When my parents were 26 and newly married, they moved to Jackson, Mississippi for my father’s work. My parents are both from western Pennsylvania, both educated at Clarion University, and both had strong family ties to the greater Pittsburgh area. I can’t imagine making that move could have been easy.
For that reason, when I was drawing the map of the trip, I added Jackson, Mississippi. I didn’t really know much about Mississippi, but I knew Jackson from the framed cross stitch my mother had made decades ago that hung in our childhood home and I knew we had to go.
On Saturday, June 30, one week after we started driving, our GPS took us down a gravel road to our Airbnb in Brandon, Mississippi. We were immediately greeted by 2 dogs and we received a side eye type glance from a third.
Our hosts were a young couple, their two young children, the dogs, and a floppy, long-eared, soft furred bunny who sat on the rug in the center of the family room and loved being petted.
With Independence Day right around the corner, we were invited to follow their pick-up truck to the neighboring town for fireworks. Walking through the parking lot to a dazzling light show above us, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to make that move in the 1980s – so far removed from family, so far removed from the age of Facetime.
It took us hours to get out of that parking lot – the price paid for fifteen minutes of sky magic. With nothing to do but wait, we turned traffic into a party. The young son asked me if I had heard of a song by the Gorillaz called, “Feel Good Incorporated.” We danced to the Macarena. We played Simon Says. We commiserated with the other stuck vehicles. And later that night, I fell into a very tired and well-deserved sleep, curled up on the sofa, paralleling the bunny who lay in his cage behind me.
The next destination was New Orleans – a city that has been high on my radar for quite some time and one of my most anticipated stops from a travel perspective. But it was also Sunday. I had another idea.
I asked my mom where she went to church and with address in hand, we said goodbye to our new friends and their animals and left for Brandon Presbyterian Church. True to every Southern hospitality stereotype, I don’t think I had even shut the car door before I was being welcomed.
We were immediately intercepted with warm smiles. The music director took us to the pastor and after more introductions, handshakes, and kind words, we ushered ourselves into a pew with two open spots.
I had barely flattened my dress under my legs before I was talking to the women next to me. I mentioned that we had just started a 56-day cross country road trip and would be headed out of the area after service. I also told them that my mother had been a member of this church in the 80s. She had sung in the choir.
Immediately, these two women excitedly chatted names of other members who I would have to meet because maybe they knew my mother back in that time and oh you’ll just have to meet so and so, he’s been here forever and… A hush fell over the room as worship began. Hymn after familiar hymn filled the room and washed over me like coming home.
I cannot express what it was about being there that made me feel right. We’d been driving for a week and had already experiences highs, lows, and uh-ohs. But this was different than a high.
When I first moved to New York City, the first friend I made – by a combination of happenstance and an insane desire to talk to strangers in Central Park – was named Lisa. Lisa is my mother’s name. Throughout the course of the journey, I found myself comforted by her presence – not just on the other end of a phone line, but in the little things that reminded me of her and the lessons she has instilled within me about kindness.
Sitting at a church that she attended when she was but a little older than me and (aside from my father) alone in a new city reminded me also of my own church family in New York City that has taken me in since my first day in a new city at a young age. There’s something beautiful about seeing your family history through eyes that can almost understand.
After service, we joined the congregation for a true southern meal. A few times a year, they host big fellowship lunches after church and we just happened to arrive on that day. We drank sweet tea that could twist your tongue and ate all the classics – homemade of course.
By the time we drove off in the early afternoon, my heart was so full of hospitality and kindness. Whether in the form of a pack of dogs in the drive way or a group of older women in their Sunday best with peach cobbler, Mississippi felt like a heart hug to my spirit.