On Mother’s Day

I became a mother at the age of 24.

Sometimes I wish that fact gave me a pass on the first 10,000 mistakes I made. I was so young. What did I know? But there are no passes for any of us. We are held to the impossible standard of the great mothers our kids’ friends have.

As a new mom, I had two sources of guidance. My mother’s famous line: “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” And Dr. Spock which I read so much and so hard that the pages came away from the paperback binding. I would read what Dr. Spock said and then check back 99 times to make sure what I read was what I thought I read.

I was a mess as a new mother.

My own mother was MIA at the time, probably because I wanted it that way, I don’t remember. I’m betting I wanted everyone to believe I knew exactly what I was doing. But I had no clue. And no one to ask. No friends with babies, we were new to town. And my husband, as nice and kind as he was, had never had a baby either. He was as in the dark as me but got to put on a suit in the morning and go to work.

I remember the doctor telling me to put my baby to sleep on her stomach and turn her feet outward otherwise she would be pigeon-toed. Looking back, this seems unbelievable, that this was the big problem we needed to address. My pigeon-toed baby. What about feeding her? What about her crying? What about my life? Would I still have one? Or was that over now?

I read in Dr. Spock and in Our Bodies Ourselves about breastfeeding but the instructions seemed written for better women than me, women who were at home in their own bodies, women who were confident about their role in the world, women who wore long floral skirts and shawls, had wild hair falling over their beautiful faces, women who never thought about failing as mothers. They weren’t my people. I didn’t have any people. I just had me.

I ran back to work as fast as I could.

I look back at all this now and realize that my mother was right. “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” Babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults and unless there is a catastrophic intervention, the process is a study in resilience. Children can withstand an extraordinary amount of incompetence.

They see, they learn, they sort out.

They forgive.

“Oh well, my mom did the best she could.”

It’s that forgiveness that makes Mother’s Day what it is. An erasing of mistakes. An appreciation of constancy. Children love that about us, that we never quit on them. That we may have been late and ill-prepared and distracted and short-tempered but we picked them up, we held them, we carried them to the car, we made them dinner, we put them to bed, we came in the night when they cried. And we got up the next morning and yelled at them to hurry and we started over again.

Day after day, without fail.

Reconciliation Redux

Eight years ago, after visiting my parents’ graves in Hastings, Michigan, after arranging flowers and sprinkling birdseed to attract the finches my father loved, and after wiping off the moss that had already started to spread on their headstones, I went with my husband to our place on Lake Superior, sat in an old blue chair that belonged to my husband’s cousin’s mother and I wrote the story of my 12-year estrangement from my parents.

I wrote the piece in one sitting and before I got up out of the chair, I sent it to Newsweek to be considered for their Lives column.

A few weeks later, an editor called me to say they wanted to print the piece.

She asked me questions, wanted to know the details, wondered why a 12-year estrangement would be the result of a bad telephone conversation with my mother. There was no good answer for that. There was only my story. Here’s what happened, I said. This is the bad thing that happened to me and my family and this is how we were redeemed. This is the grace fractured families hope for but avoid mostly because it involves shedding everything that came before. That, by itself, is a foreign concept to most people, certainly it was to me until I surrendered to reconciliation.

She decided to believe me. Not a word in the piece was changed. I learned then that when a story is through and through true, it will arrange itself on a page, each bead in exactly the right place on the necklace. For that time and place in the writer’s heart.

Today, an old friend mentioned this piece. He said it should be required reading for families. So I’m linking to it here. It’s called The Power of Saying You’re Sorry. 

I end with saying again what was on the billboard I saw on the way to reconciling with my parents after ten years gone: “If you think it’s too late to make things right, you’re wrong.” Maybe this will help someone you know. Maybe it will help you.

At My Mother’s Knee

Those of you who are estranged from family members but figure you’ll make things right at some point in the future, well, sometimes the future runs out and you lose your chance. That just happened to someone I know. Not to me, thank God, but I sure came close.

Red's Wrap

Showing up after ten years’ absence when your mother is ill with Alzheimer’s Disease and having her look at you and say, “I never thought I’d see you again,” and realizing that if you had waited, like you wanted to, for another six months to pass before coming home, she would probably forget who you were, all of this is a very big deal. And it’s an important story to tell even if I don’t know exactly how to tell it.

I’d been warned by my father about my mother’s deepening Alzheimer’s Disease or A.D. as he called it in his letters. Our written correspondence had been going on for over a year, the melting of ten years’ worth of silence into drops of questions and information. I told him about his grandchildren, one of whom had been adopted during our estrangement and whom he had never met. I told…

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The Rebuked Apology

Interpersonal warfare has many dimensions. In the giant storeroom of weapons and strategies, next to the M16’s and poison arrows, is the rebuked apology.

This is the scalpel of conflict, the slitting of the aorta, the permanent solution. There is no coming back from the brink of a rebuked apology; it is just an avalanche of large rocks from then on out.

So has this happened to you? Apologized to someone and have them refuse your apology? It could go like this.

“Hey, I’m actually starting to miss you as a friend. Do you want to call a truce and kind of pick up where we left off?”

“No.  You’re too crazy/too moody/too critical/too aggressive/too much/too/too/too.”

Or have you sat on your tuffet daintily nibbling, deigning just for a moment to listen to the supplicant’s pitch, maybe even considering an apology like a small ring on a large pillow, before heaving it  against the wall, where, because it is cheap and not well-thought out, it explodes into thousands of small shiny pieces.

