I Had To Forgive My Mother In Order To Find True Love

My life was an interminable disaster until I got this right.

photo of author with mother Courtesy of the Author

She evaporated in a puff of smoke when I was barely 18 months old. Like many kids who grow up without any knowledge of one of their parents, I wondered what I did to cause her to bail.

Silly, I know. All I did back then was toddle around and struggle to master potty training. And eat. Probably quite a bit.

She popped in and out of my life infrequently from the time I could barely remember until I was six. Those memories are fuzzy, monochromatic snapshots in my mind now.


One shows us celebrating my fourth birthday one-on-one at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor at McCain Mall. In another, I’m five and we’re making brownies in her tiny kitchen as Little House on the Prairie droned on from her 13-inch black and white TV tucked under her faded, chipped kitchen cabinet next to the stove.

My last childhood memory of my mother was the worst: her holding me by the back of my neck as my dad pulled into her driveway to pick me up from a very brief Christmas Day visit. He was five minutes past the agreed-upon time for pickup — a fact she very tersely reproached him for.


“I’m not your (expletive deleted) babysitter!” she growled from the side of her mouth that did not contain a half-smoked Marathon cigarette. “Don’t come back here until you can learn to be on time!”

She half-pushed me toward him, threw a “Love you, son!” over her shoulder, and slammed the door behind her.

Ten years passed before I saw her face again.

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I learned quickly after that to stop asking my dad why she didn’t want to see me. He has since told me that he was grateful for that last moment — it relieved him of the need to explain to me why we were alone.


“You were finally old enough to see it for yourself,” he said. “Maybe you didn’t understand it, but you definitely experienced it that day.”

My father remarried when I was nearly eight years old. He was traveling one weekend and met the love of his life in a restaurant.

He fell head over heels for her almost at first sight, and they began a whirlwind courtship that lasted all of two months. She brought her daughter with her, and two years later they had a baby together that set our family at five.

He gained a little statewide notoriety in 1991, the year I turned 16. He was on the front lines of the technology craze, which brought with it a threat that would only get worse as society moved fully into the electronic age: computer viruses.


One of the three network affiliates in Little Rock dialed him up for an interview after the only statewide newspaper ran a piece on his efforts to combat this threat.

He gave a short but highly informative interview on why this was such a problem and what people could do to avoid it, and they posted our home phone number on the screen below him for anyone who needed more information.

The phone didn’t really ring very much after that piece ran, but one particular phone call swept in and disrupted life as my whole family knew it. The way my dad told it, she was desperate to see me. There was even talk of doing right by me financially with a gift that would enable me to car shop for the first time in my life.

We took a meeting with her at The Kettle, a popular local restaurant on the outskirts of Little Rock one Thursday afternoon. I missed school that day — well, all except for basketball practice.


She arrived 15 minutes late, ordered coffee and dismissed the waitress with a backward wave of her hand, and favored me with a cold stare.

“You’re tall,” she said. “And you look nothing like your father.”

Those were the first words she had spoken to me in almost a decade, and they were not kind. For the next hour, she said nothing else to me. She opted instead to reminisce with my father on how great the 1970s had been.

When she finally got back around to me, she leveled with me about why we were meeting.

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“My grandmother is dying,” she said. “She has demanded that I make sure all my children come to see her before she dies. If I don’t, I will not inherit her estate.”


She reiterated that there would be something in it for me if I played ball: $5,000, to be exact. Then she offered me a tarnished brass broach her mother had left her when she passed away. I politely declined — dead people’s left-behind junk never interested me.

I went to see my biological great-grandmother.

It had nothing to do with the promise of money, either — my dad and I both knew I was never going to see that money anyway. I had questions, and I hoped this dying woman would be gracious enough to answer them. I came away from that visit with a clear understanding of exactly what tree my mother fell out of.

The last time I spoke to my biological mother, I was 38 and within two days of witnessing the birth of my third and final child. She got my phone number from Facebook and cold-dialed me. She was in failing health and felt I should know that.


She was not the slightest bit interested in me, my children, or anything not having to do with her own situation. She didn’t want to have a conversation — she just needed an emotional toilet to dump into.

Her failing health held out for another five years before she finally expired in February of 2021. A series of strokes landed her in an invalid care nursing home and slammed a decisive door in the face of any hopes that we might still talk out our differences and find healing between us.

It turns out, that healing came for both of us in the form of her death. She suffered no more from physical pain, and I finally found the ability to release her and ease my own emotional distress.

Forgiveness is the one thing I have struggled with in every adult relationship I’ve ever had. Extending it to others was beyond my ability; truly accepting it from others was even harder.


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I wasted so many years just marinating in my own misery.

If I hurt someone and they called me out on it, I became defensive and turned on them, exacerbating the situation. If someone hurt me, I ran for the hills. It never occurred to me that there was a reason my biological mother could not connect with me emotionally, and I never thought to ask her that question when she was still physically able to answer it.

I have spent the last year and a half doing my homework in the 1970s.

It turns out, that most late-term teenagers and 20-somethings struggled in much the same way.


Culturally, a lot was going on in those days. Vietnam was still a fresh wound, as was the Watergate scandal. The economy was in shambles. Many people coped with all of this in some very destructive ways, including recreational drug use.

This was certainly the case with her. No, that does not excuse what she did to my dad and didn’t do for me my whole life, but it does at least partially explain it. See, in order to truly forgive her, I had to understand a few things.

For starters, I needed to understand her. She never offered any information that would’ve helped any of this make sense, but something about her death made me suddenly care to find out.

I spoke with people who actually knew her, and that is where I began to understand that I wasn’t her problem — she was.


Another thing I needed to figure out was what kind of person I was ultimately going to allow this story to make me.

Once I opened that creaky door in my mind, I came face to face with some hard truths about myself. I was 45 years old, divorced more than once, and had been telling myself for most of my adult life that all those failures were her fault.

My mother never loved me,” I reasoned. “Of course, I don’t know how to love others!”


I was making excuses for my own shortcomings and emotionally billing her for the cost. It was a bill I knew she would never pay, so I was unconsciously passing that cost on to anyone else who tried to love me.

That realization knocked the wind out of me. She was gone, as were most of the people who unwisely tried to do life with me. I could do nothing to fix those relationships, but I still had a responsibility to my present wife, my children, and myself to search my heart and find the forgiveness that was sorely lacking in my story.

I needed to forgive her. I needed to forgive her lack of presence in my life growing up.

The skinned knees, the tears, my first breakup, and the first time I ever drove a car — all the things she missed.


I needed to forgive the unkind words she offered in nearly every memory I ever had of her. I had been making this such an impossible task when really all I had to do was just stop hating her for those things. I released her from them, and a burden instantly left me.

I needed to forgive myself for all the years I wasted on this sad tale. All the hearts I broke because I was too immature and egotistical to be real about it all. It was time to acknowledge that the bad decisions I made in my adult life were on my ledger, not hers.

Well into my 40s, I finally realized it was time to grow up, let go, and love fiercely and fearlessly.

I finally forgave my mother for being a broken vessel. I finally forgave myself for growing up hard. In so doing, I learned to authentically love for the first time in my life.


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Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy and Associated Press Media Editors Award-winning journalist.