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greetings, past
living a moment of forgiveness and murder
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

I was framed for stealing three weeks before Christmas, 1984.

And all along, you think I laugh because I grew up as the tall, popular, cheerleader type.

I wasn’t meant for a paper mill town. That’s not because it wasn’t right for me: I wasn’t right for it. I wasn’t supposed to marry any of the sincere ball-capped boys I flirted with, those who all called the main woman in their lives “Momma”. I wasn’t supposed to sweep sandy loam and pine needles from my front steps and serve coffee to a Baptist congregation. There was not to be a legacy of “my people” at the high school or local extension college.

Because of rocky familial circumstances, I was living with a friend and her family, an outsider in their home and in the society in which we lived, cut off from most of the people I grew up with and forced to adapt to this new life.

But I learned the value of trust and simple promises. They took me in. That mattered.

Which is why three weeks before Christmas, 1984, I was shocked to be framed by this family for stealing, simply so they could cash in on an insurance policy. They needed a police report and a suspect, and even though I had lived with them for more than a year, sharing the joys and crises of their lives, this didn't make me family. It made me a scapegoat.

The charge didn’t stick.

The relationship also fell apart. The friend, at first accusatory, later came to me, crying and apologetic, afraid of what her mother, the mastermind of the scheme, might think to find us talking. I explained the best way a 19-year-old could: I forgave her and her family, truly, but I couldn’t forget how they wanted to use me in that way. I wished her good luck and went on with my life.

Certainly I’ve thought of them from time to time and once, a couple of years ago, I drove past the house I shared with them, looking for my footprint. But it was swept off the front steps long ago.

It’s three weeks before Christmas, 2006, and I get a phone call.

The mother of this family was shot and killed in her daughter’s driveway, a hundred yards from where her daughter lay dying from a previous blast of an estranged husband’s buckshot.

I’m not a stranger to violence. The first 25 years of my life were riddled with abuse, deception, quiet circumstances best left behind closed doors. This isn’t a badge of honor –- it’s merely fact. But what I knew of that life has been analyzed and packaged away in a tattered cardboard box on a dusty shelf. After the call, the box's contents immediately scatter throughout my heart and I pick them up a bit at a time, rolling them between my fingers, inhaling the acidic memories.

And I cry. But not for me.

Some say evil begets evil, and there’s no way of knowing what the pair did to others over the years, simply based on what they tried to do to me.

I can’t ignore the uncanny timing, but refuse to believe they deserved to die this way.

I forgave the mother and daughter long ago for the betrayal, and there have been more than a few times that I recognize how fortunate I’ve become. But here’s the part you may not have expected.

It’s because of their betrayal.

Had I chosen not to forgive them, I don’t know how easily the turn might have been to, instead, become a woman living in fear of her husband because of a bad choice. How many unfullfilled dreams I'd have if not for the dedicated attention of strangers, a simmering ambition, and a teasing desire to see how big the world really is.

Had I chosen not to forgive them, I may have closed myself off, ridden a wave of excuses, placed blame, hardened my heart.

The lessons I’ve learned through hurt and forgiveness help me stay whole. One cannot truly know one aspect of that equation without fully experiencing the other.

I laugh now not because I had it easy, but because I’ve known deep pain from this and other circumstances. I cry now for the people that once so easily sacrificed me because their pain consumed them and, eventually, killed them. To retaliate in hurt, to greet fear and hate with the same force, is to not vanquish your enemies, but to succumb to them.

Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran said,

“You shall be free indeed
when your days are not
without a care nor your nights
without a want and a grief,
but rather when these things
girdle your life and
yet you rise above them
naked and unbound”.

So now, two decades later, I bow my head and open my heart to this once-upon-a-time family. I wish for an eventual peace to settle upon the survivors, to blurr and fade the burnt edges of the violent imagery. I hope for the souls to be lifted and freed. I raise the lid of that tattered box and lay those memories to rest again, with a stroke or two of comfort and awareness.

