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Transforming Difficult Relationships




Excerpted from
No Less Than Greatness: The Seven Spiritual Principles That Make Real Love Possible
By Mary Manin Morrissey

When Pat placed her mother in a nursing home, she confided to a sympathetic staff member, "This woman is not my favorite person."

The feeling seemed mutual. Whenever Pat visited her mother - about once a month, if that-Josephine would wheel herself over to the television and flip it on. When the two did sit face-to-face, Josephine would shake her finger and spew syllables at her daughter. Pat understood her mother's anger: Josephine was frustrated by her stroke. And she was mourning her husband. Josephine had hardly spent a night away from Pat's father in more than forty years of marriage. Now, her husband was gone, and she could no longer care for herself.

With the stroke slurring her speech and her husband's death sapping her spirit, Pat's mother lost all hope. The only time she left her room was to get her hair done down the hall or to see the doctor. Although Josephine and Pat had never been close, it hurt Pat to see this once vibrant, energetic woman wasting away in a chair, her every day as monotonous as the last.

Her family should not have come to this, Pat thought. But then again, life in her household had always fallen far short of idyllic. In fact, while growing up in the '60s, Pat used to fantasize that Donna Reed was her mother. She imagined sitting at the kitchen table, sharing confidences about boys and hairstyles with the glamorous but insightful Donna.

"My own mother and I rarely discussed anything more intimate than the weather report," Pat said. "Ours was not a family of warm embraces and cocoa around the fireplace. Mom was totally focused on Dad, who could be kind, gentle and loving, and then, without warning, erupt in an alcoholic rage. I adored my father when he was sober and blamed my mother when he was not, because she didn't do anything to protect me."

The wedge between mother and daughter was formed early on, widening with age. Thus, nursing home visits consisted of Pat reciting her children's activities, followed by a half hour of Jeopardy! Then Pat would drive home.

One day, Pat was sorting through the boxes of her mother's belongings that had been left at her parents' house. Inside a carton of still-wrapped linens purchased in Europe, Pat found a note from her mother that read: "Hi, honey. I thought these would look good on your table."

"How odd," Pat thought. "Why did she buy me these beautiful linens, then not even tell me about the gift?"

Much to Pat's astonishment, other boxes held similar treasures. A safety-deposit box contained a small jewelry case with a one-carat diamond inside. "I bought you this because I know you always wanted one," read the accompanying note.

Clearly, Josephine had intended for Pat to discover these gifts after her death. "How eerie," Pat thought. "Why?"

Then it hit her. "I realized that my mother could never have given me these items in person, fearing that I would reject her gifts. And she would have been right." That she would only feel safe expressing her feelings after her death saddened Pat beyond words.

In the past, Pat had always tuned out her mother's stories about her youth, but over the ensuing weeks, she began recalling them with awe: As a young woman, Josephine had left home in Portland to begin a new life in Washington, D.C., on her own. She had translated top-secret documents during World War II. She had learned to fly an airplane. Pat dug up old family pictures. "What am I going to do with these?" she wondered. Then an idea came: "Wouldn't Mom love to have her life story commemorated in some way?" Pat spent several hours pasting pictures to form a collage, adding a written biography to accompany the photos.

"Mom took one look at that collage, wheeled herself out into the hallway and grabbed the first staff member who came along," Pat said. "The next thing I knew, the room had filled with aides and nurses, everybody looking at the pictures."

The nursing home manager put a notice in the newsletter encouraging other families to create historical collages for their elderly relatives. The idea caught on with a chain of nursing homes, and now families in Oregon and California are making these keepsakes that celebrate the person behind the infirmity.

The snowball of goodwill felt to Pat like a nudge from God, saying, "See, you can make a difference. Don't stop here." So Pat didn't. She created a foundation, Small Hands-Big Hearts, that empowers young people in the U.S. to aid communities in other countries. She also began leading motivational seminars.

After all those years of bitterness, with help from her Higher Power, Pat's relationship with her mother became the catalyst for so much good. After all those years of bitterness, this newfound relationship paved the way for another person to step into her own greatness-and that person was Pat's mother.



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