Something reminded me this morning of a teenager from my hometown, but I couldn’t recall her name. About forty years ago, she killed her mother by mistake.
She was one of my sister Amy’s friends from high school, so my first thought was, I’ll ask Amy, and the next was: But I can’t! Amy died last year.
The unremembered name hung around all afternoon, bothering me the way a vaguely bad dream can insinuate itself underhandedly into the daylight hours. I thought, what difference does it make? But it was unnerving that the central detail of a potent episode in my childhood, a whole long story which had once upon a time loomed up larger than life –much larger than life — could have simply been mislaid. There was a sense that without my having noticed, crucial events in my personal history were being shown in the grand scheme of things to lack significance, and were being duly crushed – as if by some grand garbage compactor — under the pileup of years.
I emailed one of my other sisters:
A memory came to mind today of Amy’s friend from high school who was driving her little sports car with her mother in the passenger seat when she looked away from the road for a second (I think it was for something that in retrospect looked especially petty and selfish: to check herself in the mirror, or change the channel on the radio) and back-ended a truck (or a school bus?) The car went right underneath the larger vehicle. Her mother died.
I’m pretty sure you remember this – I hope so — but do you remember her name?
There’s no practical need on my part to know, just that I read a news report today about a woman in NYC whose drunken boyfriend killed her mother, and I remembered that whole episode. I think it was one of the most horrifying things I ever saw in childhood – her being responsible for her mother’s death. It filled me with fear, awe, curiosity. I used to think of her situation with amazement, and with relief it wasn’t me. I think she, also, came from a family of all girls. How could her sisters not hate her forever? Not to mention hating herself.
I think she stayed with us for a while after the accident. She was tall and good-looking, big-boned, with a flash of a smile. I remember looking at her brushing her long, thick, reddish-brown hair. I wondered how she could go on. She acted normal. I can see now that that’s what probably horrified and fascinated me as much as the crime itself.
I wonder what happened to her. She loomed so monstrously large. So, do you remember?
I don’t recall his using that line specifically in relation to Liz (for that was her name; it appeared to me out of the blue, even before my sister in America emailed back) but what happened to her made me conscious for the first time, really, that forgiveness was something a person might really need sometimes, like food (not that I ever went hungry) or good grades. Yes, she’d committed her crime by mistake – isn’t that what people say, we all make mistakes? – but as far as I could see, that wouldn’t do her much good. Her name would always be associated in peoples’ minds with what she’d done. How could she ever get married and have children and live happily ever after? Checking how she looked in the mirror…Switching channels on the radio… Not only had her mother died, which in itself was too nightmarish a thing even to imagine, but it was Liz’s fault, it would always be her fault, wouldn’t it? Her life had ended before it began.
It couldn’t have made it any easier for her, having Amy’s little sister staring up at her all the time with curious eyes, taking peeks at her grief. For that little girl, the world was divided into two kinds of people. On one side were all the really bad people, who do really, really bad things like murder or lying or cheating. And on the other side (where my family, and all our friends and relatives were) was everyone else.
* * *
For the sin we committed in Thy sight unintentionally, reads the Yom Kippur Machzor. For the sin we committed in Thy sight willfully or by mistake…
Little did I know, in the charming ignorance called childhood, that innocence and guilt are Siamese twins, entwined inextricably in every human heart, and that even grown-ups have a hard time differentiating between “intentional” and “unintentional,” “forgivable” and “unforgivable.” We can take it as a given that anyone we come to love will at some point appear unlovable and bad in our eyes, because — as it says in the Yom Kippur prayer book — none of us is without fault. Contrary to what I gathered from 1950s sitcoms such as “Father Knows Best,” it doesn’t come naturally — even for someone who’s basically good-hearted — to choose good, to become good.
Liz must have seen me trying to unveil her guilt, to weigh it against her suffering and see where she ended up, which side. But she wasn’t doing much to help. She didn’t look tormented. I never heard her cry. If she’d come out of the guestroom with red eyes, if she’d walk with a slump, show us she was hating herself, she would have been less an object of wonder.
One of the million things I had yet to learn was that it doesn’t take a car crash. The raised eyebrow or the raised voice, the putdowns disguised as jokes, jealousy in the garb of praise, the comment made behind someone’s back, which you wouldn’t have said it if the person were right there… On any sunny, normal day, that’s how we the good ones kill and are killed.
Our ambivalence about who we are is such that we get secret satisfaction from the next guy’s fall. What a relief – for a moment or two – from the burden of our own selves! It’s not just some quaint literary exaggeration – forgive me, Daddy! — to say life is an adventure in forgiveness, because I’ve learned belatedly that that’s what it must become: a matter of getting to know ourselves well enough that we’re no longer so shocked and baffled by our own and our fellow man’s selfishness, self-centeredness, insincerity, stupidity, betrayal, pretension, hypocrisy, deception, cruelty…to become tolerant of the fact that it’s G-d Who’s holy, but Mortals ‘R Us. Someone once told me that she and her husband and children had made an agreement to forgive each other an infinite number of times, because that’s how often their actions would make it necessary.
“My sin is ever before me,” wrote the Psalmist, King David, of a misdeed he could never forget. What can one do with inescapable guilt? Maybe Liz became the kind of person who can forgive and forget in others what they can’t in themselves. Maybe she doesn’t have to understand everything before forgiving, and granting her love.
The main thing I didn’t know as a child was that fortunately, there’s a dimension to forgiveness beyond our human capacity for it. Ultimately we’re not dependent on our own scant store of generosity and understanding for the complete forgiveness we all need, unceasingly. Our Creator has the final word, and with Him it’s easier. All we have to do…is ask.
* * *
I remember Liz and I remember an older sister (or two?) Jennifer? I even have a fleeting memory of their mother’s face. But I don’t remember anything about Liz being responsible for her mother’s death. Maybe I had already left home?
That my sister has no recollection at all of all this almost makes me wonder: to what extent was my experience — which figured so prominently in my child’s eye view of the world — a product of my childish misunderstanding or misinterpretation? My memory is at once so long and so short — some details so vivid, others so vague – that whatever it was that happened, the reality is beyond my grasp.
But isn’t that always the case? What a vast amount of information we’d need in order to get a fair, complete version of anyone’s deeds, including our own! Only G-d has the whole story, and after apologizing to our fellow man, it’s to Him we turn. As we say on Rosh Hashana:
He will suppress our iniquities and cast into the depths of the seas all their sins…to a place where they will neither be remembered, considered, nor ever brought to mind…
For all these, O G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.
Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “A Gift Passed Along,” and “The Mother in Our Lives”. She writes for a number of publications in Israel and the United States, and teaches writing in Jerusalem, where she lives with her family. This article originally appeared in American Jewish Spirit Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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