When I was in the second grade, I lived in a tiny town in northern Minnesota. There was a flashing yellow light, a small convenience store and a school that housed grades K-12 all in the same building. It was the town where everyone knew everyone & at least half of their business. We lived in a ranch style home that had a basement and our home was on the edge of town in a small neighborhood of maybe 20 houses.
My childhood was not a happy one. My dad worked a lot and he also played in a polka band on weekends, so he was often out of town for weddings and events. My older sister and I were left home with my step-mom and my two younger half sisters and half brother. Although my step mom was a good parent to her three children, she had no interest or desire in being a parent to me and my sister, in fact, she was not kind to us at all. The day to day was rough going, but if my dad was going to be gone over a weekend, we really dreaded it, because we would often go the whole weekend without being fed. It was while we lived at this house, that children’s services were called to check on us several times.
One day, one of our neighbors asked my sister and I if we could feed their dogs for them while they were away for the weekend. They offered to pay us and we were very excited at the thought of making some money. If we had money, it meant we might be able to sneak to the convenience store and buy something to eat. Our neighbors showed us how to unlock their gate and walk around the back of the house to the door that went into their garage. There, they showed us the bin of dog food and told us how much we needed to feed their dogs, twice a day. They showed us where the water spigot was too, so that we could refill the dogs’ water dish. We were thrilled at the opportunity to be responsible and our neighbors told us that they knew we would do a good job.
The first day that we were supposed to feed the dogs was a Friday evening. We ran down the gravel road to our neighbors’ home and my sister unlocked the gate. I really wanted to do it, but I was too short to reach, so I had to watch while she got all the glory. We shut the gate behind us and walked around the house to the door that went into the garage. We opened that door and went into the garage. It was dark, with light coming through just one small window, and it smelled like gas and oil and cut grass. We scooped dog food for the dogs and filled the water dish. We were pretty proud of ourselves.
We didn’t want to go back home, because it was a weekend and my dad was gone. He had left straight from work for one of his band gigs and wouldn’t be home until Sunday night. Going home meant hiding from our step mom, so we hung out in our neighbors’ garage, goofing around. There wasn’t anything exciting in the garage: tools, and a riding lawn mower, which we did sit on and pretend we were driving it, but we really were just killing time, trying to avoid going back home. At one point, and I really don’t remember which one of us thought of it, we turned the handle of the doorknob that went into the house. Surprisingly, the door opened. They had not locked it. Of course we knew better than to go into anyone’s house when they weren’t home and we weren’t invited. We knew we would get in big trouble for even thinking about it. The problem we ran into, though, was that the door opened right into the kitchen, and we knew that a kitchen meant food. We sat there in the doorway looking at each other silently. We didn’t even have to say it. Our stomachs were empty. We hadn’t eaten at all that day.
The draw was too strong, and we tip toed over the threshold and stood in the kitchen, still. Then suddenly, we were quickly peeking through the cabinets, looking for something, anything that we could eat that wouldn’t be missed. We settled on spreading some peanut butter on a slice of bread each. We were so careful to wash and dry the knife and clean up all of the crumbs so no one would ever know. Then we quietly tiptoed back out to the garage, carefully shutting the door behind us. We scarfed down our slices of peanut butter bread and then made sure everything looked fine and we left the garage, making sure to lock the gate behind us. We walked back home, neither of us saying anything. Both feeling guilty, but so happy to have had something to eat.
The next morning, my stomach was rumbling when I woke up. One slice of bread doesn’t cut it for a day’s worth of food. I woke my sister up and reminded her that we had to go feed the dogs, not that she needed reminding. Trying to be as quiet as possible, so as not to attract the attention of my step mom, we snuck up the stairs and out of the house, and then we sprinted to our neighbors’ home. Once again, we fed and watered the dogs, and then we stood there staring at each other. She was daring me to open the door to the house with her eyes. I was daring her right back. Although I was the younger sister, I often took on the roll of the older sister, and I did it this time too.
I recklessly opened that door and walked through it acting like I wasn’t about to wet my pants in fear. Again, we made peanut butter bread, eating it while sitting in the doorway between the kitchen and the garage. And then we went back for seconds. We carefully cleaned up our mess and as we were heading out the door, we saw some coins. We whispered back and forth that if we took the coins, we could sneek to the store and get something else to eat, and eventually, knowing that it was wrong, that it was stealing, we took the coins. We quickly locked up the gate and ran between a couple of houses to a path that ran through some woods. We took the path through the woods and made our way to the store. We each bought a couple of wrapped, individual apple pies and walked slowly back through the woods, eating them but feeling guilty for enjoying them.
We went back that night and fed the dogs and had another sandwich and then got up and ran back again on Sunday. By this time, we had it down. She’d scoop the food and I’d refill the water dish and then we’d go in and sneak some bread. This time was different though. This time, when we were in the middle of putting peanut butter on our bread, we heard the automatic garage door opener spring to life. Panicking, we tried to put the peanut butter and bread away, and tried to think about how we were going to get out of the house, with our neighbors now parking in the garage. I ran to the front door, with my sister right on my heels and worked to get the door unlocked. Finally, I figured it out. All that was standing between me and freedom was the screen door. Unfortunately, the screen door was also locked, but not in a way that I could figure out. We were stuck.
I cannot remember clearly, what happened from that point. I have vague memories of being walked down the gravel to my house and remember feeling like I was going to vomit when my step mom opened the door. I do remember the beating that followed. I remembered the look on my dad’s face when he finally got home. Most of all, I remember the shame. For years, I could not talk about this story, even with my sister. I was so filled with shame about what I had done. I knew better, and I had done it anyway. Top that with the fact that everyone in town now knew that we had broken into someones’ home and stolen from them. We were called stealers and thieves by other kids.
The guilt and heavy shame weighed on me for years. I guess in some ways, I am still embarrassed about it. Even though I can look at the situation with adult eyes now. I can see that although we did do something that was fundamentally wrong, we were just little kids, trying to survive. We were stealing, yes, but it was food for goodness sakes. The real shame should not have rested on our shoulders.
We have all done things in our lives that have made us feel ashamed. When I feel shame about something I’ve done, it is really difficult to like myself, let alone love myself. If I can’t love myself, I cannot possibly love anyone else in a healthy manner. Learning to let go of shame and forgive myself is necessary if I want to be healthy. It is not an easy lesson to learn, and forgiving ME can be difficult, especially when I do something I know is wrong or hurt someone I love; However, God is not interested in reminding me of who I used to be. He is more interested in who I am becoming. So I need to let it go and forgive.