Forgiveness

Note: I wrote a post previously that included portions of this story (here). I wanted to write about it in a different way, explore it further. 

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In front of my house in 1966 

I met Mindy before we even moved to Canarsie. I was a month shy of my fifth birthday. In the twilight of a warm August evening in 1964, we drove across Brooklyn to see our new home. After we got out of the car, my mom took my hand and led me up the stairs of the next door neighbor’s house, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered. “Hi, let me get Mindy,” she greeted us in a husky voice. “Mindy!” she yelled, “Come down and meet our new neighbors!” Apparently, Mom had, on a previous trip, introduced herself and our visit was expected.

I stood on my tiptoes to see over the solid part of the screen door. In the dim light, I could make out the shape of a girl, who looked to be about my age and size, coming down the stairs. We waved at each other. The screen door opened and our moms talked while we looked at each other.

Mindy was olive-complected and skinny. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine.  In the coming years, we would share the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness.  We bonded over being neighborhood outcasts.  We also enjoyed pretending, making up elaborate games involving playing school or imagining we were pirates.

Since only a narrow alley separated our houses, we would talk from our respective windows. We had a lot in common – we each had a brother named Mark (her’s spelled it Marc) who we complained about. Our mothers were teachers. We each shared our houses with extended family. Her aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in the downstairs apartment of their house, while my grandparents and two uncles lived upstairs from us. We were both sports fans. As we got older we talked incessantly about our beloved Knicks. We obsessed about our crushes on particular players (me on Dave DeBusschere, her on Henry Bibby).

There were some important differences. Her mother was a screamer. I could hear her yelling at Mindy, even calling her names, from inside my house. Though my dad was the one with the temper in our family, he never resorted to name-calling.

Her mother would come home from work and lay down to rest, insisting on quiet in the house, before she made dinner. Mindy and I would do anything to avoid disturbing her. Mrs. Schiff’s anger was a thing to behold. If we couldn’t play outside because of the weather, we used my bedroom or basement. I was rarely invited to her house.

Mindy was my best friend. That is until my friendship with Susan blossomed at the end of third grade. Susan and I were in the same class; Mindy was never in ours.  Things got complicated because Susan and Mindy weren’t friends.

One day, Mindy and I were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship.  I was the captain; she was the first mate.  We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny idiot,” they taunted.  I was relieved – they weren’t jeering me.  I stood silent.

Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in.  I knew it was wrong, even in the moment.  But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful.

Mindy and I didn’t speak for months. I would lay in my bed staring out my window, looking at her house only a few feet away, feeling guilty and ashamed. I couldn’t stand it. I went to my mother and told her what happened and asked what I should do. She said there was only one thing to do, apologize.

“But what if she doesn’t accept my apology?”

“She may not, but you have to do it. You’ll feel better, even if she doesn’t.”

I couldn’t bring myself to do it immediately, but I knew she was right. After a few days, I got my courage up.

I spotted her in front of her house, getting ready to get on her bicycle. I called to her, “Mindy! I’m sorry,” I blurted it out. She turned to look at me, warily. I came down my steps and approached her, continuing, “Can we be friends again? I promise never to do anything like that again.” She gave me a small smile and said, “It’s okay with me, but we need to talk to my mother.” “Okay, whatever you want,” I said, relieved, though the thought of facing Mrs. Schiff made my stomach turn over.

At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered.  She ushered me up the stairs.  Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door.  Her mother was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner.  I told her I apologized and it would never happen again.  She told me, in her sand-papery smoker’s voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble.  “You can’t play with Mindy only when no one else is available,” she warned. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.

Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I believe she actually did. In my memory she said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Forgiveness

  1. How do we deal with bullies? How do we deal with our own insecurities and weaknesses and yet be the kind of friends we are supposed to be? This is beyond difficult and I wish I had a clear and easy answer for you. I can remember several such episodes when I was a child and I must say that my responses were inconsistent. I know there are a number of anti-bullying programs now but I have no idea what they teach. I assume that now much of the emphasis is about online bullying.
    The person who I most clearly recall standing up to bullies is Leah. She had a friend who was being excluded by a bunch of other friends. Leah told the group that she would not play with them unless they included her friend. Obviously she was willing to risk being shunned/excluded by the group. Perhaps that is the key. You have to be willing to risk more than the other side is willing to risk?
    For me, the easiest form of bullying to deal with was always the physical threat. It was relatively easy to physically just fight back and bullies never wanted to keep going after people who fought back. The emotional bullying, however, was more complicated and I never felt like I had any idea how to help the victims.
    I suspect most of the official anti-bullying recommendations involve calling authority figures/parents and sometimes this is absolutely necessary. But I also suspect that sometimes you are going to have to deal with things yourself and it is one of the hardest issues children confront (not that adults never confront it).
    If your response was imperfect, you learned and owned it and your continued friendship with your Mindy is testimony to you and to her.
    Thank you for the outstanding and thought provoking post.

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  2. I remember when you first posted this story and how much I felt for Mindy. Being small and loud, I was bullied sometimes too. But Gary is absolutely right – once you fight back they don’t bother you. The hardest thing is making it right with someone you hurt. And to have the added expectation of making it right with Mindy’s Mom – a daunting prospect to be sure. But you did it and were able to preserve your friendship.
    The only one in our house who had real trouble with bullies was Zach. Being the smallest in the grade was a definite factor. Fighting back is becoming less of an option at school as both students get suspended. No matter how many policy changes, teacher workshops, interventions, bullying will never be completely eradicated until more kids take the tact Leah did – just stand up for a friend.
    Always look forward to your pieces on Monday.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. I’m sorry that Zach had to go through that. As we both know, it is difficult to get through. Part of my reason for coming back to this story is that I think it illustrates something that we tend to forget – which is that we aren’t necessarily always bullies or victims, it doesn’t always neatly breakdown into good guys and bad guys. I think it is unrealistic to think we will eradicate bullying – I actually think we need to increase attention on how to move forward from it. So all parties grow and mature. Prevention is a great goal, and we should continue to work on that, but, maybe equally important, is the aftermath. Building self-esteem for the target, talking about forgiveness, teaching empathy and generally paying more attention to kids’ social-emotional health.

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  3. Linda: great story; great lesson. And so important for parents to teach: when you are wrong -own it- and apologize.

    One question though: why fictionalize? No one will believe that you would complain of your brother mark. Steven, maybe; but mark- not credible.

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