Mustard Seeds

Sometimes just a few words make a big difference

by Susan Palwick

My family went through some tough times when I was a kid. My mother was stable and loving but often anxious about money, and my father and his second wife— both brilliant, caring people at their best— drank too much and fought too much, often spending too much along the way. I lived with my mother in New Jersey most of the time, visiting my father and stepmother in New York City every other weekend and for a month in the summer. I was healthy, well-fed, well-educated, and indisputably loved, but I also worried a lot.

For many years I spoke to no one, not even my mother, about my fears. Like many people who play the hero role in alcoholic families, I’d absorbed the message that my job was to make my parents look good. I got excellent grades. I never misbehaved. I learned early on to get along much better with adults than with other children. My father and stepmother proudly trotted me out at parties to show their friends what a model citizen I was. If we looked okay, the unspoken logic went, we must be okay. Although I was desperately lonely, I prided myself on my seamless facade.

I’ve never had much of a poker face, so I doubt the facade was as seamless as I believed at the time. But I can still remember my astonishment, at age 13 or 14, when a complete stranger—an adult at a dinner party at a friend’s house—looked me straight in the eyes and said, very quietly, “Are you happy?”

I took a step back, unbalanced and probably blushing. My father and stepmother weren’t even acting badly that night. How could this stranger know to ask that?

“Of course I’m happy,” I told him, raising my chin and rallying my wits. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

He didn’t answer that; later the hostess told me that he’d said I had a lot of cool. I

thought he had a lot of nerve, but I was also—although I’d never have admitted it at the time—intensely grateful to him. My family wasn’t okay. Someone else had seen it. Having been asked if I was happy, I now had permission not to be. The hostess told me he was a pediatrician; I think now that he must have been an excellent one.

“Are you happy?” Those three little words cracked my facade. Over the next few years, other comments by adults, none more than a line or two, emphasized the point. Things in my family weren’t normal, these interactions told me. It was okay to ask for help. Ultimately, at the urging of a social worker I only met once, I joined Ala-Teen, the support group for children of alcoholics. I could talk freely there. Things got better.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches” (Matthew 13:31, NIV). The briefest of meetings, the smallest of conversations, can change people’s lives, planting the seeds that ultimately blossom into life-giving growth. And the most important seeds of all are planted when we are children.

One Christmas when I was volunteering in the ER, a family brought in their little girl. She had an ear infection. She was miserable; her parents were mired in their own unhappiness. When I introduced myself as the lay chaplain, the mother shook her head and fumed, her voice a strident whine. “She always does this! She always ruins our holidays by getting sick!”

The mother clearly had her own issues. My fury at her selfishness was mine. I knew I couldn’t show it. Instead, I knelt in front of the little girl and said, “I used to get ear infections when I was your age, and I know how much they hurt. I’m sorry you’re sick on Christmas, but I’m glad your parents brought you here, because the doctors will give you medicine to help you feel better.”

The child just stared at me. Her parents, who seemed suddenly to remember their manners, thanked me effusively. I left the room and vented to a nurse, who sympathized; later, I went upstairs and vented to one of the staff chaplains, who didn’t. I had boundary issues, he told me. I had no business butting in. I was guilty of supreme arrogance in believing I could change the dynamics of that family.

“I wasn’t trying to change the family,” I told him. “I just wanted the kid to know that an adult had heard what her mother said and disagreed. I wanted her to see that someone thought her pain was more important than the inconvenience to her parents. Even if she doesn’t understand that now, maybe she’ll remember it later.”

“In my experience,” the staff chaplain said briskly, “interventions like that don’t work.”

“In my experience,” I told him, “they do.”

No doubt he spoke from his own history, as I spoke from mine. In this instance, which of us was right? I’ll never know. The girl was seven or eight, younger than I was at that memorable dinner party. Did my seed land on fertile soil, or stony ground? Either way, I’m still not sorry that I planted it.


This article won the 2013 Honorable Mention for Theological: Biblical Interpretation from the Associated Church Press.

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