Everything I know about being a good host and making people feel welcome in our home I learned from Nelda Stallions Nardone, my mother-in-law, Suzanne’s mother. She once told me “I always knew my job was to provide hospitality.” So it is with love in my heart, and to honor our friendship that I thought I would write about what has been happening in our lives these past few months.
I met Nelda and the rest of Suzanne’s family around Thanksgiving, 1984 when Nelda was freshly married to Charlie and they decided to introduce him to Texas. Suzanne and I had met a year earlier during her junior year abroad at The University. Oddly, the first night we went out that year, Nelda was also out on a date with Charlie and I remember Sue telling me how strange and wonderful it was for her mother to be dating. Suzanne’s father had died in 1978.
I am pretty sure that Thanksgiving weekend, they hoped I was just a young man passing through her life. I had a beard, was a musician, was a liberal and a Methodist and quite different from the family. But then I visited their home in Connecticut, and Suzanne moved to Austin after graduating college and just two years after they had married, Nelda and Charlie welcome me into their family. That was over 30 years ago. “He wasn’t the son-in-law I expected,” Nelda told my son one time when he was visiting a few years back, but when you see your job as providing hospitality, you adapt. Nelda and I both did and in doing so, found a wonderful friendship.
It is a friendship built on family that celebrates food. Nelda has been such a huge influence on how and what I cook. She introduced me to cooking shows like America’s Test Kitchen, Good Eats, and Lidia Bastianich but not Martha Stewart. She introduced me to ocean seafood (and many different ways to prepare it) and of course, the fine art of Southern Cooking, but that was after she and Charlie started wintering in Texas.
When Suzanne and I were in graduate school, with three children, at least once a month we drove from the cramped seminary married student housing to the expansive “Mirabella Ranch” as Charlie called it, their home in Oatmeal, Texas. Oatmeal, Texas –and I am being generous here –was really just vacant ranchland triangulated by three Baptist Churches, and “the ranch” was some 10 minutes west. This place would be my children’s only stable home in their childhood over the seven different houses and communities we lived in during their school years.
We would arrive hungry, usually after dark, to a feast of pot roast, potatoes, carrots, and onions. They had held dinner on us. Those were lean years, our kids ate subsidized school lunch (it could have been free, but for our pride). In the morning we would wake to the smell of bacon, or sausage and grits, the smells wafting up through the house and over the weekend I would watch as Nelda love on her grandchildren, through food, attention, and unmitigated love. She also sent us back with enormous containers of food.
What I remember about those visits, besides the life-giving food and sanctuary from a difficult life, was the first 15 minutes after we arrived. Nelda would be getting dinner ready, while Suzanne was nesting, and the kids were off exploring or cousining. Nelda intentionally gave me her undivided attention, asking me about what I was learning in seminary, or what new food I was discovering. So much of my life is spent listening to others talk about theirs, and for ten minutes, while we were finishing dinner, I felt like I was at the center of her world. She was a great listener.
Nelda was always believed in Suzanne and I and was never critical of our parenting style or the illogical career choices we seemed to make along the way. And there were plenty. When Suzanne earned a Fulbright and we moved to Ghana for two years, the Texas Ranch stored our worldly goods, and Suzanne’s childhood home in Connecticut became our launch point. Every few weeks she sent my kids the Sunday comics, TIME magazine, and made sure her love arrived in surprising and delightful packages. Coming back over the summer, her home served as a re-entry point, restocking depot; and M.A.S.H. unit, while I recovered from a nasty bout of malaria that surfaced two days after arriving back in the states.
The Connecticut menu was completely different from Texas. Gone was the rich Southern cooking, replaced by Lobster, Grinders, Mystic Pizza, mussels, clams of some sort (soupy, stuffed, fritters). In those days I had a difficult allergy to milk, and she was careful to make something similar for me and Grace, calling it “Buchele Friendly”. No matter what she made, it was delicious, filled with love, and never did she go to bed with a dirty kitchen.
Nelda had been feeling a bit off for months. Nothing specific, but a generalized pain in her abdomen. After dropping the last of her summer Connecticut guests at the airport, she went in for a check-up and that is when the diagnosis came.
Nelda has pancreatic cancer, stage 4.
What I knew about pancreatic came from witnessing others over the 20 years in the different churches I served. Also, her mother, Ercell, died from it 18 years earlier. I was in seminary at the time, and Suzanne I visited her grandmother at the assisted living center along with the kids. The night she died, we had been to the hospital and could see the time was near. Nelda sent me home, and Suzanne stayed with her mom, reading, talking or resting as her mother took smaller and more shallow breaths, until they stopped altogether and she was gone.
It was my first solo funeral as a young seminary student.
Suzanne and I were on our way to Japan, to celebrate our 30th anniversary when the news, as they say here in Ghana, “joined us.” The plan to spend two weeks with Grace & Ryosuke was cut short and we flew back to join Suzanne’s siblings, see Nelda, and figure out what came next.
There were appointments, lab work, chemo, and house maintenance.
I was proud of the way Suzanne and her siblings all worked together for the common good of Nelda and their family. In the months to come, countless family and friends came to spend a week with Nelda, caring for her and celebrating her love. Even confined to a chair, her gift of hospitality was felt even as the disease progressed and she became more sedimentary. When I was there in August, we watched a lot of cooking shows together, even knowing the likelihood of her returning to her beloved kitchen was low, but then, that wasn’t the point, it was hospitality of our friendship through food and cooking.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” wrote the author of Hebrews promising some have “shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” If Nelda taught me anything about showing hospitality to angels, she showed me it was incompatible with efficiency or hurry. One could not be hospitable and efficient at the same time. Unlike Martha Stewart’s obsessive weapons grade hospitality, her’s was fueled by love, to create a home for the family who gathered around her table. She is a wonderful friend and mother-in-law and taught me that making people feel welcome in your home is a fine job to have, especially if done well.