“I HATE YOU!”
My wife and I were on the back porch when we heard the commotion inside the house. Like most brothers and sisters, 16-year-old Doug and 13-year-old Laura argued from time to time, so we ignored them.
“I didn’t mean to lose your frisbee,” Doug said. “Sure you didn’t,” she replied, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Michael and I were tossing it in the front yard. I threw it crooked. It sailed into the street and rolled into the sewer. We tried to get it out. Honest, Laura:”
I could hear Laura stalking across the den floor toward the back door. Swinging it open, she exclaimed to me, “Daddy, Doug threw my frisbee into the sewer.” “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose,” I said. “He did, too,” she insisted. Doug came outside. “I tried to tell her it was an accident.”
Laura thrust her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Then why did you sneak into my room and steal it? I’d already told you that you couldn’t borrow it.” “I didn’t steal it,” Doug maintained. Laura turned to me. “He did, too, Daddy.”
“Did you take it from her room, Son?” I asked. He lowered his head. “Well…” “Did you?” I asked again. “He sure did,” Laura exclaimed.
Joye said, “We want to hear what Doug has to say.” She looked at Doug. “Did you take her frisbee?” He gave us a sheepish look. “Yeah.” “I believe you owe your sister an apology,” I said, giving him a stem look. “I tried to apologize, Dad,” he said. “I even tried to pay for the frisbee. But she refused to accept either one.” “Is that right, Laura?” I asked. He stole my frisbee, Daddy. Then he threw it into the sewer on purpose.”
“I don’t think he meant to lose it, Laura.” I wrapped an arm around her shoulder. ”The Bible teaches us to forgive.” “I know. But I’m still mad at him.” Her refusal to forgive surprised me.
This wasn’t like her. Most of the time she had her mother’s easy-going disposition, and I thought she would soon get over it. But three days later she was still upset with Doug.
I was lecturing her about Christ expecting us to forgive those who have wronged us when the phone rang. It was my cousin, Clarence. “I wanted to remind you about the family reunion this weekend,” he said. “We can count on you and your family being there, can’t we?” I assured him that we would be there. As an afterthought I asked who would be there. He said it would be the same group as always. Then he remembered that our Aunt Gusty was coming down from Tennessee. “You remember her, don’t you?”
Oh, no, I thought. She’s the last person I want to see. I had never liked her. She lived with my family off and on when I was a boy. For some reason, she received pleasure from making me feel that I was considerably less than I should be. She often compared me unfavorably with my older brother, the star pitcher on our high school baseball team and an “A” student. “I guess the Lord must have run out of brains when he got to you,” she told me over and over again.
“Are you still there?” Clarence asked, interrupting my reverie. “Uh …yes.” “OK, then we’ll see you at-”
“Clarence!” I blurted out. “Yes?” “I just remembered. I’ve got something I have to do this weekend. It’s… uh …a business seminar. I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to make it to the reunion this year.” He said he regretted that we wouldn’t be able to come, but he understood.
As I placed the phone back on the receiver I felt a presence behind me. I turned to see Joyce and the children staring at me, a puzzled look on their faces.
Joyce asked why we weren’t going to the family reunion. I told her that I’d for gotten about the seminar. Doug said that my mother had called yesterday to say that she was looking forward to the reunion. Trying hard to keep a straight face, I said that I had forgotten to tell her about the weekend seminar, too.
Guilt followed me the rest of the week. I couldn’t look my wife in the eye. We had always been honest with each other. So it hurt to tell her a lie. And the children and Mom had been looking forward to the reunion. It had always been the highlight of the year.
I wanted to tell Joyce the truth. Several times I almost did. But each time I changed my mind. I thought I had matured to the point that I no longer held grudges even against Aunt Gusty .
Now, I knew better.
This revelation about myself shocked me. When I accepted Christ I believe I had come to terms with the side of me that holds grudges. Grudges? It was even worse than that. Admit it, I told myself, you really hate her. Now I was feeling low for deceiving my wife and family AND for hating Aunt Gusty as well. At supper Friday night, Joyce sat gazing thoughtfully at me. I had never been able to keep anything from her for very long. And under her steady gaze my front began to crumble.
After the meal I took her aside and told her the truth. I still did not want to go to the reunion. But, she finally convinced me that I needed to confront this person who had caused me to carry this anger buried deep inside me for so long.
I slept haltingly that night. Every time I fell asleep the sour face of Aunt Gusty flashed before me, and I’d awake in a cold sweat. The next morning we picked my mom up and headed for the north Georgia mountains. I was in a pensive mood, so Mom played a game with Joyce and the children that she used to play with me and my brothers and sister long ago. Each cow or horse they spotted counted a point. A church counted five points, 10 points if it had a cemetery.
After the game was played twice, Mom got out the Bible she always takes with her. She read to herself for awhile. Mom has a habit of reading aloud when she comes across a verse that hits home with her. So she read Psalm 79:5. “Wilt thou be angry forever?” Without looking up, she went back to reading to herself.
It was a little past one when we turned onto the narrow gravel road leading to the old wooden church. It stood on a hill overlooking a small cemetery dotted with gray tombstones of the Honeas, my mother’s family. Behind the church a meandering stream and a long row of weather-beaten tables flanked a spacious grassy yard.
