When I was away at college, a common dinner-time conversation took place in the buffet line. With ceramic plate in hand, I would listen as this or that classmate complained about the food we were ladling onto our plates. “Can you believe this?” My disgruntled college culinary colleague would complain, “There must be at least four different kinds of starches on this table!” “Unbelievable!” I would nod in agreement while scooping generous portions of each one onto my plate.
“And just look at this ‘mystery meat’!” My outraged companion would wrinkle his nose as if the Swiss Steak before him were riddled with squirming, flesh-eating insect larva out in the hot sun. In response, I’d wrinkle my own nose and make some “soccer team in the Andes” joke about a missing classmate the cooks had been suspiciously eyeing just yesterday. In the midst of my pseudo-disgust, I would slip two helpings on my plate with a piece of bread anticipating the need to soak up every last drop of residual juice from the “disgusting” “mystery meat.” On the outside, I would play the, “This Food Is Terrible” game. On the inside, I was thinking, “This is the best food I’ve ever eaten!”
You see, here on Mother’s Day weekend, with no chance that my mom will ever read this, I can admit something to you. My mother could not cook. My mom was to cooking what “Rudi” was to Notre Dame football. Lack of innate ability, or positive results never kept her from trying something one more time. Mom could get the ingredients right, but somehow the end product never resembled the dishes that went by the same names in other kid’s homes. Ours was the only family I have ever known to eat “lobster meatloaf.” There wasn’t a shred of shellfish in it when she mixed it, but somehow our oven would manage to bake a hard shell around the outside of mom’s loaf of ground meat. Like eating a lobster, getting to the soft tender meat within, required cracking the hardened outer carapace.
With seven extraverted children around our large table, diversions would occur that would capture mom’s attention. During one such moment, my sister demonstrated a sleight of hand trick that she had obviously been working on for years outside of anyone’s awareness. She made her bowl of soup disappear under the table. When I began to comment on what my eyes had unmistakably observed, her eyes communicated a message that was at once threatening, plaintive, and promising. I looked under the table in time to observe our poodle licking up the last drop of mom’s vegetable soup. With a single, elegant, fluid motion, the now empty bowl reappeared as if it had never left its original spot on the table. I wanted to applaud. With a wink, my sister had paid forward her little secret. Now, with two food magicians in the family, our poodle was destined for a life of blissful obesity.
This Sunday’s Gospel (John 15) with all of its horticultural references to vines and branches and growing, was perfect for Mother’s Day. Did you hear the refrain that kept resurfacing over and over again throughout this passage? “Remain in me” (or “Abide in me” depending upon the translation). Mothers know something about “remaining” with us. Moms tend to be the ones who stick by us when we’re inconvenient, un-cute, and below average. By virtue of their faithful presence, moms seem to be at their best when we’re at our worst.
Notice that in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel, you will never catch even a passing reference to abiding “flawlessly.” As I reflect back on my own “mom” experiences, and a couple decades and a half of my client’s reflections, a strange thing comes into focus. It is often the parenting imperfections that have been most beneficial in the ongoing development of a person. I have shared how my mom’s lack of an inner Martha Stewart serendipitously led to a grown son’s ability to appreciate any meal placed before him. One of the grandfathers of child psychology (D.W. Winnicott) noted the importance of parenting failures in the proper development of a child. He noted that when a dedicated mom slips up in her empathetic read on a kid’s needs and wants, it gives a young person the opportunity to practice self-calming and to develop resilience.
When a mom loses her patience or temper, and swings back around with an apology, it communicates a powerful message, “It’s okay to be human.” “Perfection is not the pre-requisite for love and acceptance.” When a mom can acknowledge her own limitations with humor and self-acceptance, like a branch receiving nutrition from its anchoring vine, the child is given an opportunity to absorb the same spiritual gifts into his or her own soul.
If you are a mother who can look back and discern a time when your parenting was less than stellar, would you be willing to play with the notion that, in the hands of God, your parenting gaffe may have been an essential moment in your son or daughter’s growth. On this Mother’s Day, here is a message for all of you moms out there who have made it your business to abide with your kids through thick and thin.
“Thanks for loving us imperfectly.”