It was many years ago when I received word that I got a job in television news in the Atlanta metro area. I had been living on Ohio’s north coast for all of my life up until that point. I was excited about embarking on my then-new adventure in the South. On the last visit to my hair stylist Connie that summer, I received her sage “Atlanta advice.” Connie, like millions before her, was one of those people who passed through Atlanta on the way to somewhere else. Many of you who have lived in the Atlanta metro area for a time get the picture: People pass through, they become “ersatz experts” on the city and dole out the usual observations about the town with their “hundreds of Peachtrees,” sweet tea and “those nice, talkative Southern folks who would give you the shirt off their backs” stories. “They’re nice people down there,” Connie said. “And one other thing, they got heat.”
Connie was right. I moved to the Atlanta metro area in the heat of that summer, started my job and a few weeks in, I met a co-worker named Melissa. Here I was along with thousands of others who moved to this metropolis in search of an identity. Many of us were young, not too far out of college and doing our best to navigate this region “full of Peachtrees.”
What made the transition to living in the Atlanta area easier was meeting many kind folks. Still, none of those folks measured up to Melissa. After thinking about what set Melissa apart from others is this: Melissa was fearless with her kindness. The South was her home and she welcomed all who arrived into it with open arms. That very kindness inspired Melissa to approach anyone in her line of sight. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from – Melissa enjoyed the art of conversation with the world.
Like my own mother, Melissa was able to get your life’s story within seconds. If you were a brick house, Melissa was able to break down those walls and get you to “spill your guts.”
I was one of those brick houses that Melissa was able to collapse. While we quickly discovered that we had few things in common at that time, we learned and grew from each other. It didn’t take long to become more than colleagues, but trusted friends. We went along with other co-workers to restaurants like La Bamba, a then-Mexican hole-in-the-wall that was in an old Midtown Atlanta area house.
So here we were, working in the television business. We got to meet a bevy of interesting folks ranging from actors and politicians to working with the behind-the-scenes crew and on-air talent. Trust me when I say that it seemed like every one of those folks who passed through the hallowed halls of our place of work in those days got to know Melissa. I’m attempting to exaggerate here, but there’s a side to me that thinks I am not really exaggerating. Melissa had no problem making her presence known. That gregarious spirit came from her upbringing in Swainsboro, Georgia where she must have grabbed the spotlight on a daily basis.
One time, the cafeteria at work was serving hot wings. In her sweet Southeastern U.S. accent, Melissa said to me, “Bobby, they got ‘wangs’ down there!” I replied in my Midwest tone, “Wings? Really?” Flip, our weather guy chimed in, “I love it! North meets South!”
It was more than just “North meets South.” We got to know more about each other as the years went on at work. We got to know our significant others at the time. We got to know about our families. I discovered that I was two weeks older than she was. She never let me forget that one. In some of our spare time, we went to see movies like Born on the Fourth of July and showed up at festivals. We discussed just about everything including cultural issues, our hopes, dreams, fears, work-related matters and other things that life threw at all of us.
While we went on to other areas within our company over the years, our paths crossed. We discussed marriages, my child, divorces and career changes. Even though Melissa enjoyed working within the television news business, I’m not quite sure she found her exact niche. Certainly, Melissa loved running the audio board, rubbing elbows with the television anchors, producers and directors, but overall, her calling was to be in front of an audience. Melissa didn’t find that calling while working in television news. She found that calling as a chef/caterer. From my little perch here in life, it seemed to me that Melissa truly enjoyed this type of work and was inspired by the likes of TV chef/mega-entrepreneur Paula Deen.
In recent years, we kept in touch through social media. I told Melissa all about my girlfriend, Cami. Melissa was happy for me-mainly because Cami hails from a region far south of where I grew up. Melissa told me about how she not only found her happiness and her Shangri-La in South Georgia, but also that she found the love of her life in a wonderful man named Chuck.
Melissa passed away today after a long bout with ovarian cancer at age 48. Melissa left a legacy, an incredible impression on the world. She probably didn’t realize it, but to those who knew her, Melissa taught all of us so much about life.
Melissa A. Kitchens (left) served as an audio technician with CNN for 20 years. This is a freeze frame from a documentary about the program “TalkBack Live.” Melissa is pictured here with then- ‘TBL’ Executive Producer Michael Toppo (right) on the set of CNN’s “TalkBack Live” in spring 2001. Photo Credit: Cable News Network