Last week, I shared my journey to forgiveness with readers at Brenda Yoder’s blog Life Beyond the Picket Fence. Today, I’ve offered up this reflection at Lyli Dunbar’s blog Thought-Provoking Thursdays.

Perhaps you, too, struggle with unforgiveness. As I examined my inability to forgive my mother for leaving her young family, I gained invaluable insight and healing from a new book by Leslie Leyland Fields, “Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers”.

My birth mother would have turned 80 this week. Growing up, it was ironic to me that her birthday always fell on or near Mother’s Day.

I wasn’t adopted, so referring to the woman who gave birth to me when she was 18 as simply “my birth mother” may seem odd. But to the end of her life, nearly 3 ½ years ago, it seldom felt right to call her “Mom”. Most of my life, she was just Anita.

When I was three years old and my little sisters were two and one, Anita walked out our front door, across the yard and down the street. I remember the day she left vividly, though I was just a toddler at the time. I can still see my baby sister sitting in the dirt, crying, and I remember wondering why my mother carried a suitcase.

I didn’t know it would be several years before we would see her again.

Anita and my father married when she was a child herself. Dad was six years her senior and had returned to his hometown following an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. In a little more than three years, Anita had three babies.

When Anita left, my grandmothers stepped in to help care for us and soon Dad hired an elderly aunt in the family to stay with his daughters while he worked. Where Anita went and what she did after she left was a mystery. At some point, I was told she had gone in search of her own birth father, a man who left my grandmother before Anita was born. Wherever she went, she did not return for the divorce and custody hearing.

Dad remarried when I was six and soon another sister and a brother completed our family. We were the five Wilson kids, and there was barely a seam where our family had been knit together. By the time Anita returned to town and attempted to become part of our lives, I had shut the door on that relationship. It remained closed for many years.

My “abandonment” (as I chose to call it) by my birth mother came at a time when society considered it the mother’s job to raise her children. Men leaving their families – while still scandalous and not encouraged – was at least accepted and tolerated. Women didn’t give up custody of their babies.

Self-righteous indignation over Anita’s choice settled in during my teenage years. I couldn’t understand how my two sisters could agree to spend weekends with her and her new family. I tolerated occasional visits with Anita, but never let her think I wanted to be there. Instead, my pain and confusion became a hard shell that prevented me from showing her any emotion other than indifference.

But as I matured, I began to notice qualities in Anita that I admired. She was a good mother to her two adopted children. She liked to cook and sew. She enjoyed gardening and canning, and she liked to make people laugh. As a newlywed, my husband and I rented a house in the country, just down the road from Anita’s farm, and we became friends.

Like most friendships, ours tended to ebb and flow. When her second family was grown and her marriage ended in divorce, Anita became a different woman and our friendship was strained. My step-mother had long since become “Mom”, so there seemed to be no way to relate to this woman, my birth mother who was no longer even a friend. Other than obligatory visits at Christmas or on her birthday, we didn’t have much of a relationship.

Then the day came when Anita needed me.

Anita’s health began failing. It was determined that she was suffering the effects of TIAs (Transient Ischemic Attacks) and was showing signs of dementia. I became her caregiver, taking her to doctors’ visits and trying to get her to take better care of herself. She named me her Power of Attorney. When her health declined to the point where she could no longer live alone, she decided to move into a nursing facility rather than live in my home. I knew that was the choice she would make.

Anita had been a bright, creative woman who wrote stories and authored a column for the local newspaper. Now, she could barely complete a sentence. But she had something to tell me.

“I’m sorry.”

She said it often. I had never heard it in all the years we had navigated our bumpy relationship. For some reason, she had to say it now.

So here I was, 55 years old and confused by a woman who had no defined role in my life. She said other things.

“It was best.”

“I’m sure you know…..”

“I love you.”

She tried to tell me not to come to the nursing home, but I had to. The forgiveness I had been chasing after for years was just beginning to blossom, and I had to be there so that it could happen. I had to find a way to tell her I loved her, too, and that I understood.

I was with her when she died, and I think she knew that I’d figured out how to love her.

After years of struggling with and being confused by Mother’s Day, I’m beginning to understand the decision made by a too-soon young mother who barely knew who she was, let alone how to care for three babies. It took five decades for me to begin to forgive her for choosing herself over her daughters – to finally see that in leaving, maybe she chose us after all.

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