I remember one Sunday morning in 1987. It was the first time I’d attended this church. The Capitol’s dome stood proudly to my left as I walked through the grand wood door entrance. Kyle was nine months old. I’d dressed him in a beautiful heavy yellow sweater, turtleneck, suspenders, and black pin striped pants. It was the perfect Sunday church outfit for a little boy and I’d been saving it for the day I’d have the courage to walk in alone. I popped him on my shoulders and we walked the few blocks from our new home on 2nd Street SE. We giggled and sang the whole way there.
The service was fine. If you like polite. I didn’t sense the Holy Spirit make an entrance or have a good laugh, for that matter, but I couldn’t complain. It was a traditional church in DC so my expectations were limited. At the very least, it was a chance to make some new friends.
I’m sure I looked lost as I stood there, Kyle’s hand in mine, scoping the crowd after the service let out. Setting my sights on someone to approach wasn’t as easy as I thought. It can be so freaking lonely to be the new person. Kyle and I were doing a 360 when a stately looking woman in a black and white checkered suit approached me. She immediately blurted out, “I hope that’s not all you have on that boy.” I laughed and said, “Yes, ma’am. His sweater is very warm and we’re Norwegian.” I obviously took it lightheartedly. It wasn’t all that cold and we were Norwegian. We both had a high tolerance to the cold, and no tolerance for heat.
She looked Kyle up and down, and then me. Scowling, she pointed to a spot on his back where the sweater had crawled up to expose the tiniest bit of skin. Then, in the most shaming voice imaginable in front of the crowd milling around outside the church, she added “You are a bad mother.”
Remembering it now, I can still hear myself thinking, “Kill me now.”
I thought I was going to die.
The shame rose up in me like erupting molten lava. Surging, bubbling, scalding shame that seared the inside of my flesh as it moved up through me. It finally came to a halt in my head where it had nowhere else to go, turning my face crimson as I breathed out the volcanic energy a little at a time. I had to let it escape before it erupted to rage or worse yet, settled in to eat away at me from the inside out.
Her words and the tone of her voice haunt me to this day. They traveled so deep in me that I still feel remnants of that episode of shame. This woman, who I’d had a fleeting thought of reaching out to in friendship, had just annihilated me and my sense of self. How could I let her?
Didn’t she know how hard the last two years had been? DIdn’t she know I already felt like a bad mother bringing Kyle into the world without a biological father that loved him? Didn’t she know Kyle’s father abandoned us before he was even born? Didn’t she know how lonely and scared I’d been and that this was my maiden voyage out to meet people who might be like Christ? For God’s sake, this was the very first time I’d mustered up the courage to come to church. Did she know what it was like to come to a completely new church in a completely new city where I had a completely new career with a completely new baby as a completely new mother? It had taken so much courage to walk in those doors and her words hit me as I walked out those same doors. I wouldn’t be walking through them again. And no.
She didn’t know.
As lessons go, it was a good one. It taught me a lot in the long run, but hell, it stung. Why was that? I’d been through hell and back the past year and certainly learned not too internalize someone else’s problem. Why had this hit me so hard?
Maybe she’d almost frozen to death because, one January evening when she was barely 2, her alcoholic mother left her in the car while she guzzled her beer in the bar. Maybe she was from Florida. Maybe she was cold. Maybe she and her own child were estranged because her daughter’s anger at being neglected by her mother as a child consumed her. And maybe she was simply a bitter, old woman with misplaced blame.
I didn’t know.