Friday, October 11, 2013

*Hospitality Lost and Found*

I can’t remember if I trembled when they asked. I’m pretty sure I did. The question came in an e-mail but would’ve been cooler if it had arrived via telegraph.

Coming to your town for five days –(STOP)-
Can we stay with you –(STOP)-
Or at least share one good Italian meal

            I cupped my hand under my mouth to catch the excuses as they flowed, mostly buts. But I think Big Girl (our oldest daughter and their missionary nanny for three months) will be at college by then. But we have a softball tournament that weekend. But we don’t have enough room, folks will have to sleep on the sofá and the floor. But I’m intimidated, because the wife mommy is a food blogger. And I’m freaked. What if she’s also a white-gloved dust inspector? The house hasn’t been cleaned, really spiffed up, in so long.
            And yet, how could I say no? Big Girl had lived with them a quarter of a year, in a compact casa in Honduras. They shared their every meal, their children, and their vision with her. I couldn’t say no. But I wanted to, was ashamed that I considered it.
            I tried to say, “Mi casa es tu casa,” but I couldn’t get my Irish, German, English, French lips around the words, much less the concept. The only way I can achieve a really good Spanish accent is to mimic the Verizon recording: “Para Espanol, marque el dos.”
            Where did they go—my gift of hospitality, my spirit of generosity? I grew up. Little Me (“Wanna figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Lollipop? Here, you go first.”) was cannibalized by Grown-up Me (“Me, my, mine. That’s all I have time for.”).
Honk! Honk! Honk!
            Big Girl clambered down the stairs. “They’re here.”
            I heard jubilation in her voice. I hope she sounds like that when she speaks of us—her real family.
            I peeked out the foyer window as she sprinted toward the street. My eyes bugged as all five of them tumbled out of a dusty old van.
            The wife mommy’s hair was like whipped cream with one drop of yellow food coloring, but her eyes weren’t blue. With hair that Swedish looking, I would’ve thought they’d be glacier, no, fjord, blue. If I took a glass prep bowl and filled it with good quality Italian olive oil and whisked in vanilla? That would be the color of her eyes. She was tinier than me, with an elegant slice to her deltoids.
            Now he, the husband daddy, was a Mr. America leprechaun. His dark hair was smooshed up into a singular wave. From inside the house I could feel his just-bonked-a-tuning-fork-on-a-brick energy undulate toward me. I possess that vitality too, but somehow while they were here, I felt subdued. Calm not jangly, hot chocolate instead of espresso.
            All three offspring had blue, surprised eyes and banana-colored hair. Baby boy buried his face in wife mommy’s neck. The two toddler girls catapulted into Big Girl’s embrace.
            “We missed you! Tell us a story!”
            Unnoticed, I pressed my nose against the door’s screen, waited to face-plant into the invisible ice-cube structure I was certain would exist between us. I know, I thought, I’ll fetch my crème brulee torch. But I didn’t need to. When they climbed onto the front porch, I didn’t even get goosebumps.
I wonder if they ever figured it out. The bad thing I did. In the weeks prior to their arrival, I’d crafted a plan, a schedule, to keep them busy. Away from our place. Because really, how could ten people in a hundred-year-old house for five days be good? I arranged sights for them to see. Over in the next county, with other families, in their homes. Go, go, go. Vroom, vroom, vroom. Then they’d pass out every night by nine, right?
            And then came the day they didn’t want to go anywhere. They just wanted to be. Here.
            “We like your house best,” they said. My eyebrows lifted beneath my bangs.           
            “Really,” the wife mommy said. “It’s like a super cool, artsy bed and breakfast.”
            My shoulders descended. The corners of my mouth lifted.
            “Nap time,” the husband daddy proclaimed. He stood—the boy baby slumped in his arms, a toddler girl on either side. They headed for the stairs.
            And then we were alone, the wife mommy and me. I checked my watch, tied my shoes. What do we do now, I wondered.
            “Wanna cook some stuff?” I said.
            She grinned and followed me into the kitchen.
            Over at the counter, I sliced strawberries into thin, red halos. Wife mommy reached for the bowl and showered the fruit in balsamic vinegar, sprinkled it with raw sugar. We ate. Smiled.
            I peeled and chopped roasted golden beets, vinaigretted them. Rained down toasted pecans and tiny diced feta.
            “Add that to the list,” wife mommy said, “of recipes you have to send me.”
            I handed her the menu from our Italian Feast Night. “Mark all the things you want recipes for.”
            She circled almost every item then turned her attention to the shitake mushrooms from the farmers market. She sautéed them in golden green olive oil with heaps of garlic minced by me. She flicked in a speck of Silafunghi, my favorite Italian hot pepper concoction, stirred, lifted the wooden spoon to her lips.
            “Wait!” I said. I pressed the spoon back into the sauté pan. “Don’t taste it yet.” I held up my pointer finger. “I have to do one thing.”
            I darted outside to my herb garden, used my fingernails to nip off the largest sage leaves I could find, brushed the soil flecks away. Grinned as I remembered my mom’s philosophy—You gotta eat a peck of dirt before you die.
            Back in the kitchen. I floated the silvery leaves in hot oil, flipped them when they became see-through, used my grandmother’s tongs to hold them up to the light.
            “See? Don’t they look like stained glass? Or an old Coke bottle? Here, put some mushrooms on your fork and top them with a crispy sage leaf. Now taste.”
            I held my breath and watched. Her tongue worked. Her eyelids fluttered. She held up both thumbs. I laughed.
            As she prepped another bite to eat, I whispered, so she wouldn’t hear me, turned away, so she couldn’t see my mouth move.
            “I wish you lived here,” I said to the refrigerator door. “Then we could be friends. We'd eat like this over and over, not just one Sunday afternoon and never again.”
The next day, Big Girl and I waved as their van drove away. The morning sun glinted off my daughter’s tear tracks. I didn’t cry. I was too busy working on my accent, in my head, trying to get it just right in case they circled the block and stopped in front of our house for one more Big Girl hug or kiss. But they didn’t come back. If they had, I would’ve sprinted down the steps to the Street, pecked on the husband daddy’s window till he rolled it down.
            “Just so you know, mi casa es tu casa.”

