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Life’s a Jolly Holiday with Lale

When most people think of Christian stewardship in the Catholic tradition, they think of a concept, a pastoral letter, a definition, or even a story from the bible. When I think of stewardship, I think of a person – a selfless disciple of Christ who is the ideal model of stewardship as a way of life for me and many of the 72,547 Catholics in our mission diocese, the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas.

For that reason, it gave me great pleasure to learn that the board of directors of the International Catholic Stewardship Council (ICSC) had named Sister Lalemant “Lale” Pelikan, RSM, as the 2013 recipient of the ICSC Christian Stewardship Award. Each year ICSC recognizes individuals for their unique and extraordinary witness to Christian stewardship as a way of life by honoring them with the Christian Stewardship Award.

“Lale” is pronounced “Lolly,” an apt choice of name for one whose constant smile, rosy cheeks, positive attitude of gratitude and boundless joy have given her the nickname “Jolly Lale” by most everyone in the Diocese of Lubbock.

Indeed, her office is full of knick-knacks, children’s toys, books, artwork, a Noah’s Ark and teapot collection, inspiring posters, and even a clock that chimes with bird calls that bring a smile to anyone who enters the room. A sign on her desk facing the visitor notes: “It’s not fitting when one is in God’s service to have a gloomy face or a chilling look. – St. Francis.” Sister Lale exemplifies the type of steward who finds, and encourages in others, true joy in serving the Lord.

Her life’s work has been in teaching – in Catholic schools at all levels, in religious education programs, in adult faith formation, and for the past 16 years, as coordinator of catechetics and lay ecclesial ministry instructor for the Diocese of Lubbock – but her Christian model of stewardship as a way of life is her legacy.

Lale lives simply, with clothing that are garage sale treasures and on modest meals; but, she gives from her abundance – sharing her peanut butter or soup with others for lunch, crafting needlework items to donate to a church by unraveling an unfinished project found in another garage sale, leading recycling efforts, fighting for justice for immigrants, praying in death penalty vigils, advocating for Catholic issues at the state capitol, and otherwise using every minute of her awakening time in loving service and in prayer to the Lord.

Children, youth and adults of all ages are drawn to the warm and generous 76 year old bilingual nun, who might be introducing a toddler to the people in a nativity set one day and teaching adults detailed points about the Second Vatican Council the next. Yet, as much as she teaches, she learns. From the simple migrant Mexican people in South Texas, from cotton farmers in West Texas, from groups of women touched by loss, from foreign-born priests adjusting to the American language and way of life, and many others. And when one of these humble people makes a comment to Sister Lale that illuminates Church teaching or a concept in the bible, they get one of her trademark winks as she boldly proclaims, “You got it!”

Each year, Sister Lale drives thousands of miles across the 23,400 square mile diocese to offer Lent and Advent programs, train lay ecclesial ministers, conduct scripture studies, assist parish catechetical leaders and RCIA teams, and support the various potlucks, Jamaicas, festivals and celebrations of the Catholics worshiping in 62 parishes in West Texas. Through it all, she is an exemplar of Christian stewardship.

Born Mary Virginia Pelikan on March 3, 1937, in St. Louis County, Missouri, Sister Lale grew up in a middle-class family of strong faith that provided her the living example of stewardship as a way of life. She attended Catholic schools all her life and entered the novitiate immediately upon graduation from Mercy High School in 1955. As her early life had been so heavily influenced by the Sisters of Mercy, it was a natural progression for Mary Virginia to choose the international community of Roman Catholic women religious vowed to serve people – especially women and children – who suffer from poverty, sickness and lack of education.

She received her habit and the name Sister Mary Lalemant in August 1956 after Saint Gabriel Lalemant, a Jesuit missionary from France who was martyred in Canada. Like her patron, Sister Lale has chosen to devote her life in service to missions. She took her perpetual vows in 1961.

In 1962, Sister Lale first came to Texas and fell in love with the vibrancy of the Hispanic Catholic culture she found in Brownsville, then McAllen, then San Antonio. In late 1963, she left Texas to work first in Arkansas and then back in Missouri; but, ten years later, she participated in the Mexican American Cultural Center’s Intensive Spanish language program to prepare her to work in West Texas, which has been her home for close to 40 years. Assigned to the mission Diocese of Amarillo, she arrived at St. Alice, in Plainview, a poor, rural cotton farming community of Hispanic majority, to serve as director for the catechetical center for three parishes in the fall of 1974. In 1975, she lived her Cursillo at the Catholic Renewal Center in Lubbock, which then was part of the Diocese of Amarillo.

