When you're a 6-year-old kid whose hobbies include conjugating verbs and eating half a box of Little Debbie snack cakes before your mom gets home from work, it's safe to say that meeting a bunch of new people at once could be a little overwhelming.
Just thinking about that time two decades ago makes me want to pick up another Zebra Cake and cry in a corner.
When I met my step-father's family for the first time, I was young and nervous. My mom's family is quirky, over-the-top, honest, blunt, and full of love and acceptance. I wasn't sure what was going to happen when I first walked through Maw Maw Louise and Papa Sonny's screen door.
But what I met on that day were not strangers but a complete new family. I spent many nights rocking on the back porch listening to the birds chirp in the Hancock County community of Catahoula. Maw Maw's biscuits and sweet tea were what dreams were made of. Papa's laugh always put a smile on my face.
When I met my stepdad's sister, Kathy, I knew we would share something special. A professor at a local college, Aunt Kathy always encouraged me to dream big and to keep on writing. I always loved reading and expressing my thoughts on paper, and she always told me to do good in school and I would get to where I wanted to be.
Every report card, Aunt Kathy would send me $2 for every A mark I receieved. Spoiler alert: She always sent me a bonus. She lived in Wiggins, but it was always a special treat to drive 30 minutes north and spend the day swimming in her pool, eating on the the patio that overlooked the water, and listening to Kathy and my dad tell stories. They would get so tickled, Aunt Kathy would lose her breath, stomp her knees, and scream as loud as she could when the oxygen came back through her lungs. It was pure magic to my ears.
My Aunt Kathy was guided by faith and devoted to God, just as she was devoted to her husband and children. I remember listening to contemporary Christian music for the first time ever when I was in her car for a night drive.
She also had a love for renovation and design. She bought her grandmother's farm house, less than a mile from Maw Maw and Papa's house, and brought to life a rustic cottage used for family gatherings.
Aunt Kathy always brought family together, in triumph and in tragedy.
On Monday evening, my Aunt Kathy passed away, surrounded by close family. While she is now free from pain, her spirit will always live on. She was the very first person who inspired me to not be afraid of pen and paper, and her voice and laugh will always serve as an inspiration to keep on writing, to keep on doing what I love to do.
Justin Mitchell is a web producer and reporter for the Sun Herald.