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Honoring a Mother Beyond the Heartache

Myra Langley Johnson writes in the article "Honor My Mother?":

As our Bible study group began focusing on the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, I felt pretty smug. After all, I didn't worship more than one God, steal, commit adultery or murder, lie about my neighbors, or plot to cheat them out of what was rightfully theirs. But one evening we came to the command to honor our father and mother (v. 12). Against my will, I thought of my mother, who'd passed away ten years earlier. Honor her, when I felt more relief than sorrow at her death? The tears I cried at her funeral were those of an adult daughter who had never heard the words I most needed from her: "I'm proud of you."

My birth was Mother's "midlife surprise." When my father died less than four years later, I gave her a reason to go on. But in many ways my mother treated me like a small adult, and our relationship developed into an unhealthy codependency. Her attempts to shelter me from the world's influences only fueled my insecurities; I grew from a spoiled child into an anxious, introverted adolescent.

Complicating matters, Mother battled deteriorating health and depression, but because of the rigid faith-healing religion she adhered to, she shunned medical intervention.

By the time I reached my teens, my mother had sunk into a state of apathy. The more I attempted to earn her praise—with high grades, awards, and interscholastic competitions—the more rejected I felt by her indifference. During my senior year, I earned a major role in a drama production that she never attended. Her only explanation was, "I didn't feel up to it."

The following years were the same. When at age 20 I met the man I'd later marry, my mother openly resented him. Her bigoted remarks about his ancestry horrified us both. During more rational moments, she showed brief motherly interest in our wedding plans, but at the last minute threatened not to attend. I cursed the cruelty of a God who took away my father and left me with an ill, elderly mother who seemed impossible to please.

After my wedding, Mother's downward spiral continued. Our visits usually deteriorated into criticisms about how I raised my children, reproach for my leaving the church in which she'd raised me (my husband had led me to a true faith in Christ), and unfavorable comparisons to other family members who "obviously" loved her more than I did. …

Mother's health finally worsened to the point she committed herself to a nursing home. I attempted a few family visits, hoping she'd enjoy seeing her granddaughters. But she showed little interest in them and often received me with such hostility that I left in tears. Congestive heart failure finally ended her life; she died a bitter, lonely woman. …

At my mother's funeral, I studied her features as she lay in the casket. Even in death, her lips seemed pressed into a condemning frown, the same embittered expression that stared back at me from her last professional photograph. Two years after her death, a job-related move took my husband and me to another city. I didn't even unpack the portrait, but hid it away in a box in the attic. …

Finally, that night at the Bible study, I came face-to-face with my hardened heart. To harbor contempt and anger, to shut someone out of your life and memory because of perceived hurt or injustice—these aren't the heart attitudes of forgiveness. I knew firsthand they punish the "victim" far more than the "villain." I left the Bible class that night convicted to the core. …

But how was I to honor—to love, respect, and esteem—a parent I held responsible for so much heartache? I began by admitting I needed God's help not only to confront my feelings toward her but also to confess my selfishness and lack of compassion. I acknowledged with gratitude that she gave me life and nurtured me the best she was able. I took into account the factors that had shaped her life, not the least of which were her own dysfunctional parents and later the lure of religious teachings that distorted God's truth.

The fact is, there are no perfect human parents, so I had no right to expect perfection from my mother. Since sin entered the world, every succeeding generation has carried its own "baggage" into parenthood. Hadn't I done so with my children? As desperately as I wanted not to repeat my mother's mistakes, when I battled recurring bouts of anger, resentment, and depression, my family inevitably suffered.

The next step was to let my mother back into my life, emotionally if not physically.

Resolutely I climbed the attic stairs to retrieve her portrait, carried it to my desk, and stared at it a long time.

I'm sorry, I silently told my mother. I haven't honored you. I've tried to push you from conscious thought. I forgive you, and I pray you've also forgiven me for turning away from you. I want your memory to be a part of my life.

An incredible peace filled me as God enabled me to do what I couldn't do on my own: remember my mother with love. Suddenly I saw her as God created her to be, and was able to forgive—and in a small way forget—the hurtful things that had passed between us. Then an even more amazing thing happened. The bitter, condemning frown I'd always seen in Mom's portrait now appeared as a serene smile. In my mother's eyes I saw the acceptance and approval for which I'd yearned.

Did the picture change? No. Nor were past hurts wiped out. What changed was my perception of the past, which in turn has positively affected my present and future. In forgiving and honoring her, I'm breaking the chains of bitterness in my life.

My greatest regret is that I was unable to reach this place of forgiveness while my mother was still alive. For other adult children of "difficult" parents, there may still be time—even if you see little hope that he or she ever will become the loving, responsive parent for which you long.

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