I grew up in a home that oozed love. I am pretty sure that if you drove past our house, you could smell affection’s sweet aroma from the street. My parents encouraged, guided, and cared for us: You want to play softball? I’ll coach the team. You have a sore throat? Let me make you some potato soup. As good parents everywhere do, they also disciplined us, teaching us to be kind, fair, and polite.
So at dinner time, Dad might dispense instructions like take smaller bites. Chew with your mouth closed. Keep your napkin in your lap. Take your elbow off the table. Today I value those lessons, but at the time, they occasionally dimmed my enjoyment of the evening meal. I would come to the table wriggling with the excitement of the day’s adventures, eager to share tales of my escapades as we enjoyed Mom’s meat loaf, french-sliced green beans, and a salad of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, dressed in mayonnaise. My parents were eager to hear my stories, but only to the extent that I could recount them while observing the proprieties of the table.
Every now and then, I left the table with a slightly bruised heart, sad to know that my father valued me chewing with my mouth closed above my breathless description of watching Joey Badger’s mom make homemade strawberry jam. Goodness, who knew strawberry jam could be homemade? My six-year-old self couldn’t even imagine. But swallowing that bite of mashed potatoes before speaking was essential even when I had such amazing discoveries to share.
As a mother, I sought to teach those same manners to my own daughter, but I wanted to do so gently. One of my standards of gentleness was that correction, when needed, was done in private–or as unobtrusively as circumstances permitted.
Which brings us to Christmas dinner, circa 1994, the year I got really, really angry at the dinner table. Of course, manners prevented me from expressing my anger, but I stewed behind my smile.
We sat gathered around my parents’ good table, enjoying the holiday meal together. In the midst of passing the cranberry sauce I noticed that my daughter, who was 12 or so, had propped her left elbow on the table. I turned to look at her, and when she met my gaze, I lightly, quickly, ever-so-subtly grazed the back of her offending left arm with my index finger. She smiled and tucked her hand into her lap.
She’s fine, my father announced in a big voice. Leave her alone.
The anger that flared inside me astounded me. What on earth? Why should one comment from my dad infuriate me so? Late that night, after the pumpkin pie, after the good-nights and the bundling off into the December night, I lay awake and pondered that sneak attack of volcanic anger.
Dad undermined my parental authority! Anyone would be angry! I fell asleep that night mulling an appropriate response to such an affront. Delivered at Christmas dinner. In front of the whole family. By my father.
Thankfully, a night’s sleep tempered my indignation. I awoke to discover a jagged insight crammed into that space where I’d been nurturing my outrage.
I wasn’t angry because my father contravened my efforts to raise a well-mannered girl. I wasn’t angry that my girl’s grandpa had overruled me. No. This anger belonged to that six-year-old girl who was cut off when she tried to share her amazing homemade jam discovery.
Sometimes we elevate childhood hurts on a high pedestal in the museum of our own life stories. And some children, sadly, experience horrible, awful, unspeakable wrongs that demand a place of prominence in their personal histories.
But me? This particular hurt? I was just holding on to a thirty-year old grudge.
It isn’t pleasant to wander through the museum in my mind and tear down the monuments to old slights that have grown monstrous through the years.
Unpleasant work, yes–sometimes even absurd work. Each generation, while lovingly welcomed into a family, sends us roaming through another wing filled with memories of What.Went.Before. It’s another chance to discover, and disown, old hurts.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Proverbs 17:27 (NASB)
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