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Like Salt to French Fries

I live to hear the words, "Can you fill a food order, please?” In my mind, I see myself going down into a lunge. Left knee touches the ground, right arm comes back like I'm starting a lawn mower. "Yesssss!"
            I bolt up the stairs, two at a time, to the top floor. I stand in front of the shelves and fill old grocery bags with pasta, peanut butter, cans of soup, and fruit cocktail. I can't stop grinning because this makes me happy.


It was almost six years ago. I was headed to BB&T. I watched my feet on the sidewalk. "Step on a crack, break your mother's back.” After awhile, I looked up and instead of being in front of the bank, I was in front of a building that said Loving in big letters.
            I reckon it had something to do with Isaiah 58:7. It'd been on my mind for almost two years. "Share your food with the hungry. Clothe the naked." The words were a shish kabab skewer that poked me under the ribs every time I heard or read them.
            I'd been praying. Waiting. Looking for a burning bush. All of a sudden, there it was.   But it wasn't burning, and it wasn't a bush. It was Christian Help, Incorporated, founded in 1975.

Every Tuesday, more often than not, I drive down Grand Street to town, to Christian Help. I peer up through the blue part of my windshield. "A parking spot right in front would be awesome, God.” Usually it's there, especially if my trunk is full.
            I walk in the front door and say, "Howdy," to whoever's at the front desk. Used to be Glinda, before she had a stroke and moved to assisted living. I always hugged her and whispered into her steel-colored curls, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
            She'd cup one of my cheeks with her cool, dry hand and smile up at me. "Good to see you, girlie."


I love them, all the ladies. I'm going on year six of volunteering and they've put in twenty five or more. I work two to three hours a week. Some of them are there every day. They're all in their seventies, at least. And Spud, who moved here from Jersey, to live with her daughter? She's ninety something. Reminds me of a grey-haired Jack in a deck of cards.
            There's also Rose and Annie, Sis and Carol too. Ethel and Earlene come on Tuesdays, like me. Glory hallelujah when Ethel brings one of her pound cakes. Thank you, Jesus when we have a pot luck lunch and Earlene brings her sauerkraut with tiny, tasty shreds of pork.
            I love the shining, antique faces of the ladies, the way their eyes and teeth flash white when I spring through the doorway of the clothes sorting room. Their smiles say they're as glad to see me as I am to see them.


I've seen a whole lot of staff come and go in six years. That's the nature of Americorp Vista, usually paid a pittance, workers. But Cheryl, the executive director, has been there since before me. God bless her because running Christian Help requires managing chaos, reassessing the greatest need, the greatest good, Monday through Friday, plus the first Saturday of the month.
            Cheryl's radiant. Maybe she goes to a tanning booth. Or she could be part Native American. Just between you and me, I think it's because she loves the Lord. Moses glowed when he came down from the mountain of God, you know.


I stopped asking the younger volunteers why they're at Christian Help. Usually it's because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I just smile real big and say, "Welcome!  We're so glad you're here."
            One time a handsome guy, who filled out his t-shirt sleeves, asked me why I volunteer at Christian Help. I'd been waiting for that question, waiting for the chance to give the reason for the hope that I have. I had paragraphs prepared, but they evaporated. "'Cause I love Jesus.” My voice sounded wee. He squinted at me, head tilted. "Cool."


To me, serving, volunteering, whatever you want to call it, is like that line in the Jerry McGuire movie:  It completes me. For years, I attended Bible study every Friday morning, learned all kinds of neat stuff. But one day, a wise woman's opinion changed my life. "Bible study is all well and fine, but sooner or later, we have to start doing what Jesus told us to.”
            I think serving is to life what salt is to French fries. I understood that the first time I filled an emergency food order. It was a religious experience. Spud's the unofficial queen of the food pantry, but she wasn't there to hear me say, "I'm doing it. I'm feeding Jesus' sheep."


I sure hope I'll still be driving down Grand Street to town, to Christian Help, for another couple decades.  After that, much as I love to hear, "Can you fill a food order?" or, "Can you help someone with an interview outfit?" what I long to hear is, "Well done, good and faithful servant.” But not yet, not until I'm at least as old as Spud.

(In loving memory of Edith Applegate Bilson, also known as "Spud.")


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