Some things just take time.
I was 45 before I began to forgive Mama. Any time I’d go back to Oklahoma for a visit, folks would ask, “Do you see your mother?” Really they were asking, “Have you forgiven your mother?”
My answer was always, “Of course. I see her. I forgave Mama years ago.” But the minute the words left my lips, a little voice in my head would whisper, “Sure.”
I knew in my heart that Mama was a big part of the reason I’d left Oklahoma and moved to Colorado. My mother’s alcoholism, her drastic mood swings and her unpredictable behavior had become too much of a challenge for me to deal with after 20 long years.
I never forgot the day she left our family. When I thought of her, that was all I remembered.
“I have to go away,” she announced that morning in 1955, just as the four of us kids started out the door for school. She was crying and very distraught, which was impossible for my seven-year-old brain to process.
All I knew was that our lives changed drastically the day Mama drove away from our farm with all of her things packed in the old station wagon. Sis, at 13, became the “chief cook and bottle washer,” Dad said. I lent a hand with cooking, cleaning and laundry, while my two brothers did extra chores at the barn in order for Dad to be able to buy groceries and attend to his new motherly duties along with his full-time job and our 160-acre farm.
Mama did return a few times. But before long, all of us knew the pattern by heart. Tears of remorse, talk of a happy future, and then another emotional departure, often in the middle of the night.
We were the first kids at our rural Oklahoma school to have a parent leave home. It was a dubious distinction that set us apart in a weird way. I worked hard at defending my feisty Scotch-Irish mother. “She has a restless spirit,” I’d say to my friends. Later, I’d hide beneath the willow trees with my dog and cry.
I was a teenager before I realized that Mama’s erratic behavior was directly related to the amount of alcohol she consumed. That’s when the anger really began to smolder.
Still, I’d leave my dad’s new home in southern Oklahoma and return in the summer to wherever my mother happened to be living and whichever new husband she happened to be living with. I’d proceed to have a “relationship,” which usually ended with her disappearing and me left in the wake. Summer after summer, I simply collected more bad memories of Mama.
Sometime in my late thirties, after years of effort and disappointment, after watching Mama go in and out of rehab, after seeing her behavior destroy my brothers, and after listening long distance to my older sister’s endless frustration in trying to handle Mama, I said, “Enough.”
And for a long while, I didn’t communicate with my mother at all. She would write letters and make an occasional call, but I’d quit. Of course, the anger didn’t quit, and I went into counseling.
My counselor’s advice to forgive Mama and just let go of the past sounded good, but doing it wasn’t easy. I prayed daily about forgiveness and gradually, God began to work on my heart. I realized that anger was not a legacy I wanted to leave my son and grandchildren.
So on a trip back to Oklahoma, I called Mama. It had been more than five years since I’d communicated with her. I knew from talking with Sis and my younger brother that nothing much had changed. She was older, of course, and had settled down a bit, but still drank and got crazy.
I clutched the ringing phone to my ear. “Lord, please help me do this.”
Mama seemed thrilled to hear my voice. “Loudee,” she said, but the way the old nickname rolled off of her tongue, I knew she’d already had a drink or two that afternoon.
“I’m in Oklahoma, Mama. Thought I might come see you in the morning.” Just the thought made my stomach ache, but I knew mornings were usually safer. At least they used to be.
There was a brief pause. “I’m going to a country church over in Marland,” Mama said. “Would you like to come?”
The invitation was exactly what I needed. Church might be a conversation we could have without dredging up the past.
“That would be good,” I said, and I exhaled and relaxed my tight grip on the phone.
But that Sunday morning, when I pulled up and parked in front of Mama’s rented house, I needed more help. “Please give me the strength to do this.”
The moment Mama opened the door, the wonderful smell of homemade soup met me. The combination of browned beef, garlic, stewed carrots and potatoes drifted into my nose and caused a flood of nostalgic emotions. My best memories of Mama were centered in the kitchen at the old farm. Mama singing in the kitchen. Mama over the sink, peeling peaches. Mama at the stove, frying chicken on Sunday.
“I thought we could have soup and corn bread after church,” Mama said. Her hair was white and she looked very frail.
A vision of her younger self flashed before me. “Mama, do you remember that time on the farm when you told me about the angels helping you make soup?” I asked.
Mama’s crisp giggle filled the room. “Yes,” she said, taking my coat and putting it on the couch. “We were in the kitchen. You must have been about four.”
“I asked you how you knew what to add to the soup pot. You told me, ‘Ingredients just pop into my head, like magic. Onion, celery, peppers...I think the angels whisper the ingredients in my ear.’”
“Yes,” Mama said, smiling. “Then you said, ‘We’re having Angel Soup.’”
“And you laughed and said, ‘You make it sound like we’re eating angels for supper!’” I loved Mama’s playful side. She continued. “And you frowned and said, ‘No, silly. We’re eating what angels told us to eat.’”
Both of us remembered the entire conversation that had taken place four decades before.
“After that day you called every soup I made Angel Soup,” Mama said, pouring me a cup of coffee.
Later that morning, when we walked into the quaint country church, a powerful feeling of peace filtered over me. I knew then that God—the best counsel or of all—had begun to work on my deep-seated anger. It was time for me to focus on the good and leave the rest with him.
Although Mama never completely won her battle with addiction to alcohol, I slowly gained ground on my battle with forgiveness. I called as often as I could. Sometimes she’d be drinking and I would keep the conversation short, but other times she was delightful.
“It’s raining here today,” Mama said one afternoon. “Nothing chills a person like a damp, Oklahoma wind. So I’m making myself a nice big pot of Angel Soup.”
“Are the angels whispering to you, Mama?” I asked.
“Yes. Turnip, broccoli, chicken and rice.” Her magical giggle echoed through the receiver.
“I love you, Mama,” I said, words I hadn’t said to her in decades. And words I never would have said, that week before she died, if I hadn’t been given the grace to choose forgiveness over anger.
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