September 30, 2017 § 26 Comments
By Irene Hoge Smith
The Jewish High Holy Days mark a season of endings and beginnings, atonement and forgiveness. Alongside my Jewish husband and with our interfaith community, I am able to partake in this precious opportunity for contemplation. One of my endings (and perhaps a new beginning) is that, after more than five years, I seem finally to have finished writing about my mother. This month I sent Snaggletooth’s Daughter: A Memoir out to find its way in the world. (I’d thought it finished this time last year, but in the way of these things it needed one more rewrite to be the best I could make it.)
The book is about my lost-and-found mother. She was a poet, my father an engineer, and their marriage was chaotic and destructive. When they finally split up, my father got custody of me and my three sisters (aged six to sixteen) and my mother moved to California, where she picked up the life of poetry she’d set aside for the decade and a half she was with us. She became Charles Bukowski’s Snaggletooth, mother of his only child, and francEyE, a respected poet in her own right.
From fourteen to thirty, I did my best to pretend I’d never had a mother. When that coping strategy inevitably outlived its usefulness, I took up the task of trying to form some kind of relationship with the woman who had been, but no longer was, my mother. She was a writer, and I respected that, but was still shocked when I discovered she’d left out of her own memoir anything about me and my sisters or her marriage to our father. When I received an invitation to her book launch party, I wrote what became my first published essay, instead of an RSVP. Then I decided to make another visit, to ask her directly to talk about the years she’d been our mother, and begin to understand more completely what her life had been. By the time she died, I was able to speak at her funeral, filling in the missing parts of her life story in words that were, I hoped, not untrue and not unkind.
Yet when a fellow writer asks me after a group reading—well-meaning, insistent, and in obvious distress—if I have forgiven my mother, I feel put on the spot. I want to say, “Forgive her? Interesting question. You know, she never asked!” Or, since tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, I might point out that I’ve spent most of a decade (or my whole life) on the work of understanding my mother. My defensiveness makes me wonder if there’s something I’ve neglected. Have I not forgiven her?
I think my friend, pained by the sad litany of loss, hoped that “forgiveness” would be the thing that could wrap the story up with a happy bow, so that I could stop writing about the things that happened and their long-lasting effects. Maybe the problem is that I’d so much love to be able to do something like that—to say the magic word “forgive,” and thus bring into being a sweet, uncomplicated, mother-daughter love, and make everything all okay. I wish I could do that, but that’s not what forgiveness is.
In order to forgive, we must give up the desire for revenge, any claim to get something back in compensation for having been hurt, and in that regard I feel on solid ground. I don’t recall ever trying to make my mother suffer, or even wishing that she would. I wanted to tell my own story, but I didn’t do it to hurt her or anyone else.
Forgiveness also requires that we acknowledge the humanity of the person who has caused hurt. I might easily have written my mother as a caricature—a foolish, self-involved woman, more attached to her writing and political beliefs than to her children, whose abandonment of those children defined her. I knew from the perspective of writing, emotional health, and maybe even the good of my soul, whatever that might be, how important it was not to fall into that trap.
Finally, to forgive someone we have to be able to wish them well despite our own pain. My mother’s gone now, but I’m glad she got to publish her poems, (even if there are still a few I don’t get) and that she felt loved by the one daughter she was able to mother. I’m sad that I was not a beneficiary of that late-developed capacity, but if it were up to me I’d want that relationship to have existed rather than not. I’m glad she died free of pain and fear, and that she was not wracked by guilt. I hope that, if she is somewhere now, she is at peace.
For our own sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world, we are enjoined to give up thoughts of revenge, relinquish enduring resentment, grant to the person who has hurt us their own essential humanity, and practice compassion to them and to ourselves.
We are not required to write a book about them. I did that for myself.
Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, and Vine Leaves Literary Review, and she was a 2016 AWP Writer-to Writer Mentee. (One of the founding mothers of IFFP, she is observing Yom Kippur today with her interfaith community.)