One summer night decades after I had begun the perilous job of raising my children, I was having dinner by the sea with two beloved friends. We were speaking, not of ourselves as parents, but about our own parents. Both my friends had adored their fathers but sorrowed over the grief they caused them. Bill had not wanted his old Arkansas father to visit him in his bohemian pad in New York, hurting his father deeply.
Bill had drifted far from his parents and his hometown, exchanging them for a whirlwind life as a foreign correspondent in Paris, Beiruit, and Moscow. But when Bill was older, he had written three letters telling his father what a perfect childhood he had given him. The writing of those letters was a tremendous consolation to Bill when his father died suddenly.
Barbara’s early disastrous marriages had tormented her father, but it was only years later, after she had her own children, that she understood his pain. Paradoxically, as her father saw Barbara’s inability to find a good partner, he quit drinking, finally sensing the damage his alcoholism had caused her. Great pain. Great love.
I told my friends that only when I was struggling with bills and children and jobs did I feel the burdens my undemonstrative father had carried since his own father’s early death. Only then did I feel a desire to bring some peace to my Dad’s life. I also spoke of my mother, whom I adored, bringing a tray with two glasses of lemonade to our summer porch, where I was reading hard in preparation for my graduate school exams. Though I knew she wanted to talk and while away the long afternoon with me, I was desperate to go on with my work. So we had a glass of lemonade and a quick chat before I went back to my books. I thought I would have forever to be with my mother, but she died that winter. Decades later, I had a dream about her love, which turned into a poem:
My mother writes me a letter,
a penance given her by the priest.
She’s pleased at her chance for redemption.
I tell her: You do not have to be sorry,
Mother. You have loved me so much.
But she pays me no mind.
She says: I am writing down
everything I did wrong to you.
Then she will give me the letter
and be forgiven. The priest
in the dark box does not tell my mother
she has not sinned, but gives her
a new way to love me. My mother,
dead now twenty years, spins
anew the cord between us,
confessing her lapses of love.
My friends and I confessed our own “lapses of love,” consoling each other as we drank our wine and looked out at the moon painting Provincetown Bay. All our parents were gone. They could no longer forgive us. Barbara and Bill and I felt our common sorrow, while at the same time we passed on to one another the love and acceptance that our parents had staked their lives on giving us, so many decades ago.
Mary Ann Larkin has published a full-length book, six chapbooks, and co-founded the Big Mama Poetry Troupe in the seventies. She earned her living as a writer (for NPR, NIH, National Geographic, Foundation News and others), and as a writing teacher, most recently at Howard University.