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Woman Set Free by Learning to Forgive

There is a powerful scene near the end of Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. Hannah, the main character of the book, experienced profound mistreatment from her stepmother, Ivy. Hannah held onto the resentment for years until one day she encounters Ivy as an older woman in a grocery store. Wendell Berry writes:

Ivy was wearing a head scarf and a dress that hung on her as it would’ve hung on a chair. She was shrunken and twisted by arthritis and was leaning on two canes. Her hands were so knotted they hardly looked like hands. She was smiling at me. She said, “You don’t know me, do you?”

I knew her then, and almost instantly there were tears on my face. I started feeling in my purse for a handkerchief and tried to be able to say something. All kinds of knowledge came to me, all in a sort of flare in my mind. I knew for one thing that she was more simple-minded than I had ever thought. She had perfectly forgot, or had never known, how much and how justly I had resented her. But I knew in the same instant that my resentment was gone, just gone. And the fear of her that was once so big in me, where was it?

“Yes, Ivy, I know you,” I said, and I sounded kind.

I didn’t understand exactly what had happened until the thought of her woke me up in the middle of that night, and I was saying to myself, “You have forgiven her.” I had. My old hatred and contempt and fear that I kept so carefully so long, we’re gone, and I was free.

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