I was in the check out line at Target chatting with the woman behind me and the checker. The checker was sharing that she would complete her 8-hour shift, go home, and still stay on her feet, to make macaroni and cheese for her family. At first, I thought she meant that she was too tired to cook and they would be eating macaroni and cheese from a box.
Then, a light bulb turned on in my head and I got a clue. A very traditional holiday side dish in some households is macaroni and cheese. She would be making and eating the GOOD kind of homemade macaroni and cheese, I’m sure with some sort of family gathering.
This thought brought to mind some of the warmest memories I have from my travels as a young adult. Whether I was a missionary or a kid in college far away from home, I was lucky to be invited into the homes of others to share in their celebrations. I’d like to share some of those moments with you.
A friend from college took me home to St. Louis one break. The family had four or five children, all young adults. Her mom introduced herself, and then said, “I don’t wait on my children. Feel at home, and help yourself.” I told her that sounded like home to me, and I wouldn’t expect anything different.
I spent time with another family during Thanksgiving in St. Louis. They all wore over-sized Christmas sweaters, and the women wore leggings. I literally had to dress for the occasion. That was different for me since my family was very casual. This mom had preserved my friend’s room, just as she had left it in high school. That was different.
As the oldest of four, my house was re-shuffled when I left. My siblings were re-negotiating bedroom locations, and when I came home for Christmas I would sleep on the couch.
This was also my mom’s approach to showing us it was time to move onward and upward. I decided the “time capsule” bedroom was definitely out of my comfort zone, and a part of me was grateful for my mother’s approach.
I later spent time in Arkansas. My friend’s uncle was a taxidermist. Her grandfather sat on the front porch and whittled. He saw us coming down the road and called to the family that we were on approach. Their entire town came out to the baseball games and church socials. The women got together at church and made the enchiladas together.
Her family watched my face as I ate deer meat for the first time. I enjoyed venison and my eyes went wide as I saw all the animal busts on the wall, and stuffed statues. Yes, this was definitely different than my experience as a closet conservative growing up in a very liberal city. However, there was also something very familiar and very warm about the experience.
My friend ate turkey sandwiches all week, while I enjoyed her family’s food. All week I dived in, except for one night. I learned I loved hush puppies, but they had to laugh when I begged out of eating the fried fish.
I went to Columbus, Ohio with another friend. My eyes were opened to the difficulties of dealing with Type I diabetes, and how close-knit a family with one child could be. I learned that traditions don’t just apply to big families, and this inspires me in my small family today.
I saw a sculpture made of corn — it was on the corner of an intersection among the farm fields. Each corn ear stood on-end, all lined up in rows. Still makes me smile. Art definitely indicates what is important to a community.
There was a brownstone house in St. Louis, with a family who loved to collect music and eat local frozen custard. Dad said he’d worked a 2nd job for years at a music store, and pretty much never brought home a paycheck. He’d always taken it home in albums.
There was a family in Kansas City with two sons talented in making people laugh, a beautiful city with lots of fountains, and a mom who always cooked vegetables. I politely asked if we could have fruit one night, I guess I was always a Californian at heart.
There was a family on a dairy farm, with a Mom who made each guest their own pie for the holiday. And the great battle each year was whether you got the edge piece from the homemade rolls or the center.
When I was in the mission field in Springfield, Massachusetts, I had a sudden silent craving for my mom’s homemade roast crammed with bits of garlic. We walked into a church member’s house for dinner that night, and there was a delicious roast waiting for us. She had seven kids, and barely two dimes to put together. Their house was antique and often cold, but it is still one of the warmest places I can think of.
She was a mom who loved her kids, and prayed each day that God would protect them from their own stupidity — and she had literally seen angels protecting her children. I hope every day to have her faith, for the sake of my children.
We also loved another family in Springfield transplanted from the Southwest. Their family had a worthy priesthood holder who blessed his home and family before leaving to travel for a work assignment. We always had very tasty Southwest dinners in their very colorful house.
One other family in Springfield are near & dear to my heart. I still think about them often. Mom had made some mistakes and was working to correct her life. She and I were of similar spirits, down to earth and honest to a fault. One teenage son was deaf, and then there was a new toddler son. For the first time, I ate collard greens and some sort of animal bones that cracked when you ate them. Maybe it was neck? I tried to choke it down, I really did. They saw my face, and grandma gave me a pass.
There are many other families and individuals who still hold a special place in my heart, and maybe I will share those experiences at another time. I didn’t take all the pictures I could have, but I do have my memories to peruse just like a photo album.
Thank you for making me a part of your family when I was so deeply missing my own.
All of these experiences, sights, sounds, traditions, and foods made me who I am today. Food isn’t the event and it isn’t the culture – it is the sensory memory that marks the event. It is the trigger that reminds us of all these wonderful experiences.
At the homes of friends, I learned how to make homemade Puerto Rican rice and beans, learned to love clam chowder, and enjoyed my first lobster and my first alligator. I’ve eaten a traditional Mandarin stew with a chicken claw in it. All of this I was able to experience without ever leaving the United States, without a passport, and without much money in my own pocket. As you can tell, I wasn’t always the most refined guest, either.
As I wrote this, I also learned something. All of these young adults had complaints about their families. As their friend, I was warned about all the family dysfunction before arriving. Of course, people are on their best behavior around guests – but what I still felt was love.
I learned their histories and saw their passions. I learned what was important to them, and what motivated them. I saw how much these young adults were loved, even if they didn’t recognize it. I saw the faith and belief in each of these families. I also saw that each family had their own unique trials and challenges.
Yet, when I initially began each of these adventures, I thought going to college in a small town would be “boring”, and staying in the United States to serve a mission was a “tragedy”. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.
This is a good reminder to me during this holiday season that my home and family don’t have to be perfect in order to share our warmth with others. And it is a good reminder of how lucky I was, traveling far from home, and getting to be part of so many wonderful families.
Molly A. Kerr
Molly is on a life long quest to figure herself out. Born to be and educated as an aerospace engineer she is also blessed to be a wife and a mom of two in the present, previously served as a full-time missionary, is consistently called to teach the youth in her ward, is eagerly though slowly doing home improvement as money and time allow, all while gradually learning how to be herself and find peace and balance somewhere in between. Despite her attempts to make “the right” decisions in her life, she has learned to deal with some unexpected challenges over the last two decades. Total tornadoes, really. What she has discovered is that her career has taught her a lot about the Gospel and being a better mother, and the Gospel, when applied to challenges at the office, has made her a better professional. She has also learned that it is okay to be herself, and God still loves (and forgives) her for it.