Three Tablespoons of Mustard
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“Three Tablespoons of Mustard,” New Era, July 1984, 41

Participatory Journalism:
Three Tablespoons of Mustard

Suddenly, throwing up seemed like a good way to get attention and forgiveness at the same time.

If anyone had ever told me that I’d gulp down three tablespoons of mustard, I’d have said they were crazy. But being raised in a big family can do strange things to a person.

It had been one of those days that only somebody who has been raised in a big family could possibly appreciate. I had been working all month at school to complete a social studies unit, and our grades had been announced. I had received an A plus, and I couldn’t wait to get home so I could tell my mother.

When I bounded through the door, eager to bring the good news to my mother, I heard a screech.

“Come here! Quick!” my mother shouted.

I ran into the kitchen and saw my mother trying to put my two-year-old sister on the kitchen table.

“Hurry,” Mom continued, motioning me over to the table. “I need you to hold her down while I try to get this rubber plug out of her nose!”

I grabbed my young sister’s thrashing hands while Mom tried to dislodge the plug with a pair of tweezers.

“How’d she get a …” I started to ask above my sister’s screams.

“Don’t ask questions,” Mom interrupted. “Just hold her still, please!”

Later, with the rubber plug operation finally completed, I started to tell Mom about my school project.

Suddenly, my kindergarten-age sister came crashing through the front door screaming at the top of her lungs.

“I’m bleeding to death! I’m bleeding to death!” she shouted all the way into the kitchen. She walked into the kitchen bleeding from two big holes in her long stockings.

Then the baby started crying from downstairs.

“Will you go take care of the baby while I clean your sister up?” Mom asked as she carried my sister upstairs to the bathroom.

I slowly walked downstairs and into my baby sister’s room. She stopped crying as soon as she saw me and started to jump up and down in her crib, coaxing me to pick her up.

She wrapped her pudgy arms around my neck as I carried her to the family room and sat her down on the couch. I changed her pants and tickled her, and she started to laugh. As I reached down to pick up a toy for her to play with, she rolled off the couch and onto the hard floor.

She was screaming when I picked her up and started to run upstairs with her. A lump was already starting to swell on the back of her head.

“What did you do?” Mom asked taking the baby from me. “Can’t you be more responsible?”

I ran out of the room sobbing and went downstairs to the furnace room.

When I heard the baby stop crying, I crept out of the furnace room and started to go upstairs.

Just then I heard Dad come through the front door and greet Mom with, “Well, how’s your day been, dear?”

Mom collapsed into Dad’s arms and said, “Well, Grant shaved off all his hair. He said he was afraid that he was starting to look too much like the establishment. Diane said she’s never going to school again because her boyfriend told her she was too fat. Mary’s got the flu or something. Linda thinks I’m the most terrible Mom in the world because I won’t let her wear her dresses as short as all the other girls. Joy fell down and skinned both her knees on the way home from school. Dawnene ran outside without any clothes on and danced around in the front yard until the neighbor boys called and told me what our three-year-old was doing. Lori got a rubber plug stuck in her nose, and Janene let Lisa fall off the couch and bump her head.”

“Sorry I asked,” Dad said as he ran upstairs. “I’ve got to get packed and ready to go. My plane leaves in an hour.”

I went back downstairs to the furnace room. It was the only place in the whole house where I could be alone. I had fixed myself a little desk and chair and called the room my “laboratory.”

Suddenly I heard Dad’s voice booming through the heat duct, “Who’s been using my razor?”

I suddenly remembered leaving Dad’s razor in the girls’ bathroom again.

“You’d have to get the black plague to even get noticed around here,” I mumbled to myself as I slid my thumb over the cover of my social studies unit that I was so proud of.

Then I remembered a conversation I had had with a girl friend earlier that day. She told me that if you ate three tablespoons of mustard, it would make you throw up for sure.

Suddenly, throwing up seemed like a good way to get a little attention and forgiveness at the same time. Mom would forgive me for letting the baby fall off the couch, and Dad would forgive me for sneaking his razor again.

Just then I heard Mom call, “Time for dinner. Come and get it or I’ll throw it out.”

All the kids ran like a stampede for the kitchen. I quietly slipped into my place at the table while Dad gulped a glass of milk.

“Got to go. See you Saturday,” he said as he pecked Mom on the cheek and left.

Two of my sisters were giggling about Grant’s bald head until he gave them both an elbow. Diane wouldn’t touch her food because she was suddenly on a diet. Mom asked me to run a tray of food up to Mary. Linda was still sulking about her old-fashioned wardrobe. Lori started to stuff a bean up her nose just as the baby kicked over my glass of milk, and Dawnene started crying because she wanted to have two bandages on her knees like Joy.

Later, after I’d finished doing the mountain of dishes, I opened the refrigerator door and stared at the mustard. I looked around to see if anybody was watching, then quickly pulled a tablespoon out of the kitchen drawer and plunged it into the jar of yellow goo.

I brought the spoon up to my nose and turned away at the smell. Then I held my nose with one hand and shoved the spoon in with the other. That was quickly followed by two more heaping spoonfuls.

I quickly put the jar back in the refrigerator and rinsed the spoon off in the sink as a chill ran up my spine. Then I waited by the sink for something to happen. I waited and waited but still nothing.

Two of my sisters ran into the kitchen and asked me what I was doing.

“I don’t feel well,” I said, trying to act a little greenish.

“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you,” they taunted as they skipped back out the door.

I walked back down to my furnace room and waited again. But nothing happened.

I ate three tablespoons of mustard for nothing, I thought. I felt so embarrassed at myself that I went upstairs and went to bed early so I could avoid everybody.

As I lay in bed, I felt like I did the night I jumped off the top bunk bed because my Sunday School teacher told me you could do anything if you had enough faith. Well, I wanted to fly really bad. I refused to tell anybody in the family where my goose egg came from.

Later, Mom tiptoed into the bedroom I shared with three sisters and found me rolled up in a ball underneath a pile of quilts in my bed.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asked as she tucked the blankets around me. “Joy said you were feeling sick.”

“I’m feeling fine,” I said avoiding her eyes.

“You sure did a nice job on the dishes,” Mom continued. “I saw your schoolwork too. You got an A plus. That’s wonderful, honey. I know you’ve been working hard on that project.”

I sat up in bed feeling a lot better.

“I didn’t mean to shout at you about the baby,” Mom continued. “You’re always so responsible with your younger sisters. I’m sure it was just an accident. It’s happened to me before too.”

“Really?” I said. “I’m the one that took Dad’s razor too, Mom. I know I’m not supposed to use it, but Mary and Diane always lose mine.”

“I’ve borrowed Dad’s razor without asking a few times myself,” Mom answered.

“Really?” I asked putting my arms around her neck.

I never ate three tablespoons of mustard again.

At that moment I realized that my mother was not only aware of me and my problems, but that she also cared a great deal in a very specific way. She had already experienced many of the things I was going through.

Earlier that evening it had seemed impossible to feel important since I was just one in a crowd, but suddenly I received a sweet assurance that I was not unnoticed and that I was loved.

And there have been other times since that night, times when my solitary struggles have seemed too heavy to bear. There have been times when I have felt lost and alone and not understood, times when I wondered if anyone knew my heart or cared.

Then thoughts of that evening and those three tablespoons of mustard come back. And as I felt assured of my earthly parents’ love that night, though I was only one of many, I also feel assured of my heavenly parents’ love. Even in the vastness of the eternal plan, they know me and they love me and they care. “And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6).

Illustrated by Michael Rogan