Due to the shortage of priests in the diocese, in 1979, Sister Lale moved to live in a trailer at one of the three parishes, Sacred Heart, to serve as pastoral minister for Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes.

In 1984, Sister Lale became part of the newly formed Red River Valley Catholic Mission Team, working from Silverton, Texas, and serving the four counties of Tule, Briscoe, Hall and Childress. During that time, she brought new life into the parishes by assisting them in implementing vacation bible school programs because most of them never had one.

A year later, at the request of Bishop Leroy Matthiesen, Sister Lale moved into the rectory at Sacred Heart Parish, Memphis, Texas, and picked up a new puppy Jeremiah—a poodle/dachshund mix – who became what she affectionately called her “co-pastor.”

In 1994, Most Rev. Plácido Rodríguez, CMF, was installed as the second bishop of Lubbock, a mission diocese carved from Amarillo and San Angelo in 1983. He asked Sister Lale to join the young diocese as pastoral administrator for two of its isolated mission parishes in Stamford and Haskell. Sister Lale’s community has had a strong presence in the diocese since 1929, when it founded Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in Slaton, Texas, and established a convent there.

Sister Lale continued to serve the diocese in mission parish work until August 1, 1997, when she began work at the Pastoral Center, as coordinator of catechetics. In September 2005, the diocese celebrated Sister Lale’s 50th Jubilee with a well-attended Mass celebrated by the bishop.

Sister Lale uses every single moment of her time in joyous, loving service to the Lord. On long drives to St. Louis, she listens to books on tape and previews catechetical materials. As a member of her parish’s spiritual life commission, Sister Lale provides resources and valuable direction to that group, as well as teaching studies and assisting in the parish ministry fair.

When the diocese was fortunate to host the West Texas and Eastern New Mexico Stewardship Conference in 1999 and the Region X Stewardship Conference in 2008, Sister Lale was integral in preparing materials and presenting break-out sessions. She continues to provide resources for the diocesan stewardship education effort.

While I was acquainted with Sister Lale through some of her prayer groups, workshops and bible studies, we truly became fast friends when I went to work for the Diocese of Lubbock in October 2009. Spending time with her on a daily basis brings so much richness and joy to my life that consider working with her one of the very best “out of this world” perks of my job.

While attending meetings and classes, and during her lunch hour or other “free time,” she busily does needlework projects to donate to Church Jamaicas (parish carnivals or festivals) or other fundraising events. She cannot recall the number of times she has crocheted her now famous “Our Lady of Guadalupe” shawl which has been raffled or auctioned at countless sausage festivals or school fundraisers. She literally broke into tears, then immediate prayers of gratitude when I told her that the humble gift of her time and talent had raised $5,000 when auctioned at a recent dinner to fund seminarian education.

For her evangelization and witness to the Gospel, catechesis and faith formation, acknowledgement and empowerment of parents’ stewardship of the domestic church, stewardship of simplicity of life, stewardship for ecology of the globe, lay witness in the marketplace and in formal institutions, financial accountability in personal and parochial affairs, stewardship of collegiality and collaboration in parish life and ministries, and stewardship of social justice and work for peace, I was glad to learn that the ICSC board of directors agreed with me that Sister Lalemant Pelikan, RSM, was well deserving to receive this year’s ICSC Christian Stewardship Award.

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How I Mooned the Repairman

It’s a beautiful weekend morning so I decide to enjoy my coffee on the back patio. Wearing a short summer nightgown and matching robe, I pour a full cup of black coffee and step on the porch. Taking a seat in my nicely cushioned patio chair, I take my first sip.

Oh my goodness. Look at my wilted plants! No wonder. Yesterday was a record high temperature for the month of May. That basil won’t live if it doesn’t get some water. So I stand up, turn on the hose and water all the bedding plants, all the pot plants, the hanging baskets and…the pool deck.

Time for a sip of coffee as I walk by the patio table. Darn, it’s cold. Into the house for a quick refill.

