by Sue Gamelin—
I answered the phone and a voice said, “I can’t believe that you fixed meals for us for all those years!” One of our adult kids, whose first child had just reached table-food time, had arrived at a stage of new awareness. It wasn’t the awareness that someone had prepared a meal. He had suddenly realized that fixing food for a family for days, months, and years was a testimony to–something. Maybe a sense of duty, or meeting a challenge, or even, on some days, grim determination.
Four kids, a husband who doesn’t cook (but is inordinately proud of his ability to microwave leftovers), and a schedule of jobs and school and baseball and gymnastics were hurdles I leapt over as I fed my family. I put Spanish rice embedded with hot dogs slices on the table (the lean years–yuck), BMW (bologna and Miracle Whip) sandwiches into lunch bags, and pancakes poured into the shapes of their initials on the griddle for Saturday brunch. Then there were all of those holiday dinners, especially Thanksgivings. Whew!
My family took my role as cook for granted until the time when I was away at a national church meeting in the ’70s. When I returned, the kids could hardly wait to tell me about the evening that Tim counted wrong when putting TV dinners into the oven. “Oops! There are four of us, not three!” (The last Gamelin child was still a twinkle.)
Like his dad, one of our kids never did get the cooking thing. The other three liked helping. My dad had cooked and baked as often as my mom. But in my marriage, I was the “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my Navy vet dad described it.
Things changed for our family. By the fall of 1989 I was an assistant to a bishop with a crazy schedule. Tim was a pastor of a rapidly growing congregation. One of our children was in his first job after college, another was married. Our high-schooler had a job after school, and our middle-schooler was a gymnast with practice four nights a week. I made some big meals when I could, and people microwaved portions of them when they had a moment to eat. We became a Modern American Family. But I still made those meat loaves and casseroles, salads and veggies. I even froze sandwiches that the kids could pop in to lunch bags.
Tim’s been watching me all these years. He knows that I’ve fixed meals for our family not because of duty or challenge or even determination. He also knows that I’m not a great cook. You know that, too. Spanish rice with hot dog slices?! Our family does have its favorites from my menu: anything Italian. My sour cream coffee cake is a hit, too. But they know that I’m not a great cook. The new understanding that Tim has come to and has shared with them is this: preparing food for them and for others isn’t a matter of being a great cook. It’s a love language for me.
Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages suggests that people have different ways of expressing and receiving love. It may be through physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, or gifts. Most of us need to give and to receive every one of these expressions of love. But there is usually one of the five expressions that particularly swells our hearts when we offer it and when it’s offered to us.
The second love language that Chapman describes is my love language: Acts of Service. As I live on Social Security and pensions now, my passion is what I call “washing feet.” Sometimes my foot washing is literal; I giggle as I play “This Little Piggy” to wash the smallest grandchildren’s feet. Usually, however, my foot washing is metaphorical: I minister with and to recovering addicts and homeless folks. Service is my love language.
But it’s Love Language 2.6 (my numbering system, with apologies to Gary Chapman) that Tim has recognized. With each red quinoa salad and teriyaki chicken bake that I place on the table for guests, I say silently, “I love you.” With the seven-layer bars and molasses cookies I send around at Christmas to our far-flung children and grandchildren, I am calling out, “I love you.” With the daily meals I fix for my never-complaining husband, I am whispering: “I love you.”
The kids at church are among the one in four children in the United States who live with food insecurity. When I first started attending Prince of Peace, I was surprised that the kids would want to know again and again if I had any gum. When I asked in Children’s Church if only homeless people are hungry, Jacob, age 6, raised his hand and said matter-of-factly, “When I’m hungry and we don’t have any food, I eat paper.” Healthy food snacks–much better than gum for empty stomachs–became vital to our congregation’s ministry. Preparing those snacks each week has become one more way for me to quietly say, “I love you.”
Another program has emerged at Prince of Peace. Our small congregation has offered its three acres of land to our community, and the resulting two dozen raised beds are a source of vegetables for the food desert in which we live. Prince of Peace kids have planted three of those raised beds. They love harvesting “their” lettuce and radishes and tomatoes and green peppers, cleaning them off, and making a terrific salad, which they wolf down. A farmer’s market at which people can use their SNAP/EBT cards (aka, food stamps) has been added to our property in the summers.
Every Sunday we prepare for our Thanksgiving meal by making a circle of young and old, African American and European American, able-bodied and physically challenged around the altar at Prince of Peace. As we receive the body and blood of Jesus, we sing with gusto that this meal will never lose its power in our lives. Holy Communion is Jesus’ love gift to us all.
Feasting on Jesus strengthens our congregation’s desire to say “I love you” to the children and youth who run from the church van into our building, Sunday after Sunday. The good news of Jesus has empowered us to say “I love you” to the people of the Warnersville community of Greensboro, N.C., a community established for freed slaves after the Civil War. Our love is visible in our food ministry. This is bliss for someone who indulges in Love Language 2.6.
P.S. Would you like some of my homemade granola? Just let me know, and I’ll put it in the mail.
The Rev. Sue Gamelin is a retired ELCA pastor in North Carolina. She and her husband, Tim, have four grown children and their spouses and 10 grandchildren.
This article is from the November 2015 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.