I learned the power of simple hospitality the summer I met Shirley Caldwell in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
After just one year of marriage, my husband and I left behind all that was familiar to me when we packed up our car and drove more than 3,000 miles from Portland, Oregon to start our new life in North Miami. I felt like an alien from another planet when I arrived in South Florida.
Everything was strange and exotic to me. The palm trees and the warm Atlantic Ocean. The heat and humidity and spending entire days in our swimsuits at the beach or by the pool. The different cultures and languages and music I experienced for the first time. I felt brave and excited to be on such a big adventure. And I also felt desperately homesick.
We had friends in Miami who made our adjustment easier. Two other couples who we spent our weekends with sharing meals and playing cards. Of the six of us, only one had parents living nearby, and that’s how I came to know Joe and Shirley Caldwell.
The Caldwell’s welcomed all of us into their home regularly for holiday meals, birthday celebrations, and for no special reason at all.
Once a year, Papa Joe would take the guys on a boating trip to Bimini and the girls would sleepover with Shirley. We would lie out by the pool reading magazines until Shirley rallied us for a game of Scrabble. She won every time. Then we’d get cleaned up and go into town for some window-shopping. On our way back to the house we’d stop for fresh tomatoes at the farm stand on the corner and use them to the make the best turkey sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. Then we would sit around Shirley’s big, comfy family room where some of us would work on the latest puzzle she always had spread out on a table. And the rest would tackle the giant pile of catalogs she collected, flipping through the pages and admiring all the little items no one really needed.
And my homesick heart would feel better.
Shirley never fussed over us. She didn’t prepare elaborate meals or make sure our drinks were always full. She simply pointed to the kitchen and said, “Make yourself at home.” Sodas were left out on the counter next to some glasses, and we helped ourselves to ice and ice cream sandwiches from the freezer. It felt warm and easy and right. It felt like home.
Over the years I’ve often forgotten the power of simple hospitality.
The whole idea of entertaining can leave me feeling stressed out and anxious. I get all worked up over preparing the perfect meal and setting a beautiful table. The thought of choosing a dinner party theme and planning a few activities for my guests to enjoy can make me freeze. Not the best conditions for creating a welcoming atmosphere!
So when it comes to entertaining, my sweaty palms and rapid heart rate make me think I don’t have the gift for it that I so admire in many of my friends.
But maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe the gift I’ve been given is the one Shirley gave me. Simple hospitality that can give folks an easy, comfortable and welcoming place to land.
This weekend we’ll gather one more time at Shirley’s home in Fort Lauderdale to honor her life and remember the way she lived with an unfussy but generous hospitality. And to express our love for this special woman who always made us feel at home.
At her request, it will be a full-blown New Orleans style celebration complete with a jazz band. Hey! The woman liked to keep things simple, but she still loved a good party!
And when I’m back in San Diego, I plan to fill my summer the way Shirley would. With pool days and fresh tomatoes. Board games and drinks on the counter. And friends who feel like family when they come inside and hear me say, “Make yourself at home. I’m glad you’re here!”
Thank you, Shirley, for the lasting impression you made on my heart with your simple and generous hospitality.
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” A.A. Milne