Stepping back on the porch for a second time, I place the piping hot cup on the patio table, but before I sit down… I spot those leaves piling up in a corner of the deck near the pool. They do look bad and might blow into the pool.

So I drag the trashcan over to the leaves and scoop them up with my bare hands to throw them away. There, that looks so much better. And, as long as my hands are dirty, there are similar piles under the bushes. So before I know it, I’ve filled half a trashcan with leaves. I roll the trashcan next to the grill.

The grill. We are going to use it tonight and it really needs cleaning. I decide to go inside and get cleaning supplies and paper towels. Besides, that cup of coffee needs warming up.

Back outside armed with fresh coffee and de-greasers, I decide first to hose off the bottom shelf of the grill that has collected a lot of dirt. Oops. I turn it on too fast and get my robe wet. Besides, the sun is really getting higher and that cotton robe is too hot anyway. Off goes the robe. Feeling much cooler, I can really put some elbow grease into this job. Back to the grill for a thorough scrubbing. Before I know it, it looks fantastic. Now I can relax for a minute.

Until I spy the spots on the windows caused by the water spray of the hose. Back inside for window cleaner, clean towels and another refill of coffee. Come to think of it. It’s getting really hot out there. I’d rather have a tall glass of ice water.

Down to my shortie nightgown, I step back on the porch and start cleaning those windows. A few minutes later, the windows look great, but the towels are dirty. Back inside, I start a load of towels in the laundry. Now where was I? Oh yeah, relaxing on the porch.

I am just going to sit here for a few minutes, catch my breath and enjoy that ice water before I start the day’s activities. I take a long cool sip but, from the corner of my eye, I can see it.

Across the pool in a planter box behind it, a tall weed is showing its ugly self in the midst of beautifully emerging flowers. How had I missed that?

Easy enough. I tiptoe around the narrow brick coping around the back of the hot tub and pool, carefully hanging on to the brick planter boxes to avoid falling into the pool. I glance down, watching each of my steps.

Wow, that pool is looking good. Pretty, clear and blue. The kids are coming over today with my granddaughter to break it in for the first time this season. The service technician had to put a lot of chlorine in a few days ago, but he said that we could swim in it today. He said he might even stop by to check on it.

The kids!  I have to get back inside and shower, get dressed and start working on the food we’ll be tossing on the grill. What time is it anyway? I glance back at the clock across the patio. Gracious, three hours since I first stepped outside in my PJs.

Concentrate, concentrate. One more foot and I’ll be close enough to pull out that weed. Precariously perched with feet hip distance apart, rear in the air, I reach down to grasp the weed from the wet ground, just as the wind catches the hem of my nightie and lifts it over my back. At that opportune time, I hear the familiar voice of my pool technician across the deck, but very much behind me. “Mrs. Underwood?”

And that’s how I mooned the repairman.

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Walking With Linda: The ABBL Girls

I have a very dear friend named Linda. We became “walking buddies” many years ago when she was married to one of my husband’s good friends who lived across the alley from us. Linda and I joke that our friendship was one of the best things to come out of that failed marriage.

You feel at ease from the moment you meet Linda. She has several traits that make her a good friend. First, she’s genuinely welcoming and accepting – I don’t think she’s got a judgmental bone in her body. Next, she believes friendship multiplies exponentially rather than simply adds when more women are drawn into the circle. And, she’s intensely loyal to and supportive of her many “best friends.”

Sharing a common interest in walking for health, Linda and I released many stresses during our daily walks as we compared notes on careers, husbands, families and the state of the world.

Prior to meeting Linda, I had very few “girl” friends, especially friends outside of my career connections and sons’ activities. One by one, she invited more people into our walking group, and my circle of gal pals increased.

After her divorce, Linda found the love of her life in David, a wonderful surgeon; but, his career led them to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. For several years, though still in my heart, Linda was no longer a part of my daily life.

Their return to Lubbock four years ago set the stage for a new chapter in our friendship. We both had a few more wrinkles and a few more emotional scars, but the experiences had only increased our need and capacity for genuine friendship.

Shortly after moving back to town, Linda was invited to join a group of women who met every Tuesday for lunch. The group was small, but close, having been formed by two friends wanting to do something to regularly boost the spirits of a third friend, Anita, who was dying of cancer.

