Can We Change the Past? (Part 3)

August 31, 2012 1 Comment

In Part 2 of this blog post I related how my fifth grade principal, mistaken in his
belief that I was laughing at him (I was laughing at a classmate’s joke), struck me eight
or ten times with his open hand. My mother had promised to take action if anyone ever
abused me, but I told her what the principal had done and she never went to confront him.
Considering who she was, how bravely she faced so many other circumstances, I
couldn’t understand why she didn’t go. Years later, it remained with me as a perplexing
instance when my mother said one thing but did another.

With the passage of time, in this case three or four decades, I gradually began to
put this story beside other stories and see a very different picture. In that time women
certainly weren’t treated as equals. Many career paths simply weren’t open to my mother.
In addition, my parents were divorced. All in all, she may have decided to pick her
struggles wisely and concluded this vain (and obese) principal with his old guard,
country club friends would never apologize and might even be vindictive.

I realized how frustrating it must have been for her to be limited because she was
a woman. How thwarted she must have felt to need a husband to take an active role in
business or stand up to a man like the principal.

A few years earlier, at midlife, she had gone to college to get a teaching degree so
she could earn a living. When I was nine, she took a year off from college to create a
business making placemats. Money was always tight. She tried to borrow for the
business, but she couldn’t. Eventually it failed for lack of capital. All this had been going
on during the time I asked her to go to the principal.

I’ll never know exactly what went through her mind, but I no longer think of her
as having failed me. Rather, I see the difficulty of her situation and how she tried in so
many ways to move her life—and mine—forward.

So the event, the blows showering down on me, remains the same, but its
meaning is transformed. And with new meaning comes a reshaping of my story. Was it
untruthful before? Is it fully truthful now? With each metamorphosis of a life story we
shape anew the past and our own lives.


  1. Mary
    August 31, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Your story brought back a flood of memories of my own mother and my questions about why she stayed with my stepfather when he was so emotionally cruel to her and to my sister and me. She never answered but I realized many years later that she had no choice. She was never prepared to work outside the home and couldn’t have earned enough to support us if she had been able to find a job. Instead of harboring any resentment, as I had for years, I finally realized that she sacrificed her own happiness for our security. Who knows what would have happened to us if she had left him? My father left when I was three months and my sister three years old, leaving my mother alone and penniless. She struggled to take care of us and often couldn’t. It was the Great Depression. My sister had been living in an orphanage off and on and I had been in and out of foster homes for nearly three years when she married my stepfather and he rescued us from that. And since he wasn’t around all the time because he worked, all we had to do was try to avoid disturbing him on evenings and weekends. And as she reminded us when we complained, it was because of him we could all be together, with a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs–and a mother who was there for us day and night. Before she died, I finally told her I understood why she stayed. And I thanked her.


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