Thirty-six days ago we sat in a church in the countryside of Columbia, TN. We’d been there before a few times in summers past and knew we wanted to go back. When the word came we’d be in the area for much of the summer, we let them know we were coming and they made room for us in their lives and in their homes. So this particular Sunday? We were already “home” as far as our hearts were concerned. I glanced up from where we sat, a moment’s gap between people allowing me to see across the room as a woman and her teenage daughter flashed by and made their way to seats on the other side.
Afterward, the girl and I took a friend come to visit from out of town to a diner nearby. It’s the sort of place that you’d be tempted to pass up from the looks of it outside but are mighty glad you stopped when you step inside. The locals and travelers line up before it opens to get a spot saved. There’s coca-cola chocolate sheet cake, a three stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes and country fried steak with gravy. You’re more than willing set aside gluten-free bread and vegan ice cream and pay the price later. As we waited for our turn to sit down on a busy Sunday lunch hour the red and white screen door, just like grandmother’s old house, pushed open behind us and we all shifted to make room for more. “You were at church today, weren’t you?” I recognized her immediately. She and her girl had taken a mother/daughter trip out of town, she told me, time between them much needed and longed for. She wasn’t sure why she’d chosen this area, save for the music concert offered nearby that same weekend. Something pulled her and she stopped at the diner to savor the last few minutes before heading back home.
Where are you from? I asked the usual out of town question. Northern Kentucky. “No, you can’t be. We’re from Northern Kentucky!” A long table opened up in the middle of the restaurant, room for a gaggle, and would we mind sharing space, the server asked. We eagerly agreed and gathered our chairs closer around each other and started sharing our stories.
As the meal ended I looked around the table for the check, eager to pay it forward for all of us. The girl and our check were missing. She’d already had the same thought, two beats ahead of me and standing at the cash register. As she made her way back and sat down, we all looked at each other. Something important was happening, Someone bigger than us had woven our paths together. None of us wanted to leave. I would contact her when our summer was over. I promised.
And so today, five weeks later, our bags unpacked and laundry hung back in the closet, we make good on our word and sit across another table, this time in our home state, just a few miles from where each of us lives. She loves to paint and had paid attention to the rest of my trip as I’d shared online. She brought me a picture she’d painted of the bison I’d met in Montana. “I think,” she said, “I think what I learned from this summer is to take back what I saw in how they loved and cared for one another in Tennessee and do the same here.” I looked at her, this person that had appeared unexpected in my path. It was exactly the words that had taken shape in my own heart.
One evening in Tennessee, I told my new friend, we were staying with people we’d only just met two days before. They got a text. “Come have supper.” I was incredulous. But….it’s supper time now….and there’s five of us. Do they know that?? No one hesitated….except the girl and I. We hoped they were sure about this. When we pulled up into their driveway, she’d just come back from the store bringing a pie to complete the meal. We followed her into the kitchen where we helped pull food to share from the fridge and warmed it up together. We finished up and carried our coffee out to the porch and put the sun to rest as we laughed and talked and sang. No one dusted the furniture first, no one changed clothes, no one set out the good china or scripted their stories. And no one had ever shown us what friendship like that could look like.
We made a pact, this new friend and I. We would pay attention and move toward the whisper in our souls. Tonight the small picture of the bison she painted has a new home over my kitchen sink. I traveled 342 miles and back again to get that painting, to keep it as reminder of all those who taught us what love looks like.