When Linda joined the group, Anita had long since passed away, but her friends were still
meeting for lunch each week. With her warm, inclusive style, Linda reached out to me and her many other friends, and the fledgling group really began to boom. Today, more of the women in the group are there because of their friendship with Linda than ever knew Anita. Still, we all chose to honor her memory when we dubbed the group, “Anita’s Brooch Bunch for Lunch.” The brooch part of the name is due to the fact that members wear a jewelry pin so that newcomers will recognize the group at the different restaurants we frequent
each week. For short, we refer to ourselves by the acronym ABBL (pronounced “able”),
a name even more meaningful to us all.

Scarred by divorce, long-term illness, betrayal, addictions, children’s issues and much more, the ladies who meet for lunch also celebrate new jobs, grandchildren and other happy milestones. Linda realizes the special synergy that exists among friends and her invitations have drawn a diverse group of talents into the group – from artists, to writers, to interior designers, to real estate agents, to business women, to marketing experts, to
teachers, to retirees. Truly, a more able group of women never existed.

The ABBL Girls enjoy happy hours, movie dates, Christmas cookie exchanges and American Idol watching parties in addition to the weekly lunch dates. The group went on a quest for the best hamburger in Lubbock, spent an entire lunch discussing grammar pet peeves, donated sleeping bags to the homeless and mosquito bed nets for children in Africa, and worked together on Christian workshops for women in transition. We send email jokes and inspiring thoughts, we whine with our wine, we encourage and we pray for one another. And, when our dear friend Linda discovered her precious husband, David, was dying of cancer six months ago, we began walking with her on the journey.

We have drawn closer as a group through these long several months as we comforted Linda, gave her an occasional laugh, treated her to meals and movies, shared our faith, or simply were there with her – in person or in prayer. The talents of Linda’s ABBL connections helped her find a smaller home and decorate it, find the right hospice, write David’s obituary, cater the family bereavement meal and hold her tightly when she wanted to cry or scream out loud.

And when we received word last Saturday that David had finally let go of his life here on earth – we mourned with her his loss. Tomorrow, our ABBL group will meet for lunch at a new place in town and Linda will be there among us. I expect a large turnout of ABBL angels.

Later this week, there will be a memorial service for Linda’s husband. I understand that in addition to the rows of seating reserved for family, Linda has asked a graphic designer among the group to create a special sign indicating reserved seating for the “ABBL Girls.”

Linda does not know what the days, weeks and months ahead will bring, but she knows that the ABBL Girls will be walking with her every step of the way. Anita and David are smiling at the very thought!

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A Rite of Passage: “The Big H”

The last few weeks were filled with the same excitement, apprehension, trepidation and girlfriend support I felt as I went through sorority rush, had my first baby and joined the Junior League.

Last Wednesday, I had “The Big H.” You know, the surgery that at its very mention makes women regale with stories of their experiences and men cover their ears with their hands and change the subject.

Thanks in part to the fact that I went through rush, joined the League and have developed many new girlfriend relationships in the years since the diagnosis of my husband’s long term illness, I had more sage advice than ear covering in the weeks leading up to the procedure.

The most common comment from those who paved the way for me was, “I’ve never regretted doing it.” The reasons that cause women to need to remove their female organs are wide-ranging – from cancer, to endometriosis, to prolapsed uterus, to fibroid tumors, to heavy and erratic periods, to incontinence to mood swings caused by out-of-whack hormones. I had several of these – fortunately not cancer, and must say, the promise of a successful surgery heavily outweighed the fight to “keep” my organs. When girlfriends assured me that they felt better, almost immediately, I decided to press on.

The topic of my approaching surgery was openly discussed among my various girlfriend “lunch bunch” groups, Bible study and prayer groups, and women’s clubs and civic associations. Everyone wanted to know the name of my doctor, which “parts” were being removed and whether the procedure would be performed abdominally, laparoscopically or vaginally. My answers prompted comments of reassurance, or war stories about the ways the procedure had been performed “in the old days.” I received throngs of advice about recovery time, hormone therapy, how long to stay in the hospital, how long to stay at home before going back to work and other dos and don’ts.

