Chrstmas Present #3: I Have Forgiven You

Here is the full text of my short story I Have Forgiven You, as published in the literary journal Metamorphosis a few years ago.  Merry Christmas and all the best for 2018!


Do you know that I’ve forgiven you?  I felt so unwelcome when I first came into your family.  Your house was overheated and aggressive with the smells of pine and boxwood, and everybody was talking at once, to everybody except me. My first mistake was getting engaged to your only son the same Christmas your oldest granddaughter got engaged.  Missy showed her ring and everyone whooped and hugged Joel and clapped him on the back and welcomed him into the family.  I showed mine and you nodded politely.  Well, I was 25 and already divorced.  And Tom and I had been living together for a year.  That didn’t go over with you in those days, when you were still vigorous enough to be judgmental.  Later, when your grandchildren cohabited, you learned to overlook it, but a mother-in-law is a more exacting judge of a daughter-in-law.

What hurt me the most was when your judgments extended to my kids.  They weren’t potty trained early enough to suit you.  They didn’t eat enough to suit you.  They made too much noise to suit you.  Whenever something got broken, my kids came under suspicion, never Missy’s.

I can’t claim to have forgotten, but I have forgiven.   Who could hold a grudge against you in this state:  gray and thin and loose-skinned like a baby bird, your hair a scrub of wild white tufts barely covering your scalp.

I patiently spoon lemon ice through your cracked lips.  You close your eyes with delight at each bite.  I’m glad to finally be able to please you in some way.  I hope you know that I’m glad to do this for you.

We don’t talk much.  You’re practically deaf now, although I suspect you don’t know it.  You never could understand half of what I said anyway.  You’d wince like I was hurting you and say, “PARDON me?” so impatiently.  I always talked too fast for you, in my New York way, but maybe, too, you weren’t interested enough to really pay attention.  It was only your own daughters, and their children, who were interesting to you.

We always did leave a lot unsaid.  You come from that generation who kept things private and kept up appearances.  You grew up in a slower-paced era when people stayed put and had all the time in the world to get to know each other, so intimacy didn’t need to be hurried.  Your generation got to know people by the gradual accumulation of their actions and seemingly-inconsequential words over the years, not by gushed confessions on second meeting.

I finally came to know you that way, in your own slow time.  And, by the same method, you probably came to know me better than I thought. I came to suspect that you were more like me than I thought.  I recognized the unhappy child’s determination that her children will have the childhood of her dreams.  Over the years, Tom left me clues in what he told me about his own childhood:  the homemade ice cream, the nature walks, the winter afternoons that you spent playing children’s card games instead of paying bills or scrubbing floors.  I got a glimpse that maybe your youthful hope was the same as mine:  that our children would be happier and more secure than we had been.

You taught your son to recognize bird calls and to spot wildlife by scanning for movement.  Years later, he taught me.  I love that about him:  that he patiently taught this Brooklyn girl to step quietly through the woods, slowly enough to hear a robin’s pleading song or notice the squirrel frozen on a tree trunk five feet away.

I thought you were so hard on my kids, and yet they always loved you.  I thought you favored Missy’s kids so blatantly, but my kids never seemed to notice.  They were always happy to see you when they were little, and they visit you now willingly, as long as we aren’t staying too long, kissing your tissue-paper cheek and holding your frail, bony hand, not even wrinkling their noses at the odor of diapers and looming death.  Their vision was clearer than mine.  They saw through the judgment to the love.

I never told you that you hurt my feelings.  Later, I never told you that I forgave you.  Do you know?

The Italian ice is gone.  I ask if you want some of your Sprite and you nod.  I raise the straw to your lips.  You latch on like a baby to the nipple and turn your cloudy eyes to mine gratefully, just for an instant.


Do you know that I have forgiven you?  I know you don’t have to be here.  My own children have to be here, and they’re the kind who do what they should.   There’s comfort in that.   But you:  you never did what other people thought you should.  It  always seemed to me that you did exactly as you pleased.  I didn’t like that in you, but now I find a different kind of comfort in that, too.  You must be here because you want to be.

Well, God knows I can’t afford to be picky about who spoons mush past my lips.  I can’t feed myself any more, can’t get myself to the bathroom, can barely roll over without help.  I know my hearing’s going, and you all assume that my mind’s going, too.  Well, it isn’t.  It tires me to talk and it tires me even more to strain to hear what people say back.  But I can still think.

I understand less about people than I thought I did.  When I was your age, I thought I had a lot of things figured out.  I thought I could predict how stories would end.

I didn’t think much of you at first, I admit.  Tom had just had his heart broken by that smart-alecky first wife of his, and you looked to us like the same mistake about to be repeated, with your loud voice and your New York accent and all those black clothes.  And you were already divorced at 25, for the love of God.  What did you expect us to think of you?  Once he took up with you, we hardly saw Tom.  I felt like you’d put him under a spell and would just chew him up and spit him back out like that first girl.  I can’t even remember her name now.

I started to forgive you a little when you can us two more grandchildren.  I can tell you we were surprised.  You seemed like the type who was more interested in books than in kids.  But, then you had them and you hardly ever brought them around.  I confess I didn’t think much of you and Tom as parents at first.  No, I didn’t.  You made such a big deal about not spanking them.  You were always explaining things to them.  You left me long lists of instructions when I kept them, as if I hadn’t raised four kids and didn’t know how to take care of a baby.  I admit I thought you spoiled them and that they would break your hearts.  But, I am surprised to find that they are two fine young people.  I don’t know how that happened.  Maybe you two got lucky.  Maybe you were better parents than I thought you were.  Either way, the world isn’t the predictable place I once believed it to be, and I’m too tired to figure it out all over again.

Oh, that ice feels good in my mouth.  My tongue always feels fat and sticky.  I must have revolting breath.  I probably have that old-person smell, too, all musty and decayed, like something already dead.  I should care, but I don’t.  I’m too tired.

I’m grateful that you still love Tom after all these years.  I think I finally forgave you for taking him away when you stayed with him when he was out of work for a whole year.  A year!  I respected how you went out and found work and supported the family.  I loved how you still loved my boy, really loved him, I could see that.  You stayed willingly, not bitterly.  None of my own three daughters could manage to stay married.  My oldest granddaughter couldn’t stay married.  But you and Tom did.  Another reminder that I don’t know what I thought I knew:  I didn’t think you had that in you.

Do you know?  I’m not much of a one for displays of affection.  I don’t like the way people your age are always hugging each other.  They even do it in church.  In my day, there were 100 people in the congregation and we all knew each other.  We dropped off casseroles when someone was sick or had a baby, and we went to the funeral home when someone died, but we never dreamed of hugging each other.  But, Lord, now there are 600 members and they hardly know each other’s names but they’re always wrapping their arms around each other like movie stars.

Oh, you can have this world, you young people.  I’m ready to go.  Maybe I’m just too old and tired to hold a grudge, but I wish that I had come to love you sooner, and I hope you know that I have forgiven you.

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