Some Kind of Forgiveness
What does forgiveness look like from the outside?
She was in her early thirties with two boy toddlers. Her husband left town. It was the mid-1930s, and she had no nearby extended family. There were no “baby and me” classes or single-parent support groups. The husband relocated to a city 300 miles away and returned occasionally—according to sketchy courthouse records, the sheriff served him the divorce papers as he stepped off the train for a weekend visit. He paid his court-ordered child support, but was soon out of the picture for the duration; he married again, raised a second family, and had a successful career.
Her name was Esther, which means “star.” She was my grandmother. In photographs of her taken back then, with and without her little boys, she appears as you might expect: a little tired and rough around the edges, but clearly satisfied with herself and proud of her sons. With her husband gone, she made a career as secretary to the superintendent of schools, probably outlasting more than one superintendent. Esther held that job for decades, and when she retired it was front page news in the local paper.
Throughout all those years Esther never mentioned her former husband. He was present, most certainly, in the surname that she kept, relegating her maiden name to an upright and sturdy middle initial. He was present in the faces of her sons as they grew to manhood, as well as in the faces of the granddaughters and grandsons who came in due course. Present but not present, like someone who has died; but we all knew he was indeed alive and well and absent by choice. Esther lived without apparent bitterness or anger toward her ex-husband. Where today we might see vindictive court proceedings, Esther simply lived—steadily, even-handedly.
You see it in the pictures she took of her sons: Here is Chester in his 1937 Halloween costume, and here is Alan in his, both costumes brand new and handmade, each boy posed in the exact same spot in the yard. Equal treatment. Here are the boys together atop a Civil War cannon at Gettysburg battlefield, in matching handmade outfits and caps. Here are the boys with the neighbor kids and adult friends who undoubtedly comprised for Esther what we today would call a support system. Later, in wedding pictures, she is the lone parent on the side of the groom, but not at all incomplete or self-conscious next to the mother and father of the bride. And still later she is the single grandparent taking her grandchildren to Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg and Salem, Massachusetts. It never seemed that anything was missing despite the fact that something indeed was.
Esther never told the story of her marriage and divorce to her sons and daughters-in-law; her friends who might have known the details never spoke of them, and, like Esther, are now long gone. We grandchildren knew, instinctively, that the subject was not up for discussion. Whether raising it would cause anger or open old wounds we did not know. It might just as likely have been a non-issue. In any case it was edited out of the family story despite its real existence, like text red-lined out of an early draft of a novel. There but not there, like our grandfather.
We’ll never know why Esther maintained this silence or what motivated her to get on with her life the way she did, but of course we speculate. We might surmise that Esther moved ahead out of relief, thankful beyond thankful to be rid of a lost cause of a man. Or that she acted out of a sense of revenge that manifested itself in complete and utter competence that says “You can’t hurt me or anyone I care about, no matter what you do or how hard you try.” Or perhaps she anesthetized herself through focused action.
Any of these would be plausible, but as I study those old photos again I more and more come to think that Esther found in herself a deep ability to forgive, a kind of forgiveness that most of us never have need to employ. A way of forgiveness that enabled her to put the father of her children behind her and move on with a grace that would not have been present in actions taken out of relief or revenge or numbness. I think the grace that marked her actions is the key to understanding her story.
This year it will be thirty years since Esther died, too young, at seventy. Her former husband lived twenty-eight more years. Two or three years after her death, he dropped in on the family of the younger of Esther’s sons—my father. A subsequent visit by our family to his home upstate was an uncomfortable, unnecessary coda to a relationship that had never existed. He solved no mysteries, answered no questions. With nothing but genetic context in which to think of him as “grandfather,” playing the part of the grandson was out of the question for me. His choice to refuse the role of father and grandfather was definitive. I bore him no ill will, but if Esther had in fact forgiven him that would have to be enough for him.
Esther means “star.” When we look up into the night sky, we know the stars by
their shining. Memories of Esther are bright in my consciousness and reinforced
when I look through the old photo albums. Her boys grew into good men who stood
with their wives and families through thick and thin for fifty years and
counting. That’s not a unique accomplishment, but it is something that cannot be
done without the ability to forgive and forgive and forgive. When Esther died
she left very little of material value, but her legacy of forgiveness lasts. The
apple, as the saying goes, does not fall far from the tree; I can only hope to
live up to the trees from which I have fallen.
Copyright © 2004 Michael Wilt