It can be flabbergasting to the apologizer that, after so much thinking and planning and screwing up of one’s courage to actually apologize, the target of the apology would be so dismissive and cruel to wave off the apology. Especially after the apologizer agonized for days or weeks about the wisdom of making an apology, maybe not even believing that there was anything to apologize for but only wanting a resumption of the relationship the way it was before whatever it was happened.

No. When this happens, it is the very essence of the word chagrinned as in ‘feeling distressed or humiliated.’ “He was chagrinned when his friend pour scorn on him.” Yes, indeed. Chagrinned. A rebuked apology will do that to you.

The best apology I ever received came from my own father after ten years of estrangement in which he wrote the words “I am so sorry” on the inside of a greeting card. I was so amazed to see the words, it never occurred to me to rebuke his apology although he really had little to apologize for and I was more responsible for our estrangement than he was. Despite all that, it would have been easy for me to stick with my anger, to not let those few words crawl up in my life and change everything.

I wonder sometimes about apology in a larger context. Like it seems to me that the United States should formally apologize for having supported slavery for 250 years. It seems like a minimal thing to do although I think the apology should be accompanied by reparations which would make it more than a minimal thing. Without apology, slavery becomes just part of the evolution of the country rather than an enormous, terrible, scarring wrong visited on everyone past and present. If the U.S. Congress passed legislation to apologize for slavery, what would be my reaction if I was an African American person, a descendant of slaves?Would I accept the apology or rebuke it?

An apology doesn’t change what happened. That’s what an apology rebuker doesn’t understand. Because the apology doesn’t erase history, the rebuker says no to it, thinking , ‘Accepting your apology does nothing to change what happened and how I feel about it; it’s only meant to make you feel better, to let yourself off the hook.’

Maybe we would be better off if, when we are faced with needing to apologize, we think about the interaction in different terms. I’m thinking it would make more sense to say ‘I regret this’ than ‘I am sorry’ because the former just describes the reality of the situation and the latter does something else, I’m not sure what, but it’s so often unsatisfying, like the sayer means to change history but knows it’s impossible. It comes off as not being enough.

The next time I need to apologize for something important, that’s what I’m going to say. ‘I really regret this.’ Not sorry, regret. I mourn this terrible mistake I made and the damage that resulted. I think that’s what my father was saying in the card he sent. He sent his regret.

It  didn’t change the past but it changed the future.


#35/100: 35th in a series of 100 in 100


Thank you, John Edwards

He did so many things wrong and today he finally did something right.  He owned up.  He said he had sinned and that no one was responsible but him.  Maybe it was a ploy.  I am a sucker for apologies and am hooked on the notion of redemption and starting over so I’d be fair game for a good con especially by a handsome guy.

But he looked different to me today.  Not so handsome.  Worn.  His tie showing at the bottom of his buttoned jacket reminded me of the guys who get dressed up for a wedding having forgotten how to tie a tie to the right length.  A little bit of his inner ‘hick’ seemed to be showing through.

I mentioned all this to my husband who, naturally, asked me the unexpected question which was “If you were his wife, would you be so impressed with his apology?”  Of course, I don’t know what his wife would have done.  I do know that most people will forgive almost anything if the transgressor owns his sin.

Tomorrow, Bill Clinton is coming to town to campaign for Tom Barrett for Governor.  This is the same guy who stowed his White House intern conveniently under his desk just in case any special needs came up.  But hey, he finally, finally, finally admitted to what he had done and presto/chango, he’s a statesman, a diplomat, a hero of the people, and the cutest good ol’ boy ever.

Man, you don’t need to be perfect in my book.  You just need to be straight.  If you fuck up, say it.  That’s what John Edwards did today.  He said it.  He sinned.  He sure did.

And then he said, “God isn’t done with me yet.”

That’s so true. Now’s the time for redemption.



Eleven years ago, the house we owned in Grand Marais, Michigan, caught fire and blew up.  It was the dead of winter, in the middle of a terrific storm, at the end of a day when the power had gone off and on a dozen times.  Deciding we’d better hightail it, we’d cut short our skiing trip and headed for Milwaukee, where six hours later, I listened to the phone message from a neighbor telling me, “I’m watching your house burn down.” 

And did it burn.  Fueled by high winds coming off Lake Superior, the fire got so hot, the house exploded.  I know this because the local newspaper man braved the weather to stand on our beach and take time series photos which he sent to us later.  I looked at them once and put them in the attic.

It was two months before we came back.  After having been told by the fire marshal that there was nothing left to see, we figured that the heartache could wait a while.  Our dream place, the summer home we’d hoped our kids would grow up in and bring their own kids to was just plain gone.

We wandered around in the March rain and called out to each other when we found things in the rubble – pieces of dishes, clothes pins, the embroidered edge of a bedsheet, the metal ladle we used to toss water on the hot stones in the sauna, and chunks of carpeting – like the piece I found today half buried in the sand.

Wherever we went, there was the question.  What caused the fire?   There was never an answer.  No one to blame.  No one to sue.  Could’ve been this or that, wiring, creosote in the chimney, downdrafts, or human error. We decided it was an act of God.  And we left it at that.  This was a decision I never regretted and a lesson we as a family never forgot.  Sometimes you just can’t figure it all out, find out who did what when and why, who’s to blame, who should pay.  Sometimes you just have to bulldoze the rubble of your heart and your mind or, in our case, a big, flimsy box of a beach house, and start over.

The capacity to start over is a great big gift.  And I mean starting over without assurances, without resolution of past wrongs, without people changing to be the people we wished and planned for them to be.   Another word would probably be forgiveness.  Either way, you end up with a stronger, better house.