A number of years ago, my husband surprised me on my 40th birthday with a gathering of unlikelies, held at our favorite, family-owned, Italian restaurant in the heart of Appalachia. It didn’t occur to me then that the friends he had invited were unlikelies; for me, they were people I had known most of my life: family, close friends, and new friends. But by the end of the evening, one comment seemed to carry the weight of the time we all spent together, celebrating. The words were spoken by my older sister who, generally, was not one to delve beneath the surface of any topic, thinking it best to keep conversation light. “As I looked around the room,” she began, “I suddenly realized how the gathering represented so many different people from so many different walks of life. And I wondered how we all fit so well together.” These words brought a moment of astonishment and deep gratitude.
There were conservatives and liberals; people of all colors, races, genders, religious affiliations, and people with emotional and physical challenges. The social/economic standing of each differed, but was irrelevant. My sister’s observations surprised me as much as the surprise party, and I found myself incredibly grateful that I hadn’t recognized the differences among those gathered; they were simply my friends. And then, a line from Charlotte’s Web tapped me gently on my shoulder: “You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
Later that evening, as I lived again the party’s magic, I looked at it through my sister’s eyes and saw clearly what she had seen (at least to her): a gathering of unlikelies. While almost everyone was at least acquainted with each other, the details of their lives were not known, except to those of us who had shared joys and disappointments throughout the years. Similarities don’t cause ripples in the water; but differences do. And yet, later that evening, peeling back the intricate layers of our lives, not unlike the fine layers of a sweet Vidalia onion, brought me to a realization that without the differences, we can never be fully who we are challenged to be, and that’s when life is lived to its fullest.
My college history professor was in attendance that evening, looking as dapper as ever in tweed wool sports coat with a red silk pocket square peeking out, a pair of chocolate brown, perfectly-creased wool trousers, and a starched white shirt with French cuffs and ruby-colored cufflinks that seemed to wink at each of us. He had not only imparted knowledge, but he encouraged me to write — over and over and over again. I did not know until that evening that he was a member of the LGBTQ+ community before it was ever made official. And yet, it made no difference to me or to anyone else there, for they had known him for many years and could not deny his genuine influence throughout their respective lives.
My dear friend was there who, as incredible as it may sound, magically appeared on Fifth Ave. in NYC one afternoon — as if dropped down from Heaven — to help me make my way through the city streets as a wave of anxiety descended upon me with a ferocity I had not previously experienced. We did not know that we had both planned to be in the city at the same time. His skin color reminds me of the sharps and flats on a concert grand piano, his stature similarly bold. He, too, is a gay man, with a heart that has been broken and mended more times than anyone’s should be, re-emerging each time as if a triumphant phoenix.
There were former students in attendance who had grappled with various forms of addiction, and financial instability, and infidelity, and other ills, yet they never left the fold. On the other hand, there were friends who had achieved tremendous financial success and enjoyed positions of leadership in business and our community. One couple, whose children I taught, had married young, divorced in mid-life, and remarried in their golden years. And yet another couple was not only challenged, but joyfully-challenged to work with their son, who had recently been diagnosed on the spectrum.
A friend with whom I’ve been close for most of my life asked my husband if she could bring her partner with her. She was a very successful shop owner, turned real estate broker. She kept her world small, and was well-respected throughout the community, as was her partner. She later told me that evening that there was no hesitation from my husband who encouraged her enthusiastically bring her partner with her to the gathering. Knowing that didn’t surprise me, but it did make me very happy that he is, and has always been, someone who leaves judgement to the only One who has been tasked to judge us all.
Living in Appalachia and living in rural America brings a strong dose of pride, and ideally a pride that does not corrode, but rather builds us up. Contrary to damaging stereotypes of rural Americans, we are open-minded about quite a lot. The rest of the world could learn a thing or two about acceptance from us, and many of us are more than willing to impart the knowledge. It is not a difficult journey but it has become, for so many, a precarious path to tread. Change is due. Change is welcomed. Change is imminent.
Kathleen M. Jacobs lives in Charleston, West Virginia. She can be reached at www.kathleenmjacobs.com.