If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.
This past May, I shared a significant Sunday evening meal with a dear friend, Yasmeen. We had just gotten back to my house from a full weekend of camping and celebrating Mother’s Day. She and her cousin joined me and my boys at Montgomery Bell State Park. Our days there had been filled with playing in the creek, telling late night campfire stories, nearly freezing as unexpected cold rain came in, and hiking gorgeous trails. We caught small fish and such a variety of other creatures that we received a firsthand lesson on Tennessee creek bed food chains.
After packing up camp much later than I’d hoped — we needed to wait until early afternoon for our gear to (mostly) dry in the mid-May sun — we headed back to Yasmeen’s cousin’s house. There we enjoyed a Mother’s Day Sunday lunch with her Nana and extended family. When we finally made it back to Nashville, we unloaded and collapsed. But within minutes, we both realized our hunger. I threw together a quick, simple meal to satisfy our tired bodies. As we ate noodles with marinara sauce around my kitchen table, I remembered that spaghetti was the first meal that she and I had ever shared together. With this recollection, all the awareness of our shared stories and a flood of thankfulness filled my heart. Yasmeen is now a young woman, but when I met her, she was just seven years old. I’ve watched her grow and become more of who she is, and it has been one of the most joyful relationships I’ve ever known.
When we met, Yasmeen, her Nana, and her teenage uncle had gone through several rough patches and ended up in need of a wider group of friends and support. They had briefly been on the streets but were now living in a weekly motel less than four miles from our house. While homeless, they had received from the rescue mission a list of churches that wanted to be contacted to offer benevolence. On a Sunday afternoon in December, a friend from church who had already gotten to know Yasmeen and her family asked me if I could go by the motel and help them out with a laundry run. What began as an opportunity to meet a few practical needs quickly moved toward friendship when Yasmeen’s Nana, Louise, called me a few days before the start of 2006 and asked a simple question: “What are you cooking for New Year’s?” I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t have any plans for a special meal.
“You’re not cooking collard greens and black-eyed peas?” she asked with true astonishment. As I listened to her question, I heard the longing in her voice. I sheepishly let her know that I didn’t know how to prepare greens, but that my husband, Matthew, would love for me to learn. She proposed a plan where her family and mine would cook and eat together two nights in a row in preparation for the New Year.
On a Saturday night, we sorted and soaked black-eyed peas. Then we rinsed and soaked and salted an enormous bunch (or three!) of greens. After getting a roast and these two sides cooking to enjoy the next evening, we threw together a quick spaghetti dinner. We sat down around our small table. The five of us, strangers only a few weeks before, settled in to enjoy the comfort of simply being together around a common plate of food. As we began to eat, Louise’s son Sylvester (a man of few words) smiled and said, “I told you they make good spaghetti, mama.” Matthew and I exchanged a knowing glance — in saying “they,” he meant white people.
After church the following evening, we eagerly headed back to our house to serve up our New Year’s Day meal. The greens suffered from my less-than-vigilant taste-testing, the roast wasn’t the most tender, and, overall, our collective expectations exceeded what the food offered. Yet the time around the table was the beginning of something much greater. Winter meals, rounds and rounds of UNO, and plenty of laughter followed over the next several weeks.
Then one night, while we were cleaning up from dinner together, Louise turned to me and said, “Do you have an extra room?” I was stunned and didn’t know how to respond. But I knew I couldn’t ignore her question. So I swallowed and said a truthful yes, confident that all of the grace I had received up to that question gave me confidence to speak it. At the time, we not only had a room, but an entire upstairs that was completely unused. Two bedrooms, one half bath, and a large hallway. Empty beds and a futon. She had not been upstairs; we kept it closed off and unheated. Until her question, it had not crossed my mind to offer our extra space to her family.
Yet over the running water and general bustle of kitchen clean-up, it turns out that I misheard her question. After I answered yes, she went on to explain that they didn’t have a vacuum and wanted to be able to care for their motel room floor more often than cleaning was offered to weekly occupants. Oh! An extra broom, I realized quickly. But the misheard question lingered in my ears and on my heart.
