The Serving Bowl

I was in my first year of college that Christmas, wondering how I’d ended up where I was. All my life I’d been at the top of the class, teacher’s pet, hi-cap and, I suppose, in general thought of as ‘going somewhere’. 

There was this moment in my senior year, after taking the exams and being accepted for early start in community college, that changed everything. A nerve hit. A perspective shift. A cold cup of reality thrown on my dreams. I didn’t get to go to college early and the reality thing made the whole ‘dreaming of new things’ harder than I could have anticipated. 

No one talked to me about scholarships. Not even the school counselor. First he tried to shoot down my oldest brother’s university goals and then he completely neglected the conversation with me altogether. What WAS his job at that school, anyway?! No one talked to me about money except my parents, who had taken a second mortgage to pay for my oldest brother’s university education and gave my other brother a start in life by gifting him a house to live in. That left nothing for me, not even the money to help me have a car that could safely drive over the horn to get me to that community college’s classes.

My parents didn’t really dream of anything more than a happy little home in a simple place with a simple life. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. They gave us an incredible start to life and a foundation that many wish they had. I can’t complain about their choices. I just wish they would have believed that my dreams were reachable. My dreams. My brains. My intuition. My work ethic. They were all pretty toppings on a cake.

Fast forward a couple of years. I’d taken a year out to work at a bank and put enough money aside to buy a decent little Honda and pay for ONE semester at a cheap little private SDA college. Well, I should qualify that: I had enough money to pay for that one semester – as long as I worked a full time job at the college while I took classes. Because I worked in the business office of the college, every penny of my paycheck went directly to my debt. I never saw a dime. We weren’t allowed to withdraw any cash from our account unless our account was in the black. And mine never was. 

My car broke down just outside the gates the first week of November, and it sat there, unmoved, for nearly 2 years until it was towed away finally. I think I signed the title over to a young couple who thought they could do something with it. It had long since left my mind when they asked for it. 

Having no vehicle to drive felt like prison, even though I didn’t have two dimes to rub together or throw into the gas tank. I no longer had to allow my car to be used for outreach purposes and go through the process of trying to get gas money approved and requisition papers and receipts and all that junk. But I couldn’t leave campus without help, either. 

I ran out of money altogether. 

I used washcloths instead of pads while on my periods because I ran out of those things modern women buy at the store.

Sometimes I would walk over to the gas station across the overpass just to look at the snickers bars, then walk back to the dorm again.

Deprivation became a badge of honor, starvation an addiction. If I skipped the meal time, there was no option for food until the next meal time – no less than 5 hours later. If I couldn’t hold out any longer, I’d go eat, being careful to take less than those around me, leave some on my plate, and vomit every ounce of it up as soon as I could escape the prying eyes of others. As a punishment for my failure, I’d be sure to be out walking during the evening meal time. Sometimes at night I would go and look in the dorm fridge at the food other students kept in there. Food they owned, food they’d bought with their own money and wasn’t subject to only being consumed during the proscribed meal times. I never stole any of it. 

The first week of December I got another job, off campus. It was at a nearby church, doing childcare one night a week. They paid well, at least I thought so at the time, and sometimes the other girls from the college and I would stop at McDonald’s after we got off work and sit in the warmth and eat hot french fries. I would only eat a few, but they were the best french fries I’ve ever tasted. 

The few dollars I earned from the church childcare job were carefully saved for Christmas gifts. But not quite all of them. I walked to the gas station one night and brought back a snickers bar and a liter bottle of Mt. Dew. A friend and I sat up all night in the dorm stitching gifts to give our boyfriends. We made the same gift: a cross-stitched poem that would be fitting for the pastors-in-training we were dating. She stitched fast and sloppy and made a second one for her ‘hopeful’ mother in law. She never gave her gifts; the relationship fizzled out as quickly as the first relationship of the school year had. I gave my gift to the guy I was dating. He probably donated it to the goodwill eventually. I’ll never know.

I made several other gifts for my family members. Small trinkets, hand-stitched sayings and snippets of wisdom in tiny dollar-store frames. With every stitch I wished I had more to give them. All of them. They were such paltry things, and so small. I prayed over each one as I wrapped them, hoping they’d be a blessing in some way and that God would direct me to give each person the one that would be most meaningful. When my mother opened hers and read the tidbit of wisdom and the text that accompanied it, a look of offense crawled over her face and she tossed it aside. I bit my tongue.

As the days whittled by and Christmas loomed closer, the one gift that perplexed me the most was for my boyfriend’s mother.  What does one get for a boyfriend’s mother? I was stumped. I didn’t want to risk offending her, couldn’t think of anything that was personal without being too personal. In fact, I could really only think of one thing that she even liked: salad. No, I’m not even joking. She ate a lot of salad. And she looked like salad made up exactly 100% of her diet. 

So I bought her a salad bowl. Not just a Wal-mart plastic dish. It was Pfaltzgraff bowl that I spent pretty much all I had left on. Or, in other words, about $15. It’s lovely, with a teal and violet stripe around the top, pretty but not cutesy, I thought. And then I didn’t know what to put IN the salad bowl. I mean, do you really just wrap up a salad bowl and give it to someone? Does that make it seem cheap or….odd? 

I stared at that bowl for a long time and thought about it far too much. And then I put some potpourri in it and a small, cheap snowball shaped candle in the middle. She could enjoy the holiday scent and candle for a little while, then later wash it and reuse it over and over again.

Four months later the bowl was given back to me. Awkwardly. In exactly the same shape I’d given it: with the candle untouched. It sat in my room at my parents house that way until I got married, not to that boyfriend, and not into that particular family, a few years later, when I finally threw the candle and potpourri into the stove and watched them burn.  

Today the bowl has a place in my cupboard. I hardly think of it, rarely use it. Now and then I pull it out, put some good, rich, comfort food in it, and sit down to eat at a table with my family where I consciously thank God for the food, the warmth, the loving arms of a man who loves me so deeply, and the bounty that He led me to in the life I live now.

Sometimes I forget how dark those days were, how close I was to being consumed by the cold, dark obsessions that chipped away at my soul till it felt old and cold and hopeless. How it felt to think everyone who had ever told me I was smart was just lying. That dreaming was worse than useless. To be told that I was lucky to have a boyfriend who would put up with my ” eating disorder issues”.

It is good. It is GOOD for me to be reminded of where I was, so I can appreciate where I am. So I can remember how futile it is to despise my own journey. To realize again that hating my body is only an outpouring of hating something deeper inside, something I was once desperately afraid of. 

Turns out the bowl wasn’t really a gift for someone else, it was a gift to the future me. 

Maybe one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.

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