My mother is a good cook. Not an innovative chef, but a good old-fashioned Southern casserole kind of cook. My kids would begggggggg to eat over there when they were little. No Meal-In-5-minutes pretend-cooking at Manda’s house. No spaghetti with a jar poured over it. No chicken breasts just floating around in watery mushroom soup. (At least not without at least 5 or 6 other ingredients mixed in.)
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
She could throw quite an elegant dinner party in her day. Or a bridge club luncheon. Or a little cocktail party with fancy hors d’oeuvres. She was even on the Cookbook committee of the Junior Assembly in 1962 or ‘3… smack in the middle of the ultra-chic Mad Men years. (Jackie Kennedy even sent in a recipe from the White House. I’m sure it was hand-written, too.)
Anyway, my mother has received a fair amount of praise for her cooking over the years.
But I have never heard her accept a compliment without a caveat.
If someone said they liked the green beans, she’d respond, “Oh, I’m afraid they were a little too salty.” If she heard, “Amanda, that pie was divine,” she would say, “Well, the apples weren’t very tart.” If someone commented that the casserole was delicious, she’d counter with, “Oh, I hope it was okay. I thought it was kind of dry.”
Or, better yet, she’d head you off at the pass. Before you even sat down at the table, she’d warn you. “This isn’t very good,” she’d say, while removing the dish from the oven.
Oh, yummy, we’d think. But then it really would be. Absolutely yummy.
Growing up, I thought that this was just how polite women were supposed to respond to compliments. To show that you weren’t proud or conceited… the deadliest of sins.
“I love your dress.”
“This old thing? It looks like a sack on me.”
“You look great.”
“No I don’t. I look like death-warmed-over.”
“Your house is gorgeous.”
“It’s a wreck.”
“You’re so pretty.”
“No, I’m not. You are.”
Self-deprecation was learned along with the Greater Catechism.
This irritates me now. In myself and others.
I wonder if it is some kind of generational bondage, passed down to women through their mother’s milk. Maybe it’s a cultural thing that will die out with my generation. I don’t hear Kate Gosselin putting herself down all the time. Or P. Hilton or LiLo or the Kardashians. Au contraire.
Perhaps it is strictly regional. For instance, you would rarely, if ever, hear a native Southern woman refer to her “absolutely maaarrrrvelous” parsnips, as Martha Stewart inevitably does. Then again, maybe it’s because we don’t eat many parsnips down here. But Martha also compliments herself on her faaabbbbbulous flower arrangements, her hand-knit hats with adorable earflaps, and her precious placecards made from pinecones. So I don’t know.
Maybe it’s okay to brag on yourself if you’re from the Northeast. Social mores do differ from region to region. All I know is I try to avoid Martha whenever possible. Self-aggrandizement gripes me just as much as its converse.
I started this piece a good while back. It was one of the 50 or so unfinished masterpieces lingering around in Documents. Some are just a few sentences or two. Ideas that never hatched.
But a couple of things made me go search for this one.
First was Marianne’s wonderful post, Beautiful Love. (Read it... second one down; won't let me link directly for some reason.) Marianne’s son, who has Downs syndrome, told her that she is beautiful. And she told him that he was wrong.
The second thing was the post I wrote clarifying the previous one. Trying to make sure I wasn’t misunderstood.
Now the two things seem unrelated. But I think that something on a spiritual level connects them, albeit tenuously.
A spirit of self-consciousness.
The issue is a concern about how we appear to ourselves and others.
Whether defending or degrading ourselves. Taking credit and/or blame. Whether it stems from low self-esteem or false modesty. Or even pride.
Marianne’s post made me think about how self-conscious I am. How I can’t accept a compliment (or a criticism) graciously.
How every time someone says, “Kim, you look good today,” I usually respond: “No, I don’t. I’ve got bags under my eyes.” Or, “I'm bloated.” Or, “I’m having a bad hair day.” How I always counter, “It wasn’t very good,” whenever my son-in-law compliments my cooking.
And I thought about how many, many women I know who do the same thing. How a friend will make excuses for the gift as she offers it. How another will tell me “she’s a ‘bad friend’ because she didn’t do xyz.” How some will just completely reject any positive comment about their appearance. Or anything else. How my mother always argues with you about the casserole.
Self-consciousness (unconsciously) disguised as modesty or humility?
It occurs to me that this is a bad thing on many levels. We are taking credit or blame for things that we were given. We make it all about us.
When it isn’t.
“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Corinthians 4:7)
What if we were less conscious of ourselves, and more conscious of the gifts we’ve been given?
Because each of us has been given unique gifts. What if we embraced them gratefully and joyfully, instead of disparagingly? What if we truly understood that God made us exactly the way we are for a reason? What if we more consistently recognized the true source of our identity?
I wonder if it hurts His feelings when we disdain and belittle the gifts He’s given us… whether it’s abilities, attributes, or even possessions. Because everything He made is good. He doesn’t give us useless junk.
I’ll make you a promise.
The next time I get a compliment, I am going to make a concerted effort to respond graciously. I am going to try to stifle that self-effacing Southern girl, and recognize that the speaker is acknowledging a gift I’ve received from my Father. Even if I don’t recognize it as such.
I am going to try very hard to simply say
Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think it is a generational/regional phenomenon, or is it more universal? What do you think it stems from? Does the Media Ideal of perfection enter in? What are your thoughts?
(p.s. anyone who mentions this post to my mother is gonna be in some deep doodoo.)