In the high mountains at dawn you encounter things you might never encounter elsewhere. The Beartooth Range runs through southern Montana and boasts some of the finest peaks of the Rocky Mountain front. My father and I have walked that great wide country. When we arrive and start out in the pre-dawn blackness, the darkness attends us and stays close, shrouded by forest and granite. In late autumn the air is sharp and cold and when the sun begins to light the world, vision opens and all around us on the high plateau we see Timothy grass encased in small intricate robes of frost. Above and to the west the sky is still largely obscured but light seeps over the high plain on which we walk and when the sun finally breaks the horizon, the moments that follow are breathtaking. In every direction the frost melts, the sun refracts through tiny spheres of water on each stalk of grass. Suddenly the land appears like an upside down sky of stars.
My mother grew up in Cohagen, Montana, a town of eight people. My father in Circle, Montana, a town of 300. My father is of mixed immigrant heritage, some German, some Irish, the rest spread throughout Europe. My mother’s line is less dispersed. In fact, her parents were married in New York in the 1940’s during World War II, her father of German lineage, her mother Czechoslovakian. Amazingly, her parents’ marriage, filled of square dancing and ranching, card playing and good conversation, began during the very time period in Europe when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
My parents remain in Montana, in Bozeman now, having moved first from Billings (where Dad coached the Crow basketball players at Plenty Coups) to the Northern Cheyenne reservation at St. Labre, and from there to Livingston during my high school years, then on to Bozeman when my brother and I attended college. Some time back, on a visit to see them in Bozeman I was seated on the couch with my mother. Arched ceilings and oak beams lead to high, wide windows that look out on the Bridger Mountains and the Spanish Peaks, the view itself a reminder of the vast wilderness that is Montana and how thankful I am to have a good mother, a good father. We had grown up in trailers, three of them in three different towns. My parents had struggled with each other and through some weighty decisions reconciled with one another after time apart, and from there they went on to make deep sacrifices toward my brother’s and my college education. I was happy for them, the life they had given us and the life they had built for themselves.
My mom was asking me about some of my research on forgiveness and touch, and I was telling her the stories of people—how they had hurt one another deeply, how they were seeking forgiveness, and trying to return to a loving connection. South Africa, Colombia, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, the Native American reservations in Montana and throughout the U.S., so many places of human atrocity, and how even in the face of such desolation, forgiveness would rise, and sometimes move to heal the human heart. I was thanking my mother for the forgiveness she gave my father some twenty or so years earlier, for how graceful she had been. Even my choice of vocation was in large part due to the integrity she and my father brought to our family. Not surprisingly, that day as we sat on the couch, the natural, true way she carried herself shone through.
After a pause in our conversation she looked at me and said, “You know, I’d like to get together with you and ask your forgiveness for the harms I caused you growing up.” She said the words openly, with a pleasant look in her eyes, a look of confidence and assurance. I have always loved that look, the way she carries herself with such strength even when dealing with things that are daunting, or cumbersome. Her power as a person is gracious and subtle.
“That would be good,” I said, “but I’ve harmed you too, Mom. I’d also like to ask forgiveness.”
On my next visit to Montana we ate dinner together and had an evening of forgiveness-asking.