Six years ago, we had a full house for the 4th of July, as we almost always do on holidays. But this holiday began with a bang we weren’t expecting. A ringing phone woke us before the sun and a social worker asked if we wanted to adopt a baby girl—on the other side of the country in two days’ time. We staggered to make coffee and then, after initial squeals of delight, gamely spent the morning debating the pros and cons of this life-changing decision with our guests—no one was exempt from the prayer, the advice, the holding of hands on our broad deck, as we asked for courage and help.
Within a few hours, we were back on the phone with the agency, confirming that yes, we were going to fly across the country in forty-eight hours to meet the baby we hoped would be our daughter.
By that evening, I was feeling like I’d just drank three pots of coffee and a bottle of champagne, a weird mix of utterly awake and slightly off-kilter, the feeling you get at the beginning of a good party, a good story, or a long trip. My friends Katie and Hilary were trying to help, writing lists and giving me advice on baby essentials, but I stopped them mid-sentence.
“I need to cook.”
They both looked at me quizzically. After all, we were flying to Florida to become first-time parents in a couple of days, surely this was an acceptable time to order a pizza.
Learning to Be Welcomed In
When I was a teenager, home was an idea, a distant hope. My family had started building a house, but I’d been sharing one room with my mom, dad, and brother for five years by the time I bought a pickup truck and drove myself to Texas for college. I was raised in the stalwart ideals of courage and self-sufficiency, but there wasn’t much time for comfort, and certainly no such thing as hospitality. There’s no time for dinner parties when one is surviving.
Regardless, my first Thanksgiving at college, I was lonely and homesick. Each morning I habitually donned a hoodie sweatshirt for my walk to class, constantly forgetful about the West Texas endless summer that reached into November. I was put off by the cafeteria and its endless, sodium-heavy choices—I missed my mom’s humble Irish food starring deep stews and starchy potatoes made simply and cheaply. I was overwhelmed by the constant drone of the TV in my dorm room. I missed quiet evenings with a book and a wood fire.
That’s when I found myself sitting next to Megan in a freshman honors class. She was a chatty over-achiever from Dallas with boundless energy, an active mind, and a warm heart. We became fast friends because Megan never met a stray she didn’t like, and I was attracted to her confidence and kindness. She found out I was staying on campus for Thanksgiving and instantly insisted I come home to Dallas with her instead. I was nervous about intruding—my family was an insular one; I felt uneasy about simply showing up. But the idea of sitting alone on a deserted campus sounded even worse than intruding, so I accepted her invitation.
We loaded collegiate necessities: textbooks, pillows, dirty laundry, and snacks into Megan’s tiny white Honda and puttered toward Dallas, a three-hour drive from Abilene. We drove many miles of flat highway until we reached the DFW metroplex: a snaking, multi-lane tangle of overpasses and exits before finally turning onto Megan’s quiet street.
I got butterflies in my stomach.
There, imposing and beautiful, was a custom-built, stone-fronted craftsman home. It stood surrounded by lush grass and emanated suburban comfort. We opened the imposing front door into a wide tiled entryway that led into a broad, light-filled living area. “Welcome!” cried Michelle, Megan’s mom, as she gave us mothering hugs. She looked amusedly at our trash bags of dirty clothes.
Then I met Terry, Megan’s dad, her two brothers, Dustin and Dylan, and her little sister Lacey. Megan exercised her first-born tendencies and sprang into action, whisking our dirty clothes to the laundry room and asking Michelle how we could help with Thanksgiving preparations. I wondered what there could possibly be to help with. The house was already decorated, with fall leaf garlands arranged artfully on tabletops and tiny pumpkins peeking around family photos. But Michelle invited us to help her think through some finishing touches. The details of hosting she considered were things I’d never experienced in my simple holidays back home.
It would be easy to believe that Michelle and Megan were decorating and laying out tablescapes to show off—a boastful hospitality. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They expressed kindness in the mixing of compound butter, care for each guest revealed through ironing of napkins and crafting sauces. Megan and I spent the day making their home not just more beautiful, but more welcoming.
In the midst of this energy, comfort was a constant theme. The Holmes family were comfortable and caring with themselves and with each other; it was infectious. I found myself teasing Terry, helping Lacey fold napkins, giggling uncontrollably with Megan, and being indulgently grinned at by Michelle as we stirred this and tasted that. I’d been in their home for only a few hours but I already had permission to eat anything in the pantry, lounge anywhere in the expansive living room, laugh as often as I felt tickled. In a matter of moments, I already felt like one of the family.
Throughout college, I went home with Megan for most holidays and many weekends. We were welcomed into the fold of life each time we arrived, greeted with chores as well as treats. I relished the sense of family, the inclusion and hospitality they so freely gave.
During one drive home to Abilene from the Holmes house, Megan drove and I fell asleep in the passenger seat. I woke up embarrassed, reprimanding myself for my lack of responsibility towards her. She just smiled at me and said, without malice or dishonesty, “I don’t mind taking care of you, Dani.”
I’ve never forgotten how that felt—like the smell of fresh bread from a warm oven, like the feeling of sitting down at a familiar table.
Welcoming in Others
Years of holidays and homecomings with the Holmes family had taught me about the value of making people comfortable. I knew the preparation of food, the laying of a table, gave grace to my frantic spirit. After receiving that fateful phone call, my life was changing rapidly, but paprika still turns the roasting chicken’s skin a pleasing reddish tan, and caramelizing onions, turning soft and brown in butter, still smell like home.
“I don’t know how to be a mom, but I know how to roast a chicken,” I explained to our friends as they watched me working in the kitchen with intensity.
I started chopping vegetables, rubbing spices together, and preparing a massive BBQ feast for Independence Day. I still made the meal I’d been planning to serve our guests long before life upended so suddenly.
Within an hour we were all seated around a wooden picnic table, paper plates at the ready. I plugged in the twinkle lights and lit the candles, as a late evening summertime haze settled over our central Oregon backyard.
Our friends Josh and Kate joined in for dinner and we passed around steaming plates of silky-soft mushrooms and onions, buttered and grilled corn on the cob, heaping bowls of crunchy, dark green salad, and a giant platter of smoked chicken. Our mouths watered, the chatter quieted.
“So,” Adam finally said. “We have news.”
Before he could say more, they knew. Josh looked at each of us with his kind blue eyes, wide with hope, and Kate’s hand flew to her mouth, already beginning to quiver in solidarity with our shaky joy.
There was a lot of laughter that night, a lot of toasts and tears, and the kindness that only happens in a culture of uninhibited hospitality. The kind of hospitality that makes a family out of friends old and new. The kind I wanted to offer to the family we were building.
Sharing the Holy Work
I was raised in a home where hospitality couldn’t happen easily, but I’d been welcomed into a friend’s home with open arms.
Hospitality changes us. It makes us brave, it gives us a sense of safety and warmth in a world that is too often cold and cramped. I felt the healing, powerful, holy value of welcome as Michelle served homemade lasagna and listened to Megan and I tell stories with chuckles playing at her lips, watching us with pride, believing for us in who we would become.
I am not good at organization or math or doing hair. But I’ve learned to roast a great chicken. I can pair good wine with good food and make a heck of a frittata and pack you full of smoky, crunchy, soft, and supple paella that will leave you scraping the bottom of the pan. It’s how I return the kindness I was shown. It’s how I take care of those I love.
It would be the way I’d take care of our soon-to-be daughter. The way I would say to the family we had and the one we would make: we don’t mind taking care of each other; it is holy work.
Cover image by Taylor Vick.