I shared my Kentucky Kitchen Table experience with fellow students Rachel and Corinne on April 10, 2016. A couple, whose names were Matthew and Anne, were gracious enough to invite us into their home, and allowed us to share a meal with them. None of us students had ever met Matthew or Anne before, who probably had no real reason to be especially excited about the evening ahead of them. It seems to me that having a dinner in your home, at your dinner table, invaded by three college students would not be the ideal way to relax after what must be the busiest day of the week in their household. Matthew is a pastor in Bowling Green, and this dinner happened to fall on a Sunday night. Upon meeting Matthew and Anne I could not help but notice the kindness that they share as a couple. They were not overly talkative, but Matthew especially had a dry sense of humor that kept the conversation lively, even when at first the conversation was mostly small talk. When we first arrived Anne was in the kitchen working hard on the meal we were about to enjoy. She volunteered to cook the entire meal herself and did not ask any of us to bring anything. This caused her to have to try and be in two places at once, hurrying from the living room to the kitchen, and back again as she simultaneously baked pie, cooked chicken, and got to know her guests.
As I said before, the other guests, besides me, were Corinne and Rachel, who are both our class Citizen and Self, though Rachel has the class at a different time than Corinne and I do. I knew Corinne very well before the night began. She was one of the first people I met when I arrived at WKU earlier this year. I knew that she would be just as social that night as she is all the time. She has a great personality, and is a good listener. I had never met Rachel before, but Corinne told me beforehand that she had had a biology class with her during the fall semester, and that she was very nice. When I did meet Rachel I could see that she was a little nervous, but she definitely opened up over the course of the evening. The biggest impression she left on me was her love for animals as she monopolized the attention of our host’s new puppy over the course of the evening.
We had probably been in Matthew and Anne’s home for about fifteen minutes when Matthew informed us that he was expecting one more guest. He informed us that an elder of another one of the local Presbyterian churches would be joining us for dinner. Matthew told us that her name was Thelma, and that she was an eighty-nine year old African-American women who was a big personality, and often introduced herself as Halle Berry. This description made me both nervous and excited. I had just begun to become comfortable in a stranger’s home, and now a new stranger was coming who was not even sure of their own identity. I had a feeling though that such a big personality would make the dinner more informative and entertaining.
Soon after Thelma arrived, I realized that my excitement and to some extent my nervousness were both warranted. One of the very first stories she told when she arrived was how she had gotten the opportunity to attend the inauguration of President Obama. The part of her story that really stood out to me was how she was very embarrassed during the event when a white man she was sitting next to wrapped her in his coat in an effort to make her more comfortable. What must have been to the gentleman a kind gesture extended to an elderly woman, was perceived by Thelma as a source of embarrassment. She said she was afraid how people watching the inauguration on television would perceive it. Here this was, a major event in the history of civil rights for African Americans, and she was being taken care of by a white man. She believed it clashed with the meaning of the event, which was that an African American was completely capable of leading the most powerful nation on earth.
No one else at the table, besides Thelma really spoke much over the course of the evening. This was not a bad thing though. You could tell that she loved the attention, and her stories were so vibrant because of her amazing memory that I was completely captivated by them. She spoke about what it was like growing up with an abusive stepfather. She told about her experience with racism. She apparently would be excluded from golfing scrambles because no one thought a black woman belonged in a country club. During these conversations everyone else at the table would get very quiet, but someone was always nodding in agreement as she talked. I think even Matthew and Anne were surprised by some of the stories that they may have never heard before.
These conversations really fit together well with the book “Citizen” that was discussed in the Citizen and Self seminars. She did not limit the conversation to just race. She dispelled some of my beliefs about what eighty-nine year olds are capable of when she told of how she still went in to schools for problem students to talk with them and be a role model. She also told about how she could make it to Louisville from Bowling Green in an hour. The fact that she still drove amazed me as did her memory and her sense of humor.
I am very grateful to Anne and Matthew for inviting me into their home and introducing me to Thelma. The discussions that we had at that table were so educational, and will be one of the first things I think about when I remember my freshman year at Western. In Citizen Self we read an article titled “Happiness” about what it really takes to be truly happy in life. I do not know what the answer is, but I think Thelma does, and I think everyone at that table had a lot to learn from someone who has overcome so much in life yet still has such a lively spirit in her twilight years.