Hardest Thing I’ve Done

We pass the spot every time one us takes the dog for a walk. About thirty yards to the south, we see her house whenever we are coming or going. It’s the place where my husband fell on the ice and broke his ankle. Moments before he’d stepped out to take the dog for a quick walk so we could make a movie matinee. Six weeks later it still fills me with rage and resentment.

No, I’m not angry that he fell — accidents happen. I resent our neighbor for ignoring him on an icy sidewalk in front of her own house. She passed by within feet of him — twice — without saying a word. Not even a polite, “Are you okay?” These many weeks later I’m still seething about the three people in the car who were dropping her off just as I was arriving in response to my husband’s call for help. Not one of the chauffeurs even acknowledged that someone was obviously down and hurt on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The only offer of help came from a different neighbor who ran out of a house from across the street. Seeing an ankle at an awkward angle and recognizing the signs of shock, he wisely advised us to go directly to the ER rather than Urgent Care and took the dog after helping lift my husband into the car. The compassion and generosity of this neighbor doesn’t begin to quell the seething resentment I hold toward the other.

As with so much anger, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone. It just festers. My husband sings my praises for my patience, kindness, generosity and good care shown to him. He’s even told others that he lives with a saint. I silently take it all in.

Another thing we haven’t spoken about is that all the wonderful qualities he praises in me can just as easily be the shadow side of my persistent desire to be in control and to be seen as perfect. As the 1930s radio hit The Shadow introduced every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Yes, it does.

Not far below my carefully crafted persona lurks a robust ego and a heart capable of all manner of revenge. That’s ever-present as I wish that our neighbor would fall on the ice so I’d have the chance to obliviously walk by her. It flashes forth as I plot nasty vendettas each time I walk the dog past her house. It’s barely constrained while rehashing all sorts of nasty gossip I know about the woman. This virulent undertow reveals my vengeful side, belies a deep familiarity with eye-for-an-eye morality.

After all, I’m certainly justified and in the right! Am I not? My efforts over the past six weeks have been pretty decent and generous. Yet, we must also be honest. My motives can be much less virtuous than they appear. Yes, I have tried hard and do think I’ve been a patient, generous, attentive care-giver — a loving and supportive husband. I am a good guy — though sainthood is probably down the road a piece!

Here’s what I’d like my husband to know… on this morning’s walk with the dog past our neighbor’s house on the sidewalk where he fell, I noticed that her Sunday paper was much closer to the street than her porch. It’s been this way many Sundays so this was nothing special. But today I paused, suppressed my raging thoughts, leaned over, picked it up and tossed the paper to her front door.

“Honey, just so you know, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do during the past six weeks.”

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!