- The author says that holding grudges has long been a family trait
- After learning to forgive, she began to experiment with ending other grudges
- Letting go of grudges is as habit-forming as keeping them, she says
"You're doing it again," my friend Sally whispered to me one night, not long ago.
"Doing what?" I asked her, feigning innocence. We were at dinner with a group of people, one of whom had done me wrong years earlier. And to avoid talking to or even making eye contact with this woman, I had situated myself as far away from her as I possibly could.
"Fredo-ing," Sally hissed. "Look, do you remember the sequel to 'The Godfather'? Michael Corleone decides he won't have anything to do with his brother Fredo because Fredo has betrayed him. And that's exactly the same thing that you do when someone hurts your feelings. You Fredo them."
What could I say? She was right. When Michael Corleone snarled, "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart...you broke my heart," I understood his pain. For many years, like the Godfather himself, I tendered beefs with all sorts of people.
I came by this tendency naturally. Holding grudges is a tradition in my family -- passed down through the generations like heirloom china. My grandmother, Mama Rose, stopped speaking to one neighbor because of a dispute over the property line. She stopped speaking to the other because their daughters had had a fight when they were kids. No one could even remember what that childhood conflagration had been about, but Mama Rose still Fredo'd that woman for more than 50 years.
I have a pair of aunts who haven't spoken since 1976, when they argued at Mama Rose's funeral. Two other aunts cut off contact after one fateful Christmas Eve; allegedly, Aunt A snubbed Aunt B while they both stood in line at the deli to buy prosciutto. And that was that. Back in third grade, I went to a classmate's house after school, and when I came home, my mother angrily announced: "You can't be friends with that girl. Her uncle did a lousy job with your grandfather's will. We won't have anything to do with that family."
No wonder it seemed natural to me to stop speaking to my best friend in college after she betrayed me -- albeit in the most trivial of fashions. My university had a dance squad, the Ramettes, known in those days for wiggling their ruffled rear ends to the Rocky theme song during halftime. Lizzie (not her real name) and I used to laugh at how silly they looked.
Then one night, as I walked down the hall of our sorority building, I heard that song playing and glimpsed Lizzie going through Ramette moves with a girl from the squad. I can still remember how my confusion morphed into hurt when I realized that she was getting ready to try out and had been practicing behind my back. In all our late-night talks, she had hidden this from me. I became angry and cold toward her, and eventually the friendship died.
As I watched Lizzie dance away from me, I felt like I had swallowed rocks -- and not for the first time. Severing a long-standing friendship, no matter the cause, always filled me with sadness. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to forgive readily. Instead, I Fredo'd, pretending the person had never been important to me, pretending not to hurt.
After my daughter Grace died from a virulent form of strep throat in 2002, I was buoyed by friends and acquaintances. Except for one longtime friend I'll call Bridget, who stayed away -- for months, and then years. "Do you miss her?" my husband used to ask me. Miss her? I ached for Bridget, for her funny perspective and her strong hugs. "Then call her," my husband would say.
But how could I? Bridget had abandoned me when I needed her most. Then one night in 2005 my doorbell rang and there she was. How easy it would have been to close that door. I'm not sure why I didn't. Instead, I stepped back, opened the door wide, and let her in.
Forgiveness wasn't easy. That night, Bridget sat at my kitchen table and talked about how she had felt. Immersed in my grief, I had never considered how people found out what had happened to Grace. Bridget was devastated to have learned of the death from the newspaper, as though she were a stranger to our family.
That wasn't all: She had become paralyzed by the terrifying realization that if I could lose a child, so could she -- and that fear had kept her away from me. Bridget told me she wanted to repair the friendship, something I had never attempted before. Even though this rift between us was so much deeper than the one that had precipitated my break with Lizzie, I wanted to mend it.
Something in me shifted that night. Maybe I had matured. Or maybe in the face of the loss I had experienced I understood the importance of holding on. Bridget had taken a step toward me, and I, in turn, took one toward her.
I thought of Lizzie: how we used to stay up late, sitting cross-legged on our matching Marimekko comforters, sharing our secrets and imagining our lives together as old women. Had I really kicked that history and all that mutual affection to the curb because of the Ramettes? Sitting at the kitchen table with Bridget, I wondered: If I could forgive her, could I forgive others? I vowed to try.
In the years since, I've had a lot of opportunities to do just that. The woman I attempted to avoid at that dinner party ended up seeking me out after dessert. And she apologized for hurting me in the past. Despite my pledge to leave behind old animosities, I admit that my initial impulse was to politely accept and continue to Fredo her for the rest of our lives.
But my second impulse was to take a deep breath, grab a glass of wine, and really listen to what she had to say. Before long, the strangest of things happened: I started to enjoy the chat. Wait, I thought. I might actually like this person. We could be friends, even. Before I knew it, we had traded e-mail addresses.
Letting go of grudges, it turns out, is as habit-forming as keeping them. A close friend who dumped me when she fell in love? I sulked a little, sure, but when she came calling, I answered the phone. My cousin who defended her boyfriend when he broke her heart again and again and then got angry at me when I suggested she move on?
I gave her a shoulder to cry on and refused to let a grudge lodge in my gut. The neighbor who yelled anytime my dog barked? I wanted to Fredo her. Oh, did I ever. But how nice it was to bid her good morning instead of glaring and inwardly cursing her.
I had watched Mama Rose cut ties with loved ones; I saw the way her face later shadowed when she heard a bit of news about them, or when a memory of them emerged in conversation. She was haunted by the specter of these bygone relationships. I don't want to live with that sort of regret.
In the last few weeks, I've often thought of reaching out to Lizzie. Did she find love the way we had hoped when we were 19-year-old girls with matching haircuts and Izod shirts, dreaming together? Does she ever think of me? Perhaps someday I will seek her out. And maybe instead of closing the door, she, too, will step back, open her arms wide, and let me in.
Ann Hood is the author of 13 books, including The Red Thread; Comfort: A Journey Through Grief; and The Knitting Circle.