Forgiveness Freed Me from Decades of Burden
Did you ever make an innocent mistake as a child that grew to haunt you as an adult? That’s what happened to me. I grew up in a plantation-like environment. There were many African American people who worked for my family, and they were not treated equally in my eyes. There were many people who lived out on “The Place”, as the farm was called. Even though I never lived on “The Place”, lots of the people who lived and worked there came into town and worked for my family. One of these people was a lady named Bea, who supposedly pushed my dad around in his baby carriage. She was born out on “The Place”. When I was a little girl, she would come on the weekends and take care of my siblings and me, as my parents went out every Saturday night. We had a bed in the hallway for Bea. It was a wide, long hallway, and to this day we call the bed, Bea’s bed.
This thin wool blanket is the one that was always on Bea's bed that was out in our hallway in our house for Bea to sleep on when she came to stay with me on the weekends. Fond memories!
We would go pick Bea up on Saturday afternoon, and she would stay with us until Sunday night after church when either my father or one of my siblings would drive her home. She lived not really that far from us, in the small town called College Station, named for the actual “station” where the students that attended Texas A&M College would get on/off the train. We lived in the sister city of Bryan, where we had paved streets. The road to Bea’s was mostly gravel as were the streets in her neighborhood. She lived in a wood frame house on the corner of Carolina and Holleman, with big green bushes around the perimeter of their yard. I loved for Bea to come on the weekends, as she was really good to me. She would tell me stories, Little Red Riding Hood or Brier Rabbit on Saturday night until I fell asleep. If I had a cold, she’d rub Bengay on what she called my feets. She also recited The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount as she was a very religious person. She was like a kindhearted grandmother to me. I loved just being with her.
Bea had three grandchildren, Johnny, Alton and Alma Jean. I think that Johnny left Texas after graduating from high school and moved to California. When I was about 5 years old, one Saturday night Johnny was in town and he came over to visit his grandmother at our house. We lived in the largest house in town. It was built in 1900 and it had an outhouse behind the house. The people who were employed by my family were expected to use that outhouse. Well, on this particular evening while Johnny was visiting his grandmother, he used the restroom in the house. My job, at that particular point in time in my life, was chief tattler. I had three older siblings, and it was my job to keep my parents informed of all the things that my siblings were doing wrong, or that they shouldn’t be doing, at least in my eyes.
Johnny was no exception. When he used the restroom in our house, I immediately ran upstairs and told my parents, because I knew that that was not right. Now, being the chief tattler, that was all I thought about, tattling. I never really thought about the consequences of my tattling. To my surprise, my father was very upset, and he immediately went downstairs and told Johnny that he knew better and he needed to leave. Johnny very graciously obeyed my father and left, cutting short his visit with his beloved grandmother. When I saw what happened, I felt ashamed of myself, as my mother often told me I should be. My parents finished getting ready and left the house for the Country Club and dinner. Bea and I were left alone at home. I don’t remember talking to Bea about how badly I felt, but I remember thinking how Johnny had come all this way to visit his grandmother and had been told to leave. Not only was he being punished, but Bea was being punished because of my behavior. I was guilty of tattling and causing this disappointment.
This incident was something that would occasionally surface briefly in my awareness, only to be pushed back in the recesses of my memories. I feel like I was carrying it as a burden for decades below my conscious awareness. A few years back, I started Women Healing the World and one of our missions is to heal race relations. I realized that I had to start with me. And not knowing anything else to do at the time, I began by writing stories, tributes, to the people who helped raise me, because I really do appreciate all they did for me. They were part of molding me into who I am today. I hope that they enjoyed taking care of me. I appreciate that they were always kind to me. Then, I started to write a story about Bea, and I remembered this incident with Johnny. All the guilt and shame came back again.
I decided that I would try to find Johnny and apologize. I managed to finally get a phone number for his sister, Alma Jean. It then took me another couple of weeks to feel like I had the courage to call her. Finally, when I did call, I was really upset, I had finally gotten up my nerve, and she was not taking calls at the time. I left a message unsure if she would ever call me back, but she did a day or so later. When I saw her name on my phone, I was so excited, I answered and we began catching up with each other.
