I'm washing dishes and start humming the haunting melody of a familiar song. The harmonies I hear in my head as I sing it are beautiful and complex, it's a song from my choir days in high school. As much as I enjoy the tune that often comes unbidden to my lips, the singing of it is always slightly bitter, a memory I'm unable to shake, to forget.
It's a Tuesday in May, my senior year in high school, I've been away for the long weekend. At lunch I go to the choir room for practice. Every year, every choir grad, no matter how good or bad a singer they are, sings a song with the others at graduation. As I walk in the girl leading the rehearsal glares at me. "You can't sing with us," she says, "you missed the first rehearsal, we already assigned parts."
I gape, wordless, undone by her tone. "I was out of town," I respond.
Helpless I gaze around the room looking for an ally. The teacher is away. My friends arranged on the risers silently avoid my gaze. Defeated I leave, part rehearsed, and go home and cry. On graduation day I sit silent in the folding chairs as my peers perform on stage. At the grad banquet my family and I are forced to find our own seats as all my friends sit at their reserved seating. Together. We sit with another girl and her parents that I barely know. Sometime that night my choir teacher suddenly realizes that I didn't sing that day and comments on it. Near tears I tell her that I didn't think I could, I was told I couldn't. Her response that I should have been up there only makes me feel worse; that she didn't notice until now, and that I didn't do something sooner.
I have no idea why that memory continues to bother me all these years later, but it does. Perhaps I just haven't truly forgiven the people involved, including myself. But I know it has shaped me. There's a part of me that will stand and fight that I know grew from that. In some cases it's probably more excessive than the situation demands. In some cases I am overly defensive and have needed to adjust to match reality. I know it's a bit of a puzzle some times to a few of the people who know me now.
I've been thinking about this because my mother was here. There are parts of her personality that are overly strident. I've been embarrassed often in her company by the way she takes a conversation and wrestles it into submission. Her mannerisms are so aggressive they sometimes border on rude. She can attack with words in a way that is debilitating. Yet, I know my mom, and in her heart she is none of these things. She is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet, always bending over backwards for others.
I'm beginning to understand the depth of the ways life has wounded her, especially in her youth, for it to have affected her interactions with people so. If every time she endured unkindness her response was to stick up for herself just a little more strongly the next time, I think of the depth of unkindness she must have endured in order to become the way she has. I know enough of her story; the things she experienced. And it's tragic and awful and painful. But I don't think I really empathized before I started connecting this silly little high school slight of mine, with all the things, large and small that she has told me about.
And while I still cringe when she does the things she does, I probably always will, I think I am beginning to truly be able to have compassion as well, for her and every other crusty, hard shelled, person out there. I guess that's always a good thing.