I spend a lot of time thinking about love, about the different ways in which we allow ourselves to love, and one of the places I most frequently see love is at the table.

Growing up, love accompanied my mother’s cooking and the trays of taco dip and vegetable pizza that were brought to family gatherings. Love was rolled into bowls of ice cream on “Sunday night sundae night” and out of butter tubs for my grandma’s classic fourth of July sandwiches. I think love flows best when it’s warmed by conversations at the table, and I have witnessed this type of love in Appalachia, too.

When I was on staff in Leslie County, Kentucky, I met the Evans family. The first time I talked to Kevin on the phone, he asked when I was coming to look at his home and if I would bring breakfast when I came. While I wasn’t able to bring him breakfast the first time I met him, we were able to spend the summer working on his home. That summer, we spent several weekends on their front porch or in their kitchen. Over plates of Kevin’s fried green tomatoes and Karri’s sweet potato casserole, I grew to love the Evans as family. I went back to visit the Evans in Leslie two weeks ago. Kevin made two pots of vegetable soup – one with meat and one, just for me, with only vegetables. Over bowls of steaming soup, we talked about their dream of opening a farm-to-table restaurant in Hyden, and I saw how love is about listening to each other’s dreams.

I spent this week in Kanawha County and Clay County, which are both in West Virginia. In Kanawha, I met a woman named Gloria. This summer, ASP is building her a new porch and wheelchair ramp, but she is most excited for ASP to fix her ceilings. As we sat in her living room, she talked about how much she loves having people in her home. She loves cooking macaroni and cheese and pinto beans and cornbread, but she hasn’t had people over for these meals in a while because she was embarrassed of her home. Food makes people feel loved, she said, and she believes in the importance of love.

In Clay County, I met the Hanshaw family. The Hanshaw’s own two trailers – one that they currently live in and one that they are going to move into once it is finished.  The first day I met them, I arrived right after they finished cleaning up the spaghetti, garlic bread, salad, and brownie lunch that Crystal, the mother, made. I went back to the Hanshaw house on Thursday, and as I stood in the kitchen with Crystal while she prepared manwiches, coleslaw, and pasta salad, she explained that making the crews lunch was her way of saying thank you. She repeatedly expressed how thankful she was for ASP’s ability to work on the trailer next door, which her family will move into once the repairs are finished. Her eyes lit up as she talked about having Thanksgiving dinner in the new trailer this November. There is not enough space to fit ten people around a table in their current trailer, she explained, and she can’t wait to enjoy the holiday surrounded by her family at one table. Through her continued expression of thanks and excitement for their future home, I understood that she allowed food, allowed time spent together at the table, as a way to express her love.

As I think about love, I hope I can share love with others like the Evans, Gloria, and the Hanshaws have shared love with me. Some of my favorite memories have taken place over a meal. Whether I am surrounded by family in my childhood home or at a home in Appalachia, I find comfort in knowing I will most likely find love at the table.

Jamie Tews is the Advancement Storytelling Intern this summer writing a weekly blog series titled “This Must Be The Place.” Prior to this summer, she was on staff in Breathitt County, Kentucky in 2016, Leslie County, Kentucky in 2017, and roamed around Appalachia as a staff liaison in 2018. She just graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Writing, and she has plans to pursue an MFA in creative writing.