Within a few weeks, we invited Louise and her family to move in with us. On one of her first days there, while the kids were in school, Louise and I talked through bits and pieces of our life stories with one another. She shared about becoming a mother the first time . . . and eight times after that. She shared about her failed relationships and the current dynamics between and among her loved ones. I listened. I told her some of my growing-up stories, my grief and struggles along with the longings, and the ways my own family was broken. She listened. And then we cried together.
We lived under the same roof for less than two months. The short time gave us many answers to the question, “What makes a house a home?” Shared meals and laughter became the foundation. Courage to tell each other our hard life experiences formed a beautiful entryway. Talking while cooking and cleaning side by side put up an internal framework that remains.
The vivid memories from those two months will never leave us. Coming home from work, the house was nearly always filled with the scents of meat and veggies ready to enjoy. We read some of our favorite books to Yasmeen and Sylvester. Morning after morning before school, we all watched Mary J. Blige and U2’s Bono sing “One.” Sylvester consistently questioned Louise’s accidental and constant nickname for Matthew saying, “Who Andrew, mama?” On Valentine’s Day we enjoyed a night in with chocolate fondue and words of admiration. One morning, Louise saw our soy milk and shared her firsthand knowledge of how soy milk is pressed, which she’d learned as a young woman while living on a farm. A week after Louise and the kids moved out, Matthew and I arranged to meet up with her to enthusiastically share the secret that I was fifteen weeks pregnant with our first child. When we told her, she smiled and said she’d known for weeks.
When Louise had asked me what I planned to cook for New Year’s, it was an invitation more than a request. She didn’t want to simply eat a meal: she wanted to share a meal and give us care. At the end of a hard year with no kitchen of her own, she didn’t despair. Instead, she reached out with an offer.
Then, when she asked to borrow a broom, she had no idea that my ears would drop that first letter. And neither of us knew that we were all the recipients of God’s larger invitation. He moved us in together to enjoy the blessings (and face the struggles) of becoming family.
I’ve since gotten to know her other sons and daughters, and many of them call me “sister.” She has become Nana Louise to our children. We’ve enjoyed her invitation and hospitality at countless barbecues and birthday parties plus a couple of Thanksgiving feasts. We call each other when we need advice. She’s asked me to boldly pray aloud with her in the middle (literally) of family conflict. She encourages us in our parenting endeavors. She understands me and listens with mother-like care. In all these ways and so many more, these have been unexpected paths. Yet they are the paths meant to stir our hearts and teach us the depth and potential of hospitality. In the beginning of this story and throughout, the hand of God is there — prompting calls, questions, and even misunderstandings.
Nana Louise’s Recipe for Greens
1. Wash them. For turnip greens, put salt in the water to help clean them.
2. Shake them real good.
3. Cut off the thickest stems but leave some stems cut up in it.
4. Cut the rest of the greens up.
5. Put smoked meat in. Use salt pork, ham hocks, hog jowls, or smoked bacon. Put the whole hunk of meat in.
6. Chop up some onions.
7. Add a little dash of sugar.
8. Cook them about three hours* to make sure they are good and tender.
* Collard greens take longer than turnip.
Alice Smith is a wife and mother living in East Nashville, where she looks for truth and beauty in the friends and neighbors around her. Alice studied Journalism and Christian Ministries & Missions at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. After graduating in 2000, she married her high school sweetheart, Matthew, and moved to Nashville, where she worked in the music business for six years. Matthew and Alice have two sons, Evan Edge (7) and Asher Hart (4). In her first year of homeschooling Evan, she also works at Montessori East, is a founding member of the Montessori Alliance of Tennessee (MAT), and enjoys managing the Rain for Roots projects.
Occasionally, Alice blogs at alicemarysmith.tumblr.com and sends tweets out into the ether at twitter.com/alicesmith. But she mostly just prays in fits and starts, between having adventures and making meals for little people, that Jesus would come quickly to renew this world.