An awareness that I forgive, in order to live and be forgiven.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


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topic: general
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sandra thompson
12.29.06 @ 9:00a

After my fifteen years of counseling I came to understand that most of us have these horrible traumatic experiences in our pasts, and my observations were that we can only become whole again and healed when we forgive the perpetrators of our suffering. You were indeed lucky to come to that conclusion at such an early age. Good for you!

juli mccarthy
12.29.06 @ 10:07a

How awful, Tracey. This is just heart-rending. We all make bad choices from time to time, and karma has a way of slapping us right upside the head for it... but NO ONE deserves to die that way.

russ carr
12.29.06 @ 11:13a

Within the smallest of slights and the most grievous wrongs lies the same choice: escalation or absolution. And while it can be exceedingly difficult to forgive someone, it is a thing which, once done, remains done. Pursuing retribution, or even just harboring a lingering, festering anger, takes far more work over the days and years that follow, and only blackens and hardens your heart and soul. There is no growth there... but! it is never too late to change. That is the nature of mercy and grace.

juli mccarthy
12.29.06 @ 11:30a

Russ, that is amazingly wise.

mike julianelle
12.29.06 @ 11:59a

I think I saw that in The Searchers.

robert melos
12.29.06 @ 6:35p

I admire the ability to forgive, since I don't have it. I wish I could forgive and forget all the pains of my past, but the memories haunt me and become fresh with each dream or thought.

You are a very good person.

robert melos
12.31.06 @ 7:24a

I've been thinking a lot about this column in conjunction with my own pain and past hurts, 40 years of them, and I'm going to try to forgive the hurts and those who caused it.

You have inspired me. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but I have to try it.

Thank you, Tracey.

alex b
12.31.06 @ 6:25p

Wow, Tracey. Reading this confirms a theory I have: how we move on matters a great deal. We can either do so harboring anger and hurt, or forgiving it and letting the pain run its course.

I think you're amazing for having the ability to transcend this and live positively.

chris oakley
1.2.07 @ 12:39p

She may be very good, but she's also incredibly naive. Some things in this world just can't be forgiven, and murder is one of them; another is slander-- if I had the means, I'd jump at the opportunity to get even with everyone who's ever wronged me online or off. There's this asshole named Nick Locking who's spent the last three and a half years of his life doing everything he can to trash me, and I'd like nothing better than to make him pay for it through the nose.

Furthermore, the families of those murdered Amish schoolchildren should have sued the shooters' parents for every dime they've got. If we all lived by the motto "An eye for an eye", there'd be a lot less crime in this world.

tracey kelley
1.2.07 @ 1:19p

Ya'll are too sweet. Nice to see you back, Alex!

It's hard not to freak out on someone messing with you, Chris. I had a boss not too long ago who delighted in doing this: constantly baiting me, being overly critical, and making assumptions/gossiping about me to others.

For those of you who know me well, you know that when provoked, I can be nasty and sarcastic with the best of them.

But there comes a point where you realize that person is looking for precisely that kind of interaction, because they don't know how to live otherwise. If they're not in the middle of some chaotic melodrama, they think they're not "living".

So no matter how much bile rises in your throat, you just can't give in. Walking away saves your personal dignity and while the other person may not recognize it, you will. This boss always thought I was too --I don't know, something-- to not recognize what he was doing, simply because I didn't engage in his process. Why bother?

And it harkens back to Russ' emotional time management theory. You will never change others, and will waste time trying. But you can always, always, better yourself.

adam kraemer
1.2.07 @ 3:05p

I admire the ability to forgive, since I don't have it. I wish I could forgive and forget all the pains of my past, but the memories haunt me and become fresh with each dream or thought.

No offense, Robert, but that's absurd.

Forgiving someone isn't an innate ability, it's a choice. Have you considered that if you do, in fact, forgive the pains of the past, they will no longer remain fresh in your mind?

I just saw that you added an addendum, and I see that you considered the same thing I did. We can't let go until we, well, let go.

Good luck, Robert.

adam kraemer
1.2.07 @ 3:55p

If we all lived by the motto "An eye for an eye", there'd be a lot less crime in this world.

Perhaps that's because all of you assholes would have killed each other.

juli mccarthy
1.2.07 @ 4:52p

The trouble with "an eye for an eye" is that it's never an eye for an eye. As Russ pointed out, you have two choices - absolution, or escalation.

