A kitchen tells you a lot about a home and the people who live there. Grandmother Corpening’s kitchen in rural Burke County, North Carolina, was that kind of place. There was always a friendly fragrance around—the wonderful smell of biscuits, country ham, or freshly baked apple pies. Though simple, Grandmother’s kitchen was clean, well-kept, and orderly, reflecting her heritage. The cane-bottom chairs around her long table had been sat upon for generations.
But that was long ago, and now here is another kitchen.
It’s early morning, and no one else is up. I’m sitting at the table in the kitchen of Friends who live up north. It’s a warm and spacious room, airy and light, with two large windows looking onto the backyard. The table is large and honey-colored—maple wood, perhaps. It holds six people easily, ten if it needs to. I have sat at this table off and on for almost 40 years, so it feels like home.
This early spring morning is cool and cloudy. There was a little rain during the night, and the birds haven’t yet ventured to the bird feeders beyond the kitchen window, near the forsythia bush, which is about to bloom. I’m glad my friends don’t trim their forsythia or try to shape it into a ball, but just let it alone. That way, its long arms can fling out its yellow, flowery flames wherever nature leads.
There is order and beauty in this kitchen, and indeed all through the house. The dignified old furniture that has been cared for through several generations knows its place well, in room after room, and still comfortably serves our friends today, as well as their circle of friends and family, a circle so large it stretches all the way from the Mason-Dixon Line to the mountains of North Carolina and to Nepal.
The likes of this house might never be found in House Beautiful, yet it is beautiful, and deeply pleasing to body, heart, and soul. Countless friends who have come through its large front door and been comforted would have given it first prize, had there been a contest. Such a prize might read: "This home belongs to friends."
The living room, though a bit formal, is truly hospitable, the kind of place where a guest can fall asleep on the couch or in a recliner chair in front of the fireplace. I discovered the magic of the recliner almost 40 years ago, after the sudden, tragic death of my husband, when life for our family turned upside down in a moment. From then on, for many an evening the children and I were invited over to dinner with these dear friends. We sat around the kitchen table and found that we could still eat and laugh at the same time.
After supper, the kids would go upstairs to play with the toys and the gerbil, or out back with Frances, the stray dog who came and stayed forever. And I would stretch back in a recliner and talk quietly about things with my friends for a little while. Before long, without intending to, I would be closing my eyes, and that was quite all right. The Chinese say that it is a compliment to the host if a guest falls asleep in their home.
Another time this home was a haven for our family. Some years after we had moved back down south, our son Ben developed dreadful bone cancer. The treatments took us to Memorial Sloan-Kettering. For an eternity, it seemed, we drove Ben back and forth from North Carolina to New York City. Our friends’ house became a welcome stopover on the way, but of course much more. If I let myself, I can still see Ben gamely mounting the steps up to the big front door, crutches flying ahead, not holding him back. For another sweet moment, we were home again.
Forty years later, I find that our friends’ home is still that kind of place. It has offered needed rest and solace for many other souls over the years.
I could write a volume about these friends, who happen to be Quakers, and thus Friends. Maybe someday someone will. I hope so. Perhaps it will suffice to return to the kitchen for a look around. The kitchen is usually the heart of a home.
On one wall there is a large bulletin board on which are pinned photos of friends and family, including several of our friends’ new grandson. There is a photograph of four young men in crisp uniform, fresh and hopeful. One is the son of a friend, and he is now in Iraq.
Not surprisingly, the bulletin board announces upcoming meetings and program calendars, and there is also a reminder of the kind of foods needed by the local food bank.
A thumbtack holds up the Quaker Motto Calendar, opened to March 2004. The mottoes for this month focus on the meaning of success: "Our own success, to be real, must contribute to the success of others." —Eleanor Roosevelt
"To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived—this is to have succeeded." —Ralph Waldo Emerson
"We are united with all life that is in nature. Man can no longer live his life for him alone." —Albert Schweitzer
A beautiful circle tile of the infant Jesus, looking unmistakably like a colorful della Robbia sculpture, is hooked into a corner of the bulletin board.
A bright invitation to a party announces: "For all my wonderful helpers—A thank-you party in my new home."
Over to the side, the refrigerator holds a large Quaker poster, which states simply: "There is no Way to Peace; Peace is the Way."
And there is a little picture of a Byzantine Madonna, dark-skinned, entitled, "Mother of the Streets." The Madonna looks like Mother Teresa.
At the top of the refrigerator there is a prayer: "Come Holy Wisdom, lead us on the path of justice."
If I stretch my arm to the end of the table I can reach Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds (a male cardinal is now at breakfast at one of the feeders), or browse through a folder on environmental pollutants, or look at A Guide to Healthier Eating Out.
On a window sill is a dainty row of tiny cream pitchers, some of them doubtless inherited from a mother long deceased, who took excellent care of things, four children and an ailing husband, yet also found time to care for the world’s ills.
I could say much more about these two Friends, but I should at least mention their years of parenthood, work in the steel mills, service to the homeless and needy, love of home, Quaker peace work, and love of nature and travel. Now retired, they volunteer every week at a local ministry to some of the city’s poor.
The cardinal has almost finished his breakfast, reminding me to stop and get mine. A woven-grass basket on the kitchen table holds oranges, apples, and pears—symbols of the hospitality here. It doesn’t matter which fruit I choose, or if I choose none. I can go hunting for cereal or tea. Or make myself an omelette. It doesn’t matter. I am welcome. I am at home.