My father had a volatile temper. He could swing from good-natured and fun-loving to rage in two seconds flat. As children, my siblings and I often found dinnertime especially tense because if one of us did something to annoy him—like tip over a glass of milk—he’d start on the offending child and go around the table, using words that cut like the sharpest knife.
I still remember his exact words during one such incident. “I wish I could stuff you all into a gunny sack and throw you off a bridge into the river!”
Fast forward to the summer before my senior year in high school when we vacationed for two weeks with relatives in another state. For our last weekend, they had planned a family reunion. I told my dad I wanted to go swimming with the rest of the cousins my age before we all joined the others. I never saw this one coming until my father whipped off his belt. The welts and bruises lingered for six months. Although it hadn’t been the first such occurrence, the emotional scars and humiliation lasted well into adulthood.
Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of good memories of family times—abuse isn’t the point anyway. I simply want to give a couple of examples of what it was like living in my household and set the stage for what came later.
After I graduated high school, I got a job and moved in with some college friends, determined to prove my worth. Brick-by-brick, I built a new me, projected a confidence I didn’t feel. Tried to shut out the voice in my head that kept telling me I could never measure up. I created a successful career, married, and had a family. Whenever my wall crumbled in spots, I worked harder at shoring it up. I had a lot of happy, but even years later, even though I had an authentic relationship with my Jesus, real peace eluded me.
Until one Valentine’s Day—the sixth anniversary of my father’s death—when I learned the truth. I couldn’t work hard enough, or patch my wall fast enough to hold the memories at bay. Caught in waves of pain, I knelt at the side of my bed, sobbing. Please God, I want to feel whole.
As though a gentling hand touched my shoulder, I calmed. I knew, as surely as if I’d heard the words directly from God’s mouth. You need to forgive your father.
I thought I had. Certainly I’d tried through the years, but if I had truly forgiven, my past would have no power to hurt me. Throughout the day, as I pondered and prayed, I realized I had been working it all out myself without allowing the genuine healing God wanted for me. Did it really matter so much that I hadn’t had a Brady Bunch upbringing?
Suddenly I saw my father not so much as an abuser, but as the abused and hurting child he had been. A legacy he received and passed on to his children. I remember wondering what kind of legacy I would leave my own children. I hoped all three knew I loved them beyond words, but…did they?
As hard as it is to say, I have to admit that I carried my father’s legacy into my early parenting years. I worked hard to break the cycle, but I still lashed out at them in anger more than I wanted. By the time my third child was born, I had learned new skills. I avoided most of the mistakes I made with my boys, only to stumble onto new ones.
By the end of that Valentine’s Day, as every brick of the self-constructed me collapsed, I realized I no longer needed the wall. For the first time in my life I could face my past without plunging into the deep well of anguish that haunted me. God led me to those still waters of Psalm 23 because I chose to follow His lead. While forgiving my father didn’t make his actions okay, it did free me to grow closer to the ideal of the victorious woman God originally designed.
I wish I could say I parented perfectly after that. I wish. But today, I look at my two sons and daughter as adults, and know that God worked a miracle. They are genuinely good people who love God, each successful in their own way. As parents, though they certainly make their own mistakes, they are amazing.
Everyone I know has something to forgive, whether trauma or mere slight. You probably do as well. My advice? Don’t let it steal your joy, hold you back. Release it. God replaced my father’s legacy in my life with His own valentine legacy of forgiveness and love. Let Him do the same for you.