The thing with not forgiving is that while you hold on to a grudge or a grievance, letting it have space in your brain, there's a better than good chance that the person who wronged you either isn't aware of your anger and hurt, or doesn't give a shit.

lisa r
1.6.07 @ 3:49p

She may be very good, but she's also incredibly naive. Some things in this world just can't be forgiven, and murder is one of them; another is slander--if I had the means, I'd jump at the opportunity to get even with everyone who's ever wronged me online or off.

And therein lies the crux of the state of our society at the moment. Someone cuts you off on the highway? Shoot him. Someone jostles your arm in the bar and a drop of your drink gets spilled? Shoot him. Someone has something you covet? Shoot them and take it. Someone succeeds in life and you're jealous? Shoot him. Someone leaves you because you're an abusive jackass? Shoot her.

Heaven forbid more people can't learn from Tracey's example or the example of the Amish this past year. There'd be a lot less bitterness in the world if fewer people spent their lives plotting revenge against perceived slights and believing the world owes them respect even if it has not been earned.

Naivete is not a word anyone would associate with Tracey. She is a very good person precisely because she bears the capacity to forgive others despite the events of her past. Her generous heart is why so many of us here feel so fortunate to count her as a friend.

Tracey, dear--my thoughts and prayers are with you and those left behind in this tragic situation.


alex b
1.8.07 @ 3:07a

Hiya Tracey, it's great to be back!

For me, the word naive means clueless, someone blissfully unaware of how ugly the world is. Someone who chooses to forgive and absolve isn't naive- he or she chooses to focus on something else outside of the ugliness of circumstance and their feelings of anger. The choice is to keep living with dignity- even in the face of the world being as evil, malicious, and dark as it gets.

A problem with "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is that it empowers destructive anger and encourages revenge- and prevents someone from letting go. Committing a retaliatory measure solves nothing while escalating circumstance for an ultimately self-serving purpose. Why create and put yourself in a shittier place just because you're angry at the world? Why not just walk away and sort yourself out?

Unfortunately, everyone has their share of painful stories to tell. We aren't entitled to some kind of special treatment for having gone through pain; we are unique in how we transcend it, and how we handle ourselves in the face of it. Hopefully, everyone here can do so with grace and kindness, even while we don't understand.


tracey kelley
1.8.07 @ 9:58a

Lisa, doll, thanks so much. You mean a lot to me, too! And it's good to see you hanging around again also.

I'll admit - I do have an eye for an eye attitude when it comes to certain situations. Serial killers? Demons on earth, and the world is better off without them. Child molesters? Never will be rehabilitated, so keep them locked up and away from temptation.

Why not just walk away and sort yourself out?

Ah, Alex b Wan, that is very true.

chris oakley
1.30.07 @ 9:35a

Adam: I don't appreciate being called "asshole", asshole.

Lisa: The fact that I refuse to grin and bear it while a complete stranger on the other side of the Atlantic deliberately and maliciously spreads a false idea about me doesn't make me an abuser.

Alex B: When a person suggests that I should be willing to let my worst enemy off the hook for putting me through three and a half years of near-total misery, it's hard for me to think of that person as anything BUT clueless.


tracey kelley
1.30.07 @ 9:56a

Chris, buddy, you're in control of this whole situation more than you think.

But it's time you start thinking that way, otherwise it will ruin you. The preoccupation you have with certain hurts is exactly what I'm talking about in the column - you're only a victim because you allow others to put you in that position, especially those who delight in doing it.

Coming on here and blasting us, when you don't know us and we've done nothing to you, is not the answer. Most everyone has first responded to you with some form of concern or sympathy. Use that to build yourself up in a positive manner.

Otherwise, we'll just be added to your "list", and it doesn't sound like that needs to get any longer than it is.

lucy lediaev
2.24.07 @ 5:32a

I, like others have similiar stories to tell. It is a shame not all of us have been in 12 step to find out 'bout ourselves & let go of the past and forgive. thanks for sharing - All of you! Pat S.

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