Her story is partly about abuse and addiction. But mostly, it’s about forgiveness.

Mara Ashby’s smile is wide and white.

She’s a hugger.

She has trouble crossing a crowded room without starting up a conversation.

Her light is bright.

So when she tells her story, which is full of abuse and addiction, it’s clear that something turned around inside her, helped her shake the darkness she had lived within.

“I can’t say when it happened exactly,” Mara said. “God just worked on my heart.”

Mara spent most of her childhood in Tacoma, Washington; her Mexican-American parents left El Paso, Texas, when Mara was 3 in search of a better life.

One of her earliest memories is of hiding under her bed, trying to protect her baby sister from the violence around them.

Their father was an angry alcoholic. Mara’s mom was routinely beaten, badly.

Mara found solace at a local Baptist church her older brother David took her to when she was about 6. When her Sunday school teachers told her to invite friends to church, she did, going door to door in her neighborhood. And when David joined the Navy and was deployed, he made sure a bus would come every week to pick up Mara and her sister for church.

“He knew my father wouldn’t take me. He was taking care of me. He had God in his life, and so I see now that because of that he looked at everything in our family in a different way.”

Mara tried running away from the chaos once, when she was a teenager. She and her boyfriend used money Mara had saved up from babysitting, took the boy’s father’s gold Honda, and drove to California. But after two weeks on a friend’s couch, they decided they’d better head back.
It was her father who kicked her out the second and final time she left home, because she was pregnant. She was 17.

Her church friends told her to keep coming to worship; she was loved no matter what, they told her.
But Mara felt ashamed. In hindsight she wishes she had listened to them.

Mara married the baby’s father, “in an ugly peach tent dress” at the local courthouse. “I think I knew even then that I could do it myself, but I let too many people talk me into getting married.”
Baby Danica was named after a floral French fragrance that Mara’s beloved mother sold as a cosmetologist.

And “the day she was born was the best day of my life.”

The teen newlyweds made a go of it, getting jobs and moving into a small house together. But when Mara learned her husband had been cheating on her, the marriage ended.

She slipped into a dangerous spiral, partying and doing drugs. She met her second husband, an Army special forces sergeant, in a bar.

“The first time he hit me we were in temporary housing on a base in Clarksville, Tennessee,” she said.

“I had gone to the Walmart and I was late getting back. He said he thought I was out cheating on him. He was coming at me, but all I could see was my dad’s face.

“And my baby had to see it all,” she said.

Mara was held at knifepoint during her marriage. She was dragged around by her hair. She couldn’t believe she was reliving the abusive life her mom had lived. And she was ashamed. She developed an addiction to Vicodin, and found herself trying to numb her misery.

The last time she was hurt by her husband, he threw her against a wall. It was little Danica who had to call 911.

At this point Mara began a long journey of recovery—from drugs, from depression, from guilt. She had met a friend on the base where she was living toward the end of her marriage: Jason. He, too, was going through a painful divorce. They felt sparks, but Mara knew she needed to work on herself before committing to anyone new.

She went to rehab and counseling, and she moved to Arizona to get a fresh start.

Her connection with Jason lasted despite the distance, and six years after his first proposal, the two married. “It was nice to find calm after having so much chaos in my life.”

And then Mara received a phone call. Her father was showing signs of dementia. Mara flew out to see him.

“This was a man who had always taken care of himself. He manicured his nails. He was very careful about how he looked. And now he looked like a homeless person.”

What happened next was an exercise in forgiveness.

Mara moved her father to her home with Jason here in Virginia. She helped him receive medical care, including proper diagnoses for his ailments. They learned that he had both leukemia and Lewy Body dementia, a debilitating form of both dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Mara changed her father’s clothes for him. She helped him eat.

And in one lucid moment before his death in 2014, he told her: “I was so awful to you. To your mommy.”

And Mara said, “I forgive you.”

She credits her brother David—the one who first took her to that Baptist church in Tacoma when she was a little girl—with helping her heal. David died several years ago, of a brain tumor, but he was a model of faith for her throughout his life. Before his death, he said, “If you don’t learn to forgive, it’s going to fester.”

And he was right, she said.

“If there is one thing I want people to understand, it’s the power of forgiveness. It took me a long time and I did a lot of work. But I learned to forgive people in my family and I learned to forgive myself.”

And now: “I love differently. I let go of anger faster. My faith is my number one priority. And that has made all the difference.”