Balance Due

My mother moved from Austin, Tex., into a dirt-road trailer park half an hour out of town in the spring of 1993. A few summers later she began holding Bible study for neighborhood children. One of them was a difficult 13-year-old named Samantha. She lived nearby in a crowded trailer and had a high-decibel relationship with her parents. When she was 15, Samantha dropped out of school. So my mom volunteered to be her teacher.

I never got the feeling that my mother saw great promise in Samantha -- more likely she saw disaster ahead and hoped something could be done to forestall it. The girl had a temper but a receptiveness too; she liked church and liked reading the Bible. Eventually my mother invited Samantha to move in with her. My sisters and I had been intensely disapproving, from the first, of my mother's decision to buy a lot and trailer in this hot, junky, country slum. We greeted the news that Samantha would be moving in with bafflement. What next?

For a while, things seemed to be working out. Then my mother noticed a few mysterious billings on one of her charge cards. It turned out that Samantha had gone on a shopping spree. With that, Samantha was sent on her way and told not to return. But years later, she reappeared on my mom's stoop with the news that she had married, was holding a job and had given her life to God. My mother believed in redemption and forgiveness. In this case, skepticism competed with hope.

The following year, my mother found out she had ovarian cancer, and I persuaded her to come to Boston, where my wife and I live. By this time, Samantha had a baby girl, and the family of three needed a place to live. Since the trailer would be available for a while, it seemed to make sense to allow Samantha and her husband to live there. My mother wrote up a one-paragraph lease, setting a modest monthly payment.

She made it another year, ending her days at my sister's house in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Samantha and her husband had joined the evangelical church my mother had belonged to in Texas. Some of the church members took up a collection so that Samantha could attend the funeral in Wisconsin. Now a poised 22-year-old, she gave a simple, moving testimony, filled with the patterns of speech she learned as a new Christian. She said my mother ''was truly a Proverbs 31 woman.'' Later, when I checked the dusty Bible in my home, I found Proverbs 31:20: ''She extends her hand to the poor, Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.'' After the funeral, the rental payments, always sporadic, stopped coming. Then her husband told me on the phone they were thinking of moving. We knew they were gone when their number went out of service. They left no forwarding address. Did they fear we would try to collect on unpaid rent? I asked a neighbor to check on the trailer. A message came in to my answering machine one night. ''They have stripped, stripped your mama's house bone dry,'' said the neighbor. ''They have taken everything. Everything.''

When I went to Texas to put the property up for sale, I walked into the empty shell of my mother's life. Even the washer and dryer had been taken out. One bookcase remained, full of books. It was not a random burglary, because the doors and windows were locked. But could Samantha have done this, after all my mother had done for her?

I found out where Samantha had gone -- to a trailer park in the next county. Then I contacted the pastor of my mother's church. He reported that Samantha had stopped attending months earlier, after an incident in which she ran up some charges on the church's account at Sam's Club. He agreed to drive out with me to Samantha's new place.

Samantha was not home, but her husband was. He was ready with a story about how people had been seen unloading furniture from my mother's trailer. The pastor asked if we could go inside. Sheepishly, he agreed. The first thing I saw was the washer and dryer. Then other familiar pieces of furniture. I explained to Samantha's husband that my mother was never much concerned with material goods. But she cared about honesty. What you two owe us is a true story, I said.

I felt self-righteous making that demand. But to ignore what happened seemed unforgivably passive. As we stood on his porch, Samantha's husband apologized and said he'd return the goods, though he wasn't sure he'd be able to borrow a truck.. . .We both knew it wasn't going to happen. There would be no full accounting.

I know my mother would have been deeply wounded by the looting of her trailer. Then she would have set out to do the work her faith required -- work that I can't imagine for myself. Forgiving the monetary debts is easy enough. Forgiving people is harder. It means not writing them off.

Dave Denison has written for The Boston Globe, The American Prospect and The Texas Observer.

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