When I was little, I would always jump at the chance to go with my mom to the grocery store. Not because I wanted to help her out, really- I was pretty much just in it for the perks: being helper at the grocery store gave me a considerable sway in which items my mom purchased. And there was one food in particular that I wanted to make sure she didn’t screw up: the pudding. Obtaining my favorite kind of pudding was actually a strategic art. I would make sure I was extra nice and helpful when we got to the aisles leading up to the pudding section, and once there, I would casually slip in a request for my favorite pudding pack. Looking back, I realize what a blessing it was that my biggest crisis as a child was whether or not our cabinets would be stocked with my favorite kind of pudding. My cup overflowed with childhood blessings: my parents cared for us with a beautiful fullness of love, and my childhood is one happy blur.
This is why it came as such a shock when, the summer before my junior year of high school, my parents sat my brothers and I down to have a talk with us. That whole conversation is one unhappy blur, but I know they said these words: your dad… prison… three to five years. I could tell that my parents were just as surprised to say these words as we were to hear them.
There was a whole lot I didn’t understand, but the short version of it is that my dad was a lawyer who represented a man who turned out to be very bad. When this man got caught he told the authorities that my dad was part of his scheme. The important part, though, is that suddenly, I was so far away from that little girl whose biggest crisis was obtaining her favorite pudding at the grocery store. I was confused by what I thought was now a very broken version of the life I had formerly known and loved. My cup of blessings, I was sure, had been knocked over, and all of my blessings were quickly spilling out.
It was this tangled heart, sorrowful and confused, that I carried with me the first time we visited my dad in prison. I tried my best to pretend like I didn’t see everything: the security guards, the barbed wire, the paleness that washed out my dad’s tender face. We couldn’t touch or sit next to my dad. Still, there was one thing we could do: buy him food from the vending machines. Of course, there was always a constant battle amongst my brothers and I over who would take the bag of quarters and go buy the food. But my mom managed to convince me to go pick out some treats for our family: “You can pick out whatever you want” she said.
After a quick perusal of the mostly stale and overpriced options, I came across a glimmer of hope: there, waiting for me in the vending machine, was the most glorious looking pudding cup, handcrafted by the prison kitchen. With haste, I shoved $4 worth of quarters down the coin slot. I may be in the strangest and most saddening place I have ever been, I thought, but gosh-dang-it, I will get this pudding cup.
Unfortunately, it was right at that moment that the vending machine ate all of my quarters. Not only did I not get the pudding cup- I had also wasted all of the money my mom had given me.
So, it is at this point that I started to heave heavy sobs in front of a vending machine in a federal prison in southern Michigan. And at this point, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of this:
I have nothing. It’s not fair. My heart is so very, very empty.
(I think you can tell that this wasn’t really about the pudding cup anymore.)
Now, I know it may seem strange, but something started happening once I got to college and started eating at the dining hall. I couldn’t get pudding for dessert without thinking of that prison pudding cup. At first, this was just another reminder of the brokenness that I thought was surrounding my family from all sides. And my goodness, I was so tired of all of those reminders. I was tired of having to awkwardly change the subject each time someone asked what my parents did for a living. I was tired of my new friends wondering why my dad wasn’t there to move me into my dorm room at Notre Dame, why my dad wasn’t in any of my graduation pictures, and why I’d sometimes leave the room abruptly and excitedly to catch one of my dad’s rare phone calls. I didn’t want to share the story of my family with anyone because I only saw the brokenness.
But as I thought more about that prison pudding cup, I began to realize something important. Me, sobbing in front of that vending machine? That isn’t the whole story.
There was something deeper than the brokenness, something that gave my family the grace-filled opportunity to love each other more fully, in the most unexpected of circumstances. In fact, when my dad came back home this past spring, I saw this love present in my family more than ever before, and coming home from college was so exciting.
Now, being a typical college student, one of the first things I did when I got home was head to the fridge in search of food. To my surprise, there was a little gift waiting for me there: a pack of my favorite pudding, that my dad had picked up at the grocery store just for me.
The thing is, this little gift of pudding was a reminder of a whole lot of love- and the surprise of those pudding cups waiting for me wasn’t the only surprise. For, even in the years that I had thought were broken, there had been so many surprising gifts of love: the gift of a new friend hearing my family’s story and not loving us any less, the gift of generous strangers who helped my family make ends meet each month, the gift of family and friends that visited on holidays and birthdays so that our home would never feel empty, but filled with love- love in overflow.
I never wanted to tell a soul about my family situation when it was, to me, only a story of brokenness. But as time passes, and God’s grace abounds, I am starting to see the fuller story. It’s not the story of a cup knocked over. It’s not the story of a cup emptied to the last, desolate drop. It’s the story of a strong, loving hand- a God that steadied and filled my cup with blessings even when I couldn’t see it: Blessings in overflow. I’m still learning that I always need God’s help, even today, to see all of the stories of my life as a story of love. But He always steadies my heart, giving me the grace to see the real and hidden story, with joy and in thanksgiving.