Growing up, I thought my life was as normal as anyone else’s with its mix of good days and challenging ones. I assumed that everyone lived like my family did. We went to church, kept up our house and yard, and had a ton of relatives over for our birthday parties. How did I know anything different since the only examples of perfect families were on television and went by titles such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”? Even as a child I knew that these families were not real.
Yet it was the 50s after all. I had a mother who stayed home to take care of my two brothers and me. Like a million other kids, my dad went to work but always came home to us. Why wouldn’t I think my childhood was typical? It was years before I realized that my childhood was actually radically different, marked by my mother’s battle with bi-polar manic depression. I now know that it took heroic work on the part of both my parents to ensure that my brothers’ and my growing up years were as normal as they could make them under the circumstances.
My mother’s temperament and mood swings were all my brothers and I knew, so they seemed ordinary to us. We learned early that Mother had three main emotional states—sad, mad and glad. The way my mom felt emotionally on any given day decided the “weather” in our home.
It’s easy to recall what Mother’s glad or happy days were like. She always cooked and baked special things when she felt good. I can remember coming home from school and Mother asking my two brothers and me what kind of pie we wanted her to make. We could never agree on a choice, but it didn’t matter. As long as she had the ingredients, Mother would whip up three or four pies right then and there while we eagerly watched.
While never measuring a single ingredient, she would mix up multiple pie crusts that were perfectly flaky and absolutely delicious in their own right. Then she would make up pie fillings with a pinch of this and a handful of that. Coconut meringue, chocolate cream, and pecan were three of the most frequently requested pies. The whole time Mother mixed ingredients and made magic, she asked us about our school day and laughed at our funny stories.
I still remember how multiple pies lined up on the counter to cool made my little girl heart sing. I knew that Mother felt well and that my life might be easier and more pleasant—at least for a while. Even decades later, I smile as I think about Mother’s glad days. My brothers and I lived for those bright times. Seeing Mother smile and laugh with us gave us hope. Those happy times softened the effects of the rough days which were always just around the corner; and, I see God in those moments. They were like His own love gifts that got us through the hard days, which were always just ahead of us.
Mother’s sad and mad days came on as quickly and inexplicably as the glad ones. As a child, I never knew what turned a perfectly pleasant and happy day to one that brought my mother so much pain and unhappiness. What I did learn early on was to just embrace the joyful intervals…to lap up those happy moments when pie defined normal.
There were other days when Mother’s depression swept over her and took her away from us to a miserable place we hated. On those days, we walked in after school to a dark house where the blinds and curtains were drawn closed. There were no luscious smells in the air, nor laughter or bantering about how our school day had been.
I remember sometimes being afraid and wondering about supper and how I’d get my hair done for the school photos scheduled for the next day. Then I’d hear my dad’s car in the driveway and eventually the clumping sound of his work boots on the kitchen tile. I’d run to check and sure enough, my dad was home! I’d run to hug him and he smelled of diesel fuel and the greasy odors of the train yard where he worked.
Even now, my eyes tear up thinking how those whiffs of pungent smells were as precious to me as the freshly baked pies of the day before. Dad would fix us supper then see to our homework and our baths. He would tuck us into bed and hear our prayers, still smelling of his work place.
What remarkable evidence of God’s care and grace! I am amazed and grateful that our Heavenly Father watched over and protected the heart and spirit of the little girl who grew up to be me. Without a doubt, my love of the Lord and my heart for others and ministry developed even as I lived through my childhood and experienced my mother’s sad, mad, glad days.
So I ask you again. Have you ever smelled grace? I hope you have and I pray that you can remember that exact aroma right now. II Corinthians 12:9-10 “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
May the Lord continue to bless you with His grace…visible, heard, and yes, smelled!