronged me.
My mother never apologized to me. And, it would take years for me to forgive her for being the parent she had been. Having a family of my own helped. Only then, after my mother’s death, did I begin to appreciate the challenges she overcame. Only then did I feel not just forgiveness but also gratitude for all that she gave me, including a love for these High Holy Days, which inspire me every year to be a better human being, and are helping me to heal.
Andrea Kott is the author of the memoir, Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness and Hope, (Blydyn Square Books, http://blydynsquarebooks.com) from which this essay is excerpted. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, the New York Times, and many other publications