I have flip-flopped over the years between being angry at God (the gods) for allowing my mother to abandon me and blaming myself for not being the kind of daughter a mother would want to stay and protect. But as always, in anger and in guilt the truth looks simple. But it is not. It is far more complex.
It's as complex as knowing three decades later that God did not will my mother to walk out on her family and probably didn't try to change her mind. Leaving was her fate. Generations of abuse in her family and years of having no outlet to talk about it left her no choice as a frightened, defeated woman but to leave when the time came to decide.
My mother left, and for good reasons I've discovered over the years. But to say that God didn't make my mother leave is not to say that God wasn't present in her leaving. God was present, like a weaver spinning a complex but fanciful pattern on her loom, offering her, me, and our family the possibility of healing and laughter beyond our pain. That's as close to what faith means to me as I can think of-that is, learning to make peace with all that has happened to me in the past, but especially what happened at thirteen, and trying to wrest from that past a blessing for me, my family, and those who look to me. Sometimes we think God is silent when in fact we are the ones who remain silent to God by our refusal to listen to what our memories are trying to tell us.
We think we're gotten over the past and then something happens that lets us know we haven't gotten over it; we've just outlived it. But the memory, the sting, the sorrow never lags far behind; it sneaks up and seizes us at the most unlikely times, though we're too weary to think about it or too parched spiritually to find any worth in it. But there it is, demanding a hearing.
I was hooked on reading the book as my daughter was on hearing it read. The baby bird's question struck a chord in me. But one day when I noticed that my daughter was becoming inconsolable every time she overheard that I had to go out of town, I knew that the time had come to retire our favorite book. It was time to make her understand that there are different kinds of leaving, even though the author never bothers to make the distinction. There's a difference between a mother going to work (like the mother bird and me) and a mother going away for good (like my mother): that was my daughter's lesson.
But in a lesson for a then three-year-old was enfolded a revelation for her then forty-something mother. There is a difference between a mother leaving her daughter because she doesn't love her and a mother leaving a vicious cycle of abuse and neglect that makes her think she is unfit, incapable of caring for her five children whether she stays or leaves.
"Eventually it comes to you": what wounds us the deepest has also the power to bless us most profoundly. This is, as one writer put it, a saving mystery. Reversals occur in unexpected quarters. Whoever I have become-certainly the bad parts, but also the very, very good stuff-can be directly traced back to my mother walking out of our home thirty years ago. But whoever I have become is also more than the trauma of that memory. Also at work in me have been the gifts of love, patience, humor, tears, and dignity that were planted in me by other women (and men) sent by God to soothe my pain. What I, my sister, and my brothers lost when our mother left can never be fully tallied, and most certainly never recaptured. But what I and they found in one another, and in the people, church, and community that welcomed us motherless children, can never be taken away from us either.