What Does Forgiveness Look Like?


An excerpt from my book, The Impostor Affect: A Closer Look by a Classic Case

To take a break from my reading, I sit down on the cold tile of my office in married student housing, pull out the bottom drawer of the file cabinet nearest the door, and begin rummaging through some of my personal files that I had managed to preserve over the years of moving around. The wind is howling outside and clouds are causing a shadowed darkness to fall over this part of the campus.

The dissertation is underway and taking shape in my mind—in fact I think of little else these days. Writing a personal narrative takes courage, the experts say, and I am living proof that they are right. Eagerness and apprehension live side-by-side in the current place of possibility. Sleeplessness sometimes joins them, and I can hardly hold back the emotions that come in the night, so deeply are they connected to my memories.

I don’t know exactly what I am searching for—going through this drawer—but I need to gather documents that will help me formulate a timeline of my life. That may seem elementary to some, but so many things have happened over the years, and I forget in which order they occurred. I know myself well enough that to do anything with details I have to see the whole picture. Old employment applications along with the file listing all the birthdates, marriages, and deaths will help me.

I find a few things of importance and feel moderately satisfied at the progress when I come upon a file labeled “Inheritance, 1986”. I open it and find the State of Colorado Certificate of Death for my mother. Up to this point, I hadn’t given it much more than a quick glance and a resting place in my bottom drawer.

She died on September 4, 1986. Each fall, as school starts up again, the memories return. That year, I was working on my English undergraduate degree—just about to finish up—and had to miss the first week of class. I don’t think I ever caught up that semester.  Starting strong is everything, in my world.  I was listed as a senior—finally—and had a GPA of 3.375. Not bad considering I had been working on it for 16 years on-and-off while raising my four children mostly on my own during that time. I was also managing a low-income apartment complex at the time—“free” rent in exchange for it. There were 22 units—which meant there were 22 issues on a rotating basis placed at my door.  I remember wishing I had more to give to those in need, but if the truth is to be told—and I am purposing to be truthful here—I was struggling to survive my own life.

Her name on the death certificate was not the same name that I found on other documents. Not long ago, while digging through a box of old photos and miscellaneous stuff, I found her seventh-grade report card from a school in Denton, Texas. Her name was entirely different. Her date of birth differed, too. I knew she lied about her age when she went into the military. I think she lied about a lot of things.

I flipped through the rest of the papers in the folder until I saw a typed note addressed “TO THE GIRLS” dated October 17, 1984. She always called us that. I skimmed the rest until I came to her signature. And that stopped me. I was holding the original paper that she had held, written on, and then signed. Her signature seemed to touch me in a way I was not prepared for.

I remember very little of those early years when my mother was in my life. But I do have one memory that I have held onto. She made us Jell-O. Not just any Jell-O, though; it was lime with whipped cream, crushed pineapple, cottage cheese, and walnuts. I think we must have had it fairly often for me to remember it.

When my children were young, in an act of honoring my mother, I began making it for them, and, over the years, it has developed into a family tradition—gracing our table at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now my children are making it for theirs. I never eat it without thinking of her.

After a few years of being a mother myself—and a single mom, at that—I found a place of forgiveness in my heart for her.  I had no idea what she had experienced in her early life—she never talked about it; I did not know why she found it vital to drink and be away more than she was home. When she was drunk, she cried. When she was sober, she raged. Poor thing. I wish I could comfort her and tell her again that I love her.

Such a small thing—Jello-O. Such a big thing—forgiveness.

Note: When I’m coaching an author I work with in my publishing business, I am often asked to explain how the following quote pertains to the writing project we’re working on:

Universal principles [truths] are only understandable in light of particular cases (Schwandt, R. 2001). 

I tell them this story—excerpted from my book The Impostor Affect: A Closer Look by a Classic Case, pages 95–99 (available here and on Amazon.com).