Gravel crunched under the station wagon’s tires as I drove up to the church. I parked in the only space available near the church. We had encountered heavy traffic on the way to pick up my mother, and we were the last ones to arrive. “Hey, Sis,” Mom called out to a stoop-shouldered woman trudging up a pebble path to greet us. Mom climbed out of the car and embraced her older sister.
Thank God, it’s not Aunt Gusty, I told myself.
While Joyce accompanied my mother to meet the rest of her family, the children helped me unload the food and folding chairs from the trunk. It seemed to me that we had brought enough food to feed all of the 60 relatives who usually showed up. We lugged the food over to the tables.
The tables were already covered with black-eyed peas, butter beans, golden corn on the cob and just about every vegetable a garden could grow. The children’s eyes were glued to the last table, which overflowed with cakes and pies. As I greeted my relatives, I glanced out of the comers of my eyes for Aunt Gusty.
It had been years since I’d last seen her. She had been living in Tennessee for the past 20 years, but I was certain I would be able to recognize her. She had always been, as far as I could remember, a short, stout woman with thin lips that rarely relaxed into anything remotely resembling a smile.
No Aunt Gusty.
Maybe she changed her mind about coming, I thought. My mother’s oldest brother, who bore a striking resemblance to Jed Clampet of the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV show, usually gave the blessing for the food.
“I’d like to ask my sister, Gusty, to bless the food today,” he announced.
A thin woman with bony arms and a chalk-white face rose slowly from her seat directly across from me. I never would have guessed her to be Aunt Gusty. Later, I learned that she had recently been diagnosed as having liver cancer, and she only had a few more months to live, which was why she had decided to make this family reunion.
As she prayed, I kept my eyes on her, amazed at the sharp contrast of what I had expected her to look like and how she really looked. She spoke in a raspy voice. It was painful for her to speak and the prayer didn’t last long. After the meal, the older people sat around talking about their childhood. My cousin, Clarence, got up a volleyball game. We played for an hour.
It was close to 4:00 when everybody began tramping up the hill to the church. Clarence’s wife took her usual station on the wobbly stool in front of an old piano. The church was soon filled with the joyful sound of my favorite hymns, “Bringing In The Sheaves,” “Sweet Hour Of Prayer,” “That Old Rugged Cross” and many more.
We were bellowing out “Standing On The Promises” when Aunt Gusty came over and stood next to me. Leaning down, she whispered, “Could I have a word with you?”
I pretended not to hear her.
“Please talk to me, Leon.”
I looked up into her wrinkled face. Maybe she’ll go away, I thought.
So I continued singing, as if she was not there, but she wouldn’t go away. Soon heads began turning in our direction.
”OK,” I said resignedly, getting up and following her outside the church. We stood on the top step. I didn’t trust myself to speak. So, I said nothing. She finally broke the silence. “I’ve thought about you a lot lately.” Not knowing what to say, I asked, “How have you been?” ”Tolerably well.”
Then, she added, ”I know you must hate me, and I don’t blame you if you do. But, I’m an old woman now, and I don’t have much longer to live.” She looked deep into my eyes. “Please…” She stopped and coughed a painful cough. “Please; forgive me,” she said, wiping the heels of her hands at the tears springing from her eyes. The door was partially open. I glanced back inside the church where my family sat. Doug and Laura sat together holding hands, their confrontation the other day finally forgotten. I thought about the lecture on forgiveness I’d given Laura less than a week ago.
Turning back to Gusty I said, “All I ever wanted was you to love me.” “I did, Leon. I just didn’t know how to show it.” She reached out for my hand. I didn’t resist as she cupped it in her bony hands. “I was saved a few months ago. God forgave me.” Her tears started up again. “Now, I need you to forgive me. Please.” “I…” Tears erupted from my eyes. I stabbed at them with my fingers but they rolled over my fingers and down my face. “I forgive you, Aunt Gusty.” As the words crossed my lips I felt a warm feeling washing over me, cleansing me of the bitterness I had felt for this woman. Holding her hand, I led her back inside the church.
Heads turned as we sat in the pew with my family. I could feel the collective love of four generations of family reaching out to us. Aunt Gusty requested her favorite hymn, and soon the old church was rocking to the joyful sound of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” We closed with “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” After the last strains of the old hymn were sung, everybody stood and held hands. No one wanted to leave. We spent the next 15 minutes hugging each other. Slowly, families said their goodbyes and began piling into their cars.
My family was the last one to leave. Before we left, we strolled through the cemetery. Mother pointed out where she wanted to be buried next to her parents. Savoring the beauty of the moment, we stood around in a tight circle awhile longer. Then we climbed into the station wagon and headed for home. The car was chugging up a steep mountain road when my mother took her Bible from her purse, and read aloud again.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. Doug and Laura held hands while they listened to her read. The glow on their faces brought a smile to my lips. My wife asked if we wanted to sing some more. We all agreed that we’d like to. “Pick a hymn, Leon,” Mom said, placing her Bible back into her purse. I thought about Aunt Gusty . “How about ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”‘ We sang it all the way home.
This story was originally published in Brigade Leader, Winter 1990