My grandfather was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). For those of you who might not know the KKK was a terrorist organization that tortured and murdered mostly African Americans but they weren’t fond of a lot of people including Native Americans, Jews and Latino/as.
I come from a tradition where teaching and learning mostly happens in two ways: 1) role modeling and 2) storytelling. Before Europeans arrived there was no written language in which the content of linguistic utterance is encoded. Ways of recording stories sometimes took the form of complex mnemonic symbols, art, design and mapping within pictographs, wampum belts, sacred birchbark scrolls, beadwork or art.
Stories could be age-old, also passed down through generations in the oral tradition or they could be fresh and new, made up for the occasion. They could recount personal experience or history. In some stories the facts of history were less important than the meaning and purpose of the story; what it could teach you.
People would take away what they needed from a story in that moment. Storytellers would make an effort to offer stories that were meaningful to the people in that time and place.
So in this tradition I have a story to offer you on the issue of forgiveness. It’s a personal story and you can take what you need and want from it.
The story relates to my mother who is half Portuguese, 1/4 Scottish and 1/4 Amish. She grew up in the 30’s and 40’s in a relatively isolated area on a farm. Her dad owned a chain of gas stations, so they did well economically during the depression.
My mother was horrifically abused as a child. I’m sure she’s only told me a fraction of the stories. Her collarbone was once broken when she was kicked down the stairs by her mom. Kicking was a form of punishment in her family. Authorities came on a few occasions to investigate the abuses committed on my mom but no one ever removed her from the home.
I’m sure that abuse came from somewhere and violence had been in the family for some generations. My grandfather was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). For those of you who might not know the KKK was a terrorist organization that tortured and murdered mostly African Americans but they weren’t fond of a lot of people including Native Americans, Jews and Latino/as. I don’t know if my grandfather ever participated in a lynching or tortured anyone. But that violence was part of his identity and he was complicit in the crimes committed by his organization.
After my mother married a man who was half African American and half Cherokee, she was disowned and shunned by her family. So we didn’t know them. After my parents divorced my grandparents visited us only once when I was 13. They didn’t want us to visit them because they didn’t want to have to explain us brown children to the neighbours. In that one visit I met a couple of cold hearted old people who advised me on wearing colours that didn’t make me look too dark and that I should marry a white man so my kids would be light skinned.
Anyway, to state the obvious, I was not endeared to my grandparents. They were strangers to me, they didn’t occupy my thoughts and whenever my mother brought up the subject I didn’t feel any affection for them.
Fast forward 35 or so years and I was having some difficulty with one of my sons. The last of my three sons to move out was taking a very long time to do it. At the age of 23 he wasn’t working or looking for work or going to school or being responsible for himself in any way. He was pleasant to live with but as a single mom who had raised 3 boys I was tired of supporting him. And I was very stressed about the idea of kicking him out, even though I’d had dreams that verified for me that this parasitical relationship we had wasn’t healthy for either one of us. But I was afraid to do it, mostly because I didn’t want to destroy our relationship.
One day I had a dream/vision where my white grandfather came to me. I knew it was him because even though I’d only met him once, I’d seen family photos. There were two impressions or messages that stood out in the experience for me. One was this sense of surprise that he “told” me he had felt when he died. What he “said” more or less was that in his lifetime he’d always invested a lot in his identity as a white man. But when he died he was shocked and surprised to finally recognize that he was neither white nor male. He felt he’d missed something by holding on so tightly to this identity all of his life.
The other “message” I got was this overwhelming feeling of regret and sadness about the relationship he’d had with his daughter, my mom. He felt he’d missed out on something very special by not having a good relationship with her. Then he offered me assurances that my relationship with my son was not like that and that we weren’t going to turn out like him and my mom. So that was a very interesting spirit teaching for me.
Eventually I asked my son to leave. He was annoyed at first but it’s now three years later and we have a good relationship. More importantly he’s working and feeling good about himself.
Though I think that story might have many teachings (some I still have to excavate for myself), I think it speaks strongly to the idea of forgiveness. So, in the way of our Elders, I’ll let you sort out how for yourself.