Posted by: Marie | May 8, 2011

(540) Spilled milk

Post #540
[Private journal entry written on Wednesday, November 24, 2010]

This morning, I woke up with an old memory on my mind. I wasn’t dreaming, really, I just woke up thinking about it.

I wonder if memories are coming to the surface today because it is the official start of the holiday season. Or maybe it is because today is the 19th anniversary of my dad’s death . . . ??

At any rate, I’ve been processing the memory all day, working through the details of it . . .

When I was nine, we moved from Colorado to a very small farming community in Nebraska. One of our new neighbors, Mrs. Sutton, was an “elderly” woman (she seemed ancient to me then, but I’m guessing she was in her fifties or maybe early sixties??) She and her husband had raised their children; then her husband died. As a widow, she spent her time enjoying her grandchildren and tending to her huge, prize-winning rose garden.

Photo by Martin Chen

She and my mom really hit it off well – our backyards were directly across the alley from each other, and our garden was at the far end of the backyard, adjacent to the alley, just a pebble’s toss away from Mrs. Sutton’s garden. There were no fences back there; there were only big, wide stretches of grass and gardens. So, it was common for neighbors to stand in the alley and have long conversations with each other . . . or looking over each other’s garden blooms.

A few months after we settled into our new hometown, the TV series “Roots” came out. It was shown over multiple evenings (two hours an episode, ten episodes over two weeks . . ??). We didn’t have a TV, so Mrs. Sutton invited us over to watch it each evening. I was the only one interested in seeing it with her. So, every evening, I would walk across the alley to her house for the show.

It was a big deal to me . . . the excitement of being allowed to watch TV, the privilege of being a guest in her beautifully appointed house sans my parents . . . it was the highlight of my entire school year.

She treated me like an honored guest. Every evening, she would set out a cookie or a few crackers, and a glass of milk for each of us to enjoy while watching the two-hour episode. We ate the cookies from real china and we drank milk from clear drinking glasses with fancy designs cut into them. Even the napkins had fancy patterns on them.

Of course, I was on my best behavior – she made me feel so special.

Well, one evening, I was sitting on the carpeted floor in front of the TV with my plate and my glass next to me. And, as could be anticipated, I spilled my glass of milk.

I was horrified. I felt sick to my stomach. I knew, for sure, I would never be invited back to her house again . . . who would want a careless, messy child in their beautiful home? I knew I would never see the rest of the “Roots” episodes. I started to cry with shame and disappointment as I scrambled to find something with which to clean up the spilled milk.

Mrs. Sutton directed me to sit still . . . and, she patted me on the head as she quickly cleaned up the mess. She assured me that many a glass of milk had been spilled in her house and the she knew exactly how to clean it up so that it would be like it never happened. She assured me that I was still welcome to come back to watch the remaining episodes and I was always welcome to come visit in her home because I was a joy to have around. However . . . she did think it might be a good idea for me to use a TV tray in the future. I readily agreed.

When I got home that night, I told my mom what had happened. I assured her that Mrs. Sutton was not upset, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

My mom responded with horror and anger. She berated me for being so careless . . . she said that I wouldn’t be allowed to do such special things if I was going to behave like that . . . that Mrs. Sutton had invited me over for a very special treat and then I behaved carelessly . . . maybe I didn’t deserve to do such special things . . . how would she be able to face Mrs. Sutton the next day . . . how could I embarrass her that way?

I remember the shock I felt at her outrage. Didn’t she hear me say that Mrs. Sutton said it was not a big deal? Didn’t she hear me say that I had apologized and I had tried to clean it up . . . that I had been as careful as possible to avoid it happening and then had done everything to make it right after it happened?

No, I guess she didn’t hear me say that. I said it, but she didn’t hear me say it. She was too busy being embarrassed at my childish awkwardness.

As she berated me, I once again felt the shame and disappointment wash over me. I had failed as a daughter, I had failed as a houseguest . . . and, I figured I wouldn’t be able to see the remaining episodes – not because Mrs. Sutton wouldn’t allow it but because my mom wouldn’t allow it.

Well, to make a long story short, my mom apologized on my behalf the next day, and Mrs. Sutton stood up for me and convinced my mom to allow me to continuing coming over for the remaining episodes. And, that really made me feel special . . . having an adult stand up for me and argue my case. Bless her heart!

I remember trying to make sense of the exchange with my mom in the days following. I remember thinking that I had no way to control accidentally spilling my milk at someone’s house short of just not accepting invitations to be a guest. If I had done something like knock on the wrong door (the utility door instead of the patio door) or address her by her first name, I could do better because I could control it.

But, spilling the milk was an accident. I had tried my best to be careful, but I still had the accident. I didn’t know how to make sure I didn’t have an accident. Because I believed I was incapable of controlling that, this incident became proof to me that it was appropriate for me to be excluded from normal social relationships. It amplified my belief I was broken and unworthy. I still remember clearly arriving at that conclusion in the days following.

Now, as an adult looking back, I am shocked at the lack of tolerance of my imperfection. I know this wasn’t the only time my imperfection was not tolerated, but it is one time that has stayed with me so strongly.

What were my parents thinking? How could they do that to a kid?

And yet, here, now, as an adult, I often demand the same level of perfection from myself. I believe I cannot be in an intimate relationship because I’m not perfect enough . . . who would want to be with me and with all my flaws? The thought of someone else accepting me along with my imperfections is very foreign to me.

Maybe it starts with me accepting my own imperfections . . . maybe . . .


  1. I think our acceptance goes back and forth. Sometimes we accept something in others that we don’t in ourselves and other times vice versa. In either case we can learn about acceptance.

    It is really tricky to get our parents out of our heads – or at least the parts we don’t like.

    • Hey, Evan –

      Upon reading your comment, I got to thinking . . . what does it mean to accept something? Does it mean we say it is okay and should be allowed to remain unchanged?

      – Marie

  2. Thank you for posting this. Sincerely, thank you. I posted your link to this post on my blog as well; I am very moved by how you have a memory of an adult that stood up for you. My blog link is I’ve been following you for awhile; however, I don’t think I have commented yet. Thank you for sharing your journey. It is helping others.

    Healing Thoughts your way…

    Journal of Healing

    • Hi, Journal of Healing –

      Wow! What an honor to be highlighted in your blog!

      I’m sure there are many of us who struggle with this . . . thanks for sharing your story with all of us!

      – Marie

  3. that’s a really heartbreaking story. my heart goes out to you.

    • Thank you for the support, Catherine . . . it is greatly appreciated . . .

  4. Our childhood hurts come back to haunt us throughout life in so many ways. Your mom’s reaction was wrong; likely she didn’t realize at the time how much it was hurting you, though or undermining you. I hope you get back your self-confidence and develop the beauty in yourself.

    • Hey, SJG –

      I really appreciate your well-wishes . . . we all deserve to develop and appreciate our own personal beauty!

      – Marie

  5. Re acceptance. My partner hates the word and I understand why. She prefers ‘acknowledging’ which I think is a good alternative.

    This is one of my disputes with the new age ‘everything is perfect now’ line. There are very many things that are very imperfect, some quite awful, and that need to be changed. They are welcome to regard me as unenlightened.

    For me the importance of acceptance means not kidding ourselves. Pretending that awful things didn’t happen to us (or that awful things aren’t happening to others) doesn’t bring change.

    What acceptance means is a big thing I think.

    • Hey, Evan –

      You know . . . I think I am in agreement with your partner on the acceptance / acknowledgement thing . . . I like her terminology for the same reasons she does . . . I think I’ll adopt that term into my vocabulary! Thank you!

      – Marie

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