“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven. . .”
Alice Munro’s 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway, includes a story titled“Trespasses,” a word only slightly less archaic, perhaps, than “transgressions.” In typical Munro-vian fashion, she weaves together several plot lines and a gallery of fully human characters who move relentlessly toward an end that is as foreordained as any ending she’s ever written. In fact, the story begins with a tableau—four unidentified people performing some unspecified ritual late at night, on a river bank—a scene which is also the story’s own dramatic climax. In the story’s first page and a half, Munro shows us where we’re going; then she spends the next half hour of reading time explaining how we got there.
Great stories defy summary, so I’m on dangerous ground, but I’ll try anyway. Lauren, an eleven or twelve year-old “only child,” meets Kate, who works at the restaurant where kids her age stop after school. When Kate shows Lauren a ton of attention, singling her out from her friends, readers can’t help becoming fearful. Slowly, the truth emerges: Kate has spent some significant time finding Lauren, a child she believes to be her own, a child she once gave up for adoption.
But Lauren—still very much a child—knows a story Kate doesn’t because once upon a time she stumbled on a vial her father quietly explained held the ashes of her sister, a baby who was killed just before Lauren was born. He warns her, however, never to bring up the story in front of her mother, who cannot bear any reminder of the accident which took the baby’s life. That baby’s name was Lauren.
When Kate threatens to open up the whole story, something must be done. Soon, the story of the accident emerges, a story which began in a fight about abortion because Lauren’s father wasn’t interested in another child. Lauren’s mother took off in the car, an accident ensued, and the baby—the adopted child Kate had given up—was killed because she wasn’t fastened into the seat.
The story is rife with pain—her father’s, for not wanting Lauren; her mother’s, for her inattention; and Kate’s, for once, long ago, giving her child away.
So one night, in an attempt to find what people call today “closure,” the four major characters of “Trespasses” head out to the spot of the accident, repeat some lines from the Lord’s Prayer, and leave behind the baby’s remains.
That’s not the end of the story, however. In some ways, the denouement is even more horrifying because Lauren, the only child, is left carrying the greatest burden of all, the child of a marriage that has been bleeding grief ever since she was born. Her parents are distanced, from each other and from her. The only adult who’d ever shown her any love, Kate, now leaves, having rejected Lauren once she discovered the child wasn’t hers.
Munro doesn’t trumpet closure for the adults of this story; we really don’t know whether or not they’ll ever find the peace they’ve never felt. What we know, however, is that this second Lauren will wear forever the livery of her parents’ trespasses.
It’s a story that reminds me of the great Old Testament curse of sin, that it will live for generations—“punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
The Blessedness with which Psalm 32 begins is created by that most marvelous of nouns—forgiveness. But forgiveness really can’t be appreciated with anything less than a full-bodied understanding of sin, our sin. The miracle of our forgiveness works only when our sin is wholly acknowledged.
The miracle of forgiveness—and it is a miracle—is experienced only when we know our sin.
Which is to say, those who know real forgiveness once knew, for real, their sin.