I recently saw the movie, Up!, an animated feature about Mr. Fredrickson, a grumpy old man remarkably similar in appearance and demeanor to Mr. Cunningham from Happy Days. All their lives, he and his wife dreamed of an adventure to South America, and she passed away before they had the chance to go. Wanting to fulfill the dream to honor her, he uses the asset of being a balloon salesman to sail south of the border, house in tow. That’s the adventure he planned.
He didn’t count on one of his neighbors being on the deck of his house when it took off. He didn’t think that he’d ever meet a rare bird named Kevin who would need his help so desperately or his greatest idol who would turn out to lack integrity. This was the part of the adventure he never imagined. Along the way, he lets goes of old heartaches and material possessions, makes new friends, and discovers how much courage his old soul can muster. These are the parts of the adventure that make his trip unforgettable.
My Christmas trip was a bit like Mr. Fredrickson’s. I had planned to stay home to study and write for the week between Christmas and the New Year; I hadn’t planned on going to Alabama at all. The opportunity presented itself, and I took it. On the banks of the Tennessee River in a small town named Tuscumbia, I learned how the term “Southern hospitality” came to be.
My brother-in-law’s family welcomed me with open arms, literally. His mom, Trish, had an extra chair at the table, an extra room where I could sleep and study, and extra gifts under the tree just for me. She taught me to make chicken and dressing, proved that any food can be whipped into a delicious casserole, and exhibited all of the love and graciousness that you’d expect from a woman whose greatest joy is her family. I learned about their complex family history, and was included in their family photos. In truth, an outsider looking in might never know that I was a guest who’d never spent a Christmas with that family. They took every opportunity to make me one of them.
Having grown up in small town, I appreciate the warm, cozy feeling of having memories in every nook and cranny. Kyle, my brother-in-law, showed me where he went to high school, where all his childhood friends lived and hung out as teenagers, and where his dad’s artwork (and therefore his spirit) still exists even though he’s no longer with us. I saw their old family photos and then understood the resemblance my niece, Lorelei, has to that side of the family. So much of their history and culture exists in their food and the memories of togetherness that their meals invoke, and I got to be a part of it. It was easy to see why Tuscumbia is a special kind of place.
On the long drive back to Florida, I thought of Kyle’s family a lot: how lucky I feel to have met them all and how much I appreciated being able to spend a holiday with them. I’ve always found that the experiences I love most in my life are the ones I don’t plan for – the job that came my way quite by accident, the friend I never planned to meet, the spur-of-the-moment trip that I never imagined I’d take. My trip to Alabama showed me how much joy we can find in the unexpected and unplanned, and I’d like to figure out how to make that kind of joy and the circumstances that create it a little more common in my life in 2010.