The word is defined as an object or product of great value that has belonged to a family for several generations. It denotes to me a certain quality of humble characteristics. It makes me think about tomatoes. I imagine old vines and the precious harvest. Who can honestly resist the taste of a fat, misshapen, purple and red tomato? I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but perhaps an appreciation.
Regardless, tomatoes are not what led me to this love of the word heirloom or the transformation of my heart that once occurred in relationship to it. Rather, it was a group of women and a simple shared meal.
I spent some time in Kolkata, India, interning with an organization that provides education, advocacy and other means of employment to women who have been trafficked into prostitution, marked by the red-light district. These women taught me how to sew beautiful blankets made of old saris. They laughed at me when I did it all wrong. They were strong women and patient teachers. And through the ups and downs of this experience, I found one great equalizer: eating together.
I am a native son to the Deep South. Most of what I knew before India was fried chicken and pot roast. My stomach was used to red beans, collard-greens and cornbread. I’d never eaten curry…at least not knowingly. Rice was eaten in small portions where meat and potatoes acted as our main fillers. Once while eating a beautiful meal in the home of one of the local staff of the organization, I was teased for “eating like a village woman!” I just couldn’t hang with all that rice! Luckily, I also had team members who were much better at packing it away, though they shot me sideways looks for having to keep eating my extra rice.
Sharing a meal or having chai and biscuits with these women I met in India was a sacred time. It was a simple and cherished moment in the midst of our noisy and busy days. We could sit around each other, regardless of our language barrier, and know that our bellies were full. I learned that a nap should always follow a belly full of rice.
These women were extraordinarily special. Each, with their own story of oppression and poverty, abuse and violence, were instead treated with the dignity and worth that their oppressors had refused to acknowledge. These times spent together were beautiful gifts that added to my understanding of the world.
When we share these small things together — simple things like meals — it serves as a reminded that we are all connected, and that we are all part of something bigger. In the midst of burps and belly laughs, I fell in love with the simplicity of those moments. Growing again from the vines that made them strong, relationships are like precious heirlooms, growing for the harvest.