She had moved to California but was now back in Texas living in Pearland. I finally said, “Could you give me Johnny’s phone number? I want to call him and apologize for an incident that happened when I was a little girl.” She said something like, “Oh, that. Yes. Okay, here’s his number.” I said, “You know what I’m talking about?” She said, “Oh, yes,” which made me feel even worse and concerned about his possible reaction. She and I finished our conversation and hung up, I was excited and scared at the same time.
Now I had Johnny’s phone number. I was filled with all sorts of emotions; excitement, then fear. I was thinking, “What if he is angry and yells at me? Maybe I should leave this alone and not stir up any trouble.” Then I decided I would call. This is something I need to do for me, if not for Johnny, if not for the African American community around here. I need to do it to let go of some of my guilt and shame. I dialed his number, and he answered. We chatted a few minutes about basically the weather, and then I asked him if he remembered the incident when I was a little girl when I tattled on him for using the restroom inside our house. He said yes, he remembered. I told him how sorry I was about that, and how sorry I was that my father made him leave, and how I had felt bad about that for years. I wanted to apologize to him.
He could not have been kinder. He said, “That was the way it was at that time.” And he understood why it happened. I said I didn’t understand how his race could repeatedly put up with our behavior that way. He said, again “it’s water under the bridge. It’s just the way it was at that time.” I asked him how he could always be so kind, his family always be so kind. He said, his mother was very religious and she would always remind him that someday we would know better. Someday we would know better. Well, hopefully we know better now, and are treating people better.
Johnny said he accepted my apology and my apology for my dad and my family. I said that I was always concerned about how my family treated people. Johnny said that my dad was good to them. He reminded me that Bea’s husband, his grandfather, ran the commissary. This was the “store” where all the people on the farm would get their groceries on Saturday morning. I didn’t remember that. What was amazing about him telling me that was that I’d had a strong flashback of that commissary as a child. Several months before, I was at a personal growth salon with Jean Houston. She asked us to go back to a time in our life that was still keeping us stuck in the present. I had a vision of a little girl standing in the doorway of the commissary between my grandfather and a black man. I was standing there picking up on all the positive and all the negative feelings that these two men felt towards one another, all the things that were going on in the energy field, and how confusing it was to me. Now I wonder if the black man in my vision was indeed Johnny’s grandfather, Will Richardson. Hopefully, someday I can maybe find a picture of him and see if that’s the vision that I had.
Johnny and I visited about going out to the farm sometime when he’s in town, and I asked if he would share with me stories from growing up. He did tell me that my dad was good to his family, that his grandfather would sometimes have too much to drink and end up in jail. I said, “Yes! I remember the phone calls on Sunday morning from the jail and my father would always say, “I’ll be there after church and lunch, to bail him out.” The calls weren’t always just about Johnny’s grandfather. This was any number of people who worked for my dad. Johnny and I laughed. He remembers being with his grandfather who yelled at my dad, “Hey, Mista Hollan, what you white folks doin’ today?” Then my dad would reply, “Now, how much money is it you want to borrow, Will?” What a conversation. Anyway, Johnny and I finally hung up the phone, with my asking him to please get in touch with me when he comes to town.
I felt so relieved. It wasn’t just the normal kind of relief. I noticed my whole body relax at a deeper level. I noticed what a deep breath I could now take. I felt this huge openness in my chest. It felt like all my cells had been watered, and that they were all juicy, and dancing, and electrified. I had a difficult time going to sleep that night, my body felt excited, like tomorrow would be Christmas!
I felt like this huge burden had been taken off of me. It didn’t happen all at once, but I noticed a new energy, a new release, and such happiness at having such a great conversation, such an open conversation. I do hope that this is the beginning of healing many race relationships, not just those that impacted me, but that have impacted many other people. I truly felt the body/mind connection. I had stored guilt and shame in my body for 62 years. It’s truly amazing what joy I felt, and how glad I was that I reached out and called Johnny to apologize.
As I was writing this, I am beginning to cry, wondering how they felt about me as they all had/have such a special place in my heart. I know Rodee, our housekeeper for the first nine years of my life loved me as she wrote to me and told me, I still have those letters. I am pretty certain that Bea loved me as I feel certain she came to tell me goodbye the night she died. I cry because I never told them how much they meant to me, all of them I hope that I was loving to them, as much as I was allowed to express and I think that I was entertaining, as I was a funny kid. I liked to make people laugh and smile. They brought love and joy to my life, I hope I did the same for them.