Atonement

It’s no secret that my mother and I had a difficult relationship. It had been years since we lived closer than three thousand miles. We had seen each other at best twice a year, so when she called me years ago on Yom Kippur, I let the answering machine pick up the call.

“It’s your mother.”

Always that flutter. What’s wrong? Is she dying? Hope. Fear. 

“Hi, Mom, what’s up?”

“I’m calling to wish you and yours a healthy prosperous New Year.” Mom liked making these kinds of formal pronouncements, you and yours a favorite phrase.

“Hey, thanks. Same to you.”

“And today, if you haven’t already forgotten your roots, is Yom Kippur.”

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement when Jews around the world  stand open and vulnerable before God, asking to be forgiven for our sins.

Mom always said that I had turned my back on my religion, but I hadn’t really. I observed Yom Kippur by fasting, lighting candles and asking Spirit to forgive me for the many ways I had fallen short of loving kindness during the previous year. I repeated the one line of prayer from the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead that I still knew by heart: Yis-gadal v’yis-kadash sh’may rabo. I mourned  my dead: my father, my grandmother, her mother before her, inviting all my ancestors into my heart, but I never tried explaining any of that to Mom.

“Nope, I haven’t forgotten. I’ve been fasting since sundown last night.”

There was a pause while she assessed whether or not I was bullshitting her.

“So what are you and Gene doing today?” I asked.

“What’s to do? We’ll go to Winn Dixie market and pick up a few things, and then maybe out for a quick bite.”

I wondered, apart from wishing us a happy New Year, why she had called. There was a tightness to her voice, a piano string tuned too taut.

“Well, happy Yom Kippur to you.” I was hoping to end the call before the string snapped, hoping to choke off all the words and more words I feared were lining up impatiently, waiting for their turn at the mic.

“It’s not a happy holiday. It’s the day we ask God to forgive our sins. And we ask others too.”

I remained silent, feeling a chill, like prey being stalked. 

“I’m calling, Nance,” she began formally, “to ask your forgiveness.” She sounded wooden, like she was reading off a telemarketing script.

The wind had picked up and I could hear bare branches shushing against the house. There would be no quick exit from this phone call.

“What are you asking forgiveness for, Mom?” I felt itchy, irritated.

Long pause. “I’m asking you for forgiveness,” she repeated, sounding less sure of herself.

“I heard you, Mom. What I’m asking you is if you have any idea what you’re asking forgiveness for.” What if she had already had a few drinks and was simply being sentimental and sloppy pious? I wasn’t feeling particularly benevolent or inclined to dole out generic forgiveness for so many of the things I could be very specific about.

“For my sins.” She sounded lost, a child repeating a phrase without understanding its meaning.

I felt a surge of anger. She had never been repentant for anything she had said or done. She had never thought she was wrong. She had bitten every hand extended in love.

“For what?” I persisted. “I’m trying to understand, Mom, I really am. Just answer the question. What are you asking forgiveness for?” But my blood was surging and I wasn’t really trying to understand. She was sorry in general, a nice way to cover her ass with God without needing to take responsibility for anything in particular.

“I’m sorry I called. This didn’t go as I had planned.” Her voice had turned hard. “I thought I could call you on Yom Kippur and ask for your forgiveness and we would be able to understand each other better. To finally have the relationship with you I’ve always wanted. But I can see now that you’re not ready.” She was wounded, and I was the beast with fangs.

“No, wait. Just tell me which sins you want me to forgive.” The aggression in my voice was hot, spiked.

“Forget it. This was a bad idea.”

No shitsky.

We sat in silence having arrived again, always, at that most familiar of destinations: a dead-end street littered with broken glass and sirens wailing in the distance. Trying to unravel one of these conflicts with Mom was like pulling a thread out of a giant ball of yarn. Back and back we would go, back to her well of grief, back to the disappointment I had been to her, back to my father’s death, back to her mother who tried to abort her with a coat hanger, back, all the way back to our ancestors who wept in the dark and did not know how to say I’m frightened, please hold me as they watched their village burn.

She switched to her cheerful out-in-the-public voice. “Okay, well, I just called to wish you and yours a healthy, happy New Year.”

“Okay, Mom. Happy New Year to you too.”

We hung up. I walked out into the wind and the sharp burnt smell of autumn. There was a stone in my heart, the familiar weight of our failure to reach each other.

It was a phone call I would replay over and over again in the years following Mom’s death. It’s a phone call I replay today on Yom Kippur as I contemplate what it must have taken for her to make that call. And so here I stand before Spirit asking for forgiveness. What might have happened if I had been quieter, more willing to listen to what she was trying to say. What would happen if I really really get quiet now and listen to what everyone is trying to say, underneath their words, their confusion, their pain, even when I disagree with them. What would happen if I were willing to extend a moment of understanding and compassion to someone coming with a broken heart, asking only to be seen. 

There is wailing and chanting among the angels tonight. The wind is howling and reaching deep under our skin pushing us to a brink where we have not stood before. Perhaps no one has stood here before, with the world falling apart and together at the same rate of love and sorrow. Perhaps nothing like this has been asked of us before. That we stand open and vulnerable before our God or Goddess or Spirit or Consciousness and ask for forgiveness, ask to be cleansed of judgment, of hatred, of bias, of racism, of hypocrisy and all the isms and shoulds and barriers and denials that have gotten us here in the first place. Perhaps this is the comfort the Kaddish offers…the possibility of loss and regeneration, mourning and rejoicing, our hearts opening to the other until the lines are blurred and we meet out in the field as one, in love.

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