When I was seven years old, my mother first took me to visit the Ben Franklin Institute, a wonderfully child-centered science museum in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I adored that building, and relished every single trip we took there. As with every other subsequent visit, we rode the elevated train (the "El") from the main bus depot to a street two blocks from the museum. From there, we walked, hand in hand, the rest of the way. It was on that walk and others that I began to realize how different lives could be from my own. I also began to learn that my mother was a human being, just like me or anyone else, not a perfect, all-wise caregiver.|
On that first visit to the Institute, during the walk back towards the El, we happened to see what I can only assume was a homeless man on the sidewalk. He sat, wearing ragged and dirty clothes, holding a cup in his gloved hand. Just as we passed, I heard him say, "Have any change?" I looked right at his face for a moment, but his gaze did not meet mine. He was looking upward to my mother. I felt her squeeze my hand, and I turned my head to face her. She was looking straight ahead, neither at him nor at me. Not a word was said as we continued to walk, never even slowing down. For the rest of the trip back home, I didn't say anything, but I continued to cast confused glances at my mother's face.
The rest of the day exists as a haze in my memory, but I recall very specifically that I cried myself to sleep that night. I had never mentioned the man to my mother after returning home, and of course she did not bring it up, but I knew on some level that something was wrong with the whole situation. Being only seven at the time, I couldn't have explained exactly why I was sad enough to cry. Was I sad that the man was homeless? Or because my mother acted as if he wasn't there? Whatever the case, I knew then that people shouldn't be living on the street, begging for change… and that the people that are shouldn't be ignored as if they didn't exist.
A few days after that first trip, I found the courage to ask my mother about it during dinner. I'll never forget that conversation. "Why didn't you give that man some change, mom?"
She froze for just a moment, and a stern expression flashed across her face; in a moment, it was gone. "He didn't need it. He probably makes more money than me. People like that just don't want to work for a living."
People like what? I thought to myself. "But… I don't think he has somewhere to live." With that one statement I was practically begging her to reassure me that everything was alright, that everything as the way it was supposed to be. I tried to keep myself from crying again.
"He's lazy. Once you help people like that, they expect you to help them all the time. Don't think about him anymore."
The contempt building in her voice was obvious to me, even at that age. I didn't want to face it, but I started to feel betrayed by her. Through sobs I said, "But you're supposed to help people! You're supposed to!"
Finally her expression softened, and she picked me up and sat me in her lap, hugging me to her, telling me to calm down. I didn't listen. I kept crying. My mother wasn't the person she had been… or rather, the person I had imagined her to be.
I've since learned that being a mother doesn't mean that you have special powers… it doesn't mean that you always do the right thing… it doesn't mean that you automatically have the best morals. Mothers are not chosen to be mothers based on their strength or ethics or character. Mothers aren't chosen at all. They are simply human beings that attempt to raise children according to their own beliefs. It is for that reason that I can forgive my mother for how she acted that day at the museum. I don't agree with her, and I pity her in many ways… but I forgive her.
I don't share my mother's beliefs or her view of the world. Someday my children may very well say the same about me.