Friday, March 18, 2005

Memory Eternal

At 3:35 this afternoon, my Aunt Mary fell asleep in the Lord.

It wasn't entirely unexpected; she was 83 years old, she had macular degeneration and a wonky heart, and her life over the past year had been rather wretched: one of her sons had mortgaged her house, then defaulted on it, so that she was forced out of a house she had lived in for almost 60 years. She didn't want to move out to Vancouver, where this son's job is; she didn't want to move in with her other son, whom she never liked; so the alternative was to move her up to NH, where she had two nieces and a nephew to keep an eye on her. That move seemed to do something to her soul. She became very bitter, very suspicious of people, and ironically, the only person she really trusted was the son who had occasioned the foreclosure!

So her passing is somewhat of a blessing. What bothers me about it, though, is that for the past year, her entire conversation consisted of reminiscences about her "womanizing" father (not that we ever heard from anyone else in the family!), her "stupid" husband, her "sneaky" second son, and her "brother-in-law, who treated her sister so bad" -- since that particular brother-in-law happens to be my stepfather, who worshipped the ground my mother walked on, that was especially tough to put up with. And I used to think about how she would carry that bitterness of soul with her into the next life, and wonder what I could do to get her out of that mode of thinking, so that she could face God with something positive. I never did figure it out.

This afternoon, after she passed, her sons, my sister, my brother, and I sat around making jokes about her life, and about her "setting heaven on its ear" once she got together with her brothers and sister, and that bothers me, too: I know what Orthodoxy says about our passage from this life to the next, I know that it isn't the current "floating-to-a-better-place" Feel-Good b.s. that our culture promotes. And yet, for that short space of time, I bought into it. On the other hand, what the heck was I supposed to say?!

Well, it can certainly be said that she lived life to its fullest: not just in negative ways, like her drinking and smoking and doing pretty much whatever she felt like, regardless of how her husband felt about it, but also, in the way she opened her home during the post-WWII housing shortage to any of her relatives who needed a place to stay. She took in three cousins (that I know of, there may have been others), her brother and his wife, who lived with her for a number of years, and at one point, one of my brothers who was separated from his wife. (Not all at once, of course!) They lived with her and her husband and sons, paid her rent as they could, ate from her table, and enjoyed her hospitality as long as they needed it. When she and her sister (my mother) bought a summer home in NH, that too became a vast open house for whoever wanted to vacation near the White Mountains. There's no way I could do something like that.

We all have our gifts, and hers was a strong sense of family. I hope it will cancel out any of the negatives in her life, and there were many. May your memory be eternal, Aunt Mary!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Forgiveness: Not an Option

As mentioned in my previous post, I have managed to almost completely alienate two people whom I care about very much, and have apologized to both. One has accepted my apology, the other...much more resistant.

I can understand that. Some things are harder to forgive than others. For me, there are four things I have struggled with over and over again: (1) my mother's abuse of me and my brothers when we were growing up; (2) my mother-in-law's repeated attempts to sabotage my marriage; (3) the neighbor we had, when our kids were little, who lodged a complaint of child abuse against us; and (4) the various teachers my son had throughout his school career, who made no attempt to get to know him and made his life miserable, who knows why.

It's hard to know which is the hardest to live with. Attacks on your kids are always more painful to live with than attacks on yourself, but ultimately, attacks on your kids are attacks on yourself, since your children are you. The neighbor who reported us for child abuse -- ultimately, her allegations were proven false, but colored the whole of our kids' upbringing, since we lived in constant fear of its happening again, and I knew of cases where kids had been forcibly removed from the homes of loving, caring parents whose chief "crime" was bringing up their kids in a Christian home. The little snipes and digs my mother-in-law excelled at were difficult enough to bear, but the outright lies she told my husband about things I'd said to her were almost beyond belief (such as telling him I was planning to send our son out of the house when he was 20, after I'd expressed to her the hope that he would be able to spend junior year abroad). As for my son's teachers, all I can say is, if you want cookie-cutter kids, go bake cookies. Chris was so far outside the mold that the only way to interact with him was to take him on his own terms. Those teachers who could, said he made their whole career worthwhile. Those who couldn't, made his life a misery, and by extension, our lives.

As for my own mother...after 35 years of thinking about it and talking about it, intellectually I can grasp that her own background ill prepared her for motherhood, and that she did her (limited) best with what she was given. The fact remains that my entire childhood was filled with terror, between the sadistic nuns at school and my sadistic mother at home. And this experience colors my entire relationship with God, as I struggle to believe that I have worth in His eyes.

How do you forgive these kinds of things?!

The author G. K. Chesterton wrote of having been slapped in the face so hard, by one of his schoolmasters, that he was deafened in that ear. When he was 80, he wrote that he felt he had finally completely forgiven that schoolmaster. All those years, 70 or so, and at least 30 or 40 of them as a Christian struggling to live life in Christ -- and it took him that long. His secret was that every time he thought of the injury done to him, he made a conscious decision to forgive -- for the sake of Christ. That it didn't happen overnight, was his gift to all of us who struggle to forgive wrongs that assault our innocence.

Then there's my personal model, the Theotokos. I read once that it wasn't her Yes to the Angel Gabriel that mattered, it was her Yes at the foot of the Cross. If you read some of the Stavrotheotokia of the Church, there can be no doubt in your mind as to what went on in her heart. And she had to forgive those who put her Son on the Cross. She has to forgive -- us. Our sins, those things that occasioned the necessity for the Cross. Worse, we actually ask her to intercede for us. What a nerve, to ask such a thing! And, to my eternal amazement, she does. She actually forgives us the pain we have caused, not to her -- though that's bad enough -- but to her Son, the worst pain any mother can be called on to endure.

Well then -- forgiveness is not an option. It's a requirement. It's a struggle, and that's OK; but it remains a requirement. So I'll just keep on struggling with it, as I hope others will with me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I never feel really prepared for Lent -- it's always all I can handle just to fast. I don't think a young mother should even think about fasting -- being a mother is enough! (One reason it's such a good idea for our priests to be married -- it's harder for them to get on their high horses about The Church Says when they can see how their own wives have to struggle with the chores of womanhood -- like bearing, feeding, and caring for children.) Reminds me of a comment I read somewhere else, from a young mother who worried that she wasn't able to focus on the Liturgy because her children took all her attention -- she was told by her Bishop, "Your children are your Liturgy. Bring them to church, help them to learn how to behave in church -- that is your prayer." Wow.

Meanwhile, with a skill and elan that only I possess, I have managed to anger two people I really care about, right at the beginning of Great Lent. I don't know how I do this, but I've done it pretty nearly all my life -- caring about people, in trying to express that, I manage to tick them off no end. As of yesterday, I was just about ready to give up trying, just crawl into a corner and not contact anybody or do anything that wasn't strictly necessary for the upkeep of the house. And then, in Touching Heaven, I read this:

An encounter with [a staretz, an elder] may reveal a clear and brilliantly lit path, the very one you have been patiently seeking. Or, it may not. The gift one gets may simply be permission to go on struggling. We seek guidance, and sometimes receive; we seek relief, and sometimes receive only the encouragement to keep fighting the good fight....Occasionally it feels as though the world has an overwhelming power to crush us; that is, if our human nature doesn't finish us off first. But there is absolutely no sound promise offered from the circles of holiness that life is free from struggle. To struggle is to engage, and to engage the spiritual life is one of the few worthy pursuits of man.

Or, as we used to say in my youth, no rest for the wicked. Not struggling is not an option, in this calling. Dang.