I was seven when my sitter’s feisty dog chewed up my favorite doll. I waited, for years, for her to fulfill her promise of a new doll to replace it. About the same time the doll was destroyed, my mother promised that she would soon be able to give me an allowance of five dollars a week. I was thrilled.
But like the doll that never arrived, the extravagant allowance became just another wish that never came true. Fortunately, time puts such small matters into perspective. Eventually, I forgave my babysitter, and I forgave my mother, too.
Still, there remain broken promises that touch a chord of sadness. These are not the ones that others made, but that I made myself. Mostly unspoken, they were promises, nevertheless — to my parents, child, friends, first husband, second husband, my husband now . . . and me. Small promises, for the most part. Like the thank-you notes I intended to write, the gifts I meant to give, the love I intended to show, the words I meant to say.
I remember times I promised to be somewhere at a certain time or do a certain thing or call someone on a certain day. And I didn’t. I think of the books on my shelves that were so long overdue it only made sense to buy them from the library, with the explanation that I had “lost” them.
Then there was the promise to myself to play a board game with my seven-year-old daughter at least once a month. That was a New Year’s resolution nearly eleven months ago. And I guess we’ve played a game once, maybe twice, in all that time.
I went to college. It was my good fortune that my mother would not have it any other way no matter what the cost. We were always poor, though my parents managed one way or another to provide the necessities. I remember the vegetable garden, the treadle sewing machine on which mother made most of our clothes, the annual bottle of cream soda on the Fourth of July. Most of all I remember the second-hand, upright piano, a step and a half below standard pitch. My mother got a war-time job so she could buy it for me because I wanted it so badly. How she managed to eke out the money for college tuition I’ll never know.
My father, a traveling salesman, was gone a great deal. He was a jovial man but he didn’t value such things as higher education and music lessons.
In a way, my mother was living out her girlhood dreams. Her parents were homesteaders and really poor. Her father valued education and all the children graduated from high school; but when my mother, as valedictorian, was offered a college scholarship, her father refused to let her accept. His reasoning was that if he couldn’t send all of his children to college, none should go. My mother was the only one who really wanted to go, but he was adamant.
So, as a young girl just out of high school, she went out west to teach school. She taught in a sod house where ignorant parents had beaten up her predecessor. She saved up enough for a year of college, and during that year she fell in love with the man of her dreams. They were to be married, but he died. Heartsick, she headed west again to teach. There she met my father and eventually married him.
One thing she always extolled was honesty. My sister and I were reared to regard lying and cheating as unthinkable. That is why the following story seems so incongruous:
For my college graduation ceremony I was required to rent a cap and gown from the college bookstore. I signed an agreement to return them on a specified date. When the time came, my mother insisted I had paid enough for the use of them and that I had a right to keep them. She refused to let me return them. Whenever I went into the bookstore I was asked about them and I murmured some embarrassed excuse. I couldn’t say, “My mother won’t let me.” Long experience had taught me never to cross her when she had made up her mind.
I have often wondered why that cap and gown meant so much to her. It must have been a symbol of what she had longed for in her youth and had been denied. Did she, when no one else was about, put on the cap and gown and stand before a mirror? Did her dream and her longing blot out her sense of integrity?
Years later the cap and gown were destroyed in a fire. By that time I guess the dream didn’t matter. Life had never made good on its promises to her.
I used to date a screenwriter named Val. He was an interesting person, but I didn’t want to marry him.
As a satirical cliche of the time went, Val didn’t know the real me. “You’re simple” he’d tell me to my face, meaning it as a compliment.
When I told him I didn’t want to see him any more, Val made a dramatic speech, like in one of the movies he wrote for. “If you ever need anything, just get in touch,” he wound up. “I’ll be here.”
I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but his assurance must have made an impression, because about fifteen years later, lonely, I decided to call Val and chat. I had the vague idea we might exchange a few letters.
I don’t think he even remembered my name. “I’m married now and have a child,” he said briskly, obviously wanting to get off the phone. I hadn’t wanted to resume a romance. In those days, I called several old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, and this was the only time I got the brush-off.
Because I don’t believe in promises, I am doubly hurt by broken ones. I am hurt first by the trust betrayed. I am hurt again for being dumb enough to have believed a promise in the first place.
Right now, I’m living on the spike of a broken promise. I feel like faded duckcloth stretched over tent poles and jammed at all four corners into the ground, beaten by the wind, pissed on by dogs that pass in the night. This was a promise that answered my deepest prayers — a promise of love, a promise that things would be like they were, a promise that we would be together again soon. I began to count the days. Each day I grew stronger and happier. I became much of the person I am capable of being. I slept deeply and woke early. I exercised because I felt like it. My eyes grew white, my digestive juices strong — all this in anticipation of her coming!
Isn’t it incredible? Her presence became something almost warm in the room. I decided I would move my drums to prepare a place for her necessary things. I found a space for a wooden dowel from which to hang her clothes. I showed recent pictures of her to my close friends and told them how wonderful she was. I imagined her in town on a new blue bike, riding to the co-op or going from one second-hand shop to the next, happily filling her baskets with vests and socks and cotton tops made in India. I even called to check on the price of a queen-size futon.
This frenzy of love and expectation lasted exactly one week. She called and the tone of her voice was low and frightened, as if she’d wrecked her car. I’ve changed my mind, she said, I’m going to give him one more chance. She said, I’ve never really given him a second chance.
You know what I think? I think a promise is shit that won’t even grow weeds. And a broken promise is the greatest cruelty I have known.
Broken promises of doing are one thing; broken promises of being are another.
“Doing” promises can’t, and shouldn’t, be taken too seriously. People’s intentions are so often greater than their ability to follow them through; we don’t know what pressures and conflicts tomorrow will bring. (Think of Peter falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemene, and then, such a short time later, denying Jesus three times before the cock crowed.) Breaking promises of doing, I’m saying, is a very human thing. God help us if we become righteous about holding people, including ourselves, to every last one of them.
Now as for broken promises of being, they cut much more deeply. What is a broken promise of being? To me it implies a falling away from, a falling short of, an inner perception of oneself that one knows in one’s heart of hearts is one’s true birthright. Maybe the perception is of a self more kindly, more loving, more open to nature (to the creation), more energetic, more wholesome, more joyous. . . . Whatever way one describes it, it is a perception of self opening into its full potential, flowing freely, on the way, infinitely becoming.
One trouble with breaking a promise of being is that it happens so slowly, over a long period of time. Thus it is hard to see it happening, which in turn makes it terribly hard to acknowledge. A broken promise of doing implies a single event, a specific failure of purpose, and is thus very visible, and audible, always ringing in one’s ear until it is eventually addressed and forgiveness is begged. But a broken promise of being can so easily be tucked away, hidden from view, unconsciously stroked by a thousand petty rationalizations, a thousand justifications (the devil’s work, soothing us, telling us again and again in infinitely patient tones that it’s OK, relax, everything is all right) until it finally falls asleep and is forgotten about.
And what a serious predicament a broken promise of being becomes. If unacknowledged for long enough, it inevitably cuts a person off from that inner perception of the soul’s evolution, of the soul’s perfection. This, in Biblical terms, is the sin of blasphemy, the unforgivable sin, the ultimate broken promise to one’s being that leaves us in time so shrunken, so diminished, that even God cannot restore us.
Petersburg, West Virginia