Best of all, I learned that this would be a time when all my girlfriends would take care of me, especially knowing that my husband was in a nursing home and that I had two sons – God forbid, no daughters – to see me through this. I received offers to pray for me, to take me to and from the hospital, to stay with me there and in my first days at home, to make sure I lifted nothing as heavy as a coffee cup and that I had meals for the first weeks at home.

One dear friend set up a way for friends to sign up to prepare and deliver meals through an online website called “Meal Train.” As word about the opportunity spread via email, I received the blessing of nightly visits from wonderful girlfriends delivering everything from Mexican lasagna to Bourbon Apple Pork Tenderloin, complete with side dishes, salads and desserts. My sister traveled from the Dallas area for a few days and, during her stay, made a loving Easter Sunday dinner. Many others sent flowers, did chores around my house, visited, treated me to lunch and took me to the movies. One friend, who had her surgery almost 30 years ago, had to endure my nausea in her car on the ride home from the hospital. Truly, I have felt an outpouring of love, prayer and support as at no previous time in my life. That alone makes enduring the surgery and recovery all worth it.

Twelve days after surgery, I am feeling better in every way. As a newly initiated member of “The Big H Society,” I realize that I cannot pay back my girlfriends in the same way that they have blessed me. In fact, when I said to one as she delivered a meal that I would repay her kindness, she jokingly replied, “Yeah, right. When I have my next hysterectomy!”

Her comment was a reminder that the removal of the organs that had brought my two precious sons into the world was a one time “rite of passage.” The opportunity I have to repay the generosity of my friends is by “paying it forward” to those who will follow me on this journey. It’s a badge I will wear with honor.

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Ode to My Alma Mater

Texas Tech's Raider Red and one of his biggest fans.

It’s not surprising that my feelings for Texas Tech are similar to a famous Lubbockite’s song lyric, “happiness is Lubbock, Texas.” You see, I have loved Texas Tech from my first trip to Lubbock to participate in a speech tournament as a sophomore in high school. A return trip early in my senior year sealed the deal so I enrolled in the fall of 1975. 

 
As I age, I become more reflective, especially about decisions I have made in my life, Without hesitation I can honestly say that the choice to attend Texas Tech was the biggest one I ever made. Opportunities at Texas Tech determined my major and choice of career. Joining Kappa Alpha Theta that first fall brought me into a circle of friends not only for my college days, but throughout my years as an alumna.
 
Lubbock became my home forever when I met and married a Lubbock boy while in college. And Lubbock became the place I raised my kids, enjoyed my career, chose my church and developed lifelong friendships. Plus, the excitement of living in a college town with great sporting events and other activities never gets old.
 
I think I took a lot of this for granted until 2004, when the College of Mass Communications chose to honor me as one of its outstanding alumni. At the festivities that weekend, feelings for “the school we love so dearly” welled up in me like the Grinch’s heart in the famous Dr. Seuss tale. Not that I hadn’t been a member of the alumni association and a regular season ticket holder to football and basketball games for many years prior. But the remarks made during the awards ceremonies gave me a new insight into the calibre of students, faculty and the increasing value of my degree.
 
Shortly thereafter, my husband and I began contributing to our own colleges within the university. We increased our annual giving level with the alumni association. We bought bricks at Frazier Alumni Pavilion and a marble tile at Merket Alumni Center. We began attending functions on campus other than sporting events – most notably, those that honor outstanding alumni throughout the university. And, we paid plenty of tuition money for two Red Raider sons!
 
In 2007, I began serving on the National Board of Directors for Texas Tech Alumni Association and really began giving back with my volunteer time. Many people even ask if I work for Texas Tech! Whether it’s raising funds for the expansion of Merket Alumni Center, helping Tech improve its marketing and communications efforts or participating in Texas Tech Day at the State Capitol, it’s a labor of love for the university that I cherish more with each passing day. To twist Mac Davis’ lyrics a bit, for me “happiness is Texas Tech growing nearer and dearer.”
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David’s Gift

The January 2009 issue of Guideposts included the article, "The Necklace," which was inspired by the original writing, "David's Gift"

I wrote the following short essay on December 22, 2006 and emailed it to friends as my Christmas greeting that year. On the suggestion of one of those friends, I submitted it to

Guideposts shortly thereafter. I didn’t hear from Guideposts for a year and a half, and had really forgotten about the story, when surprisingly the magazine called in the late summer of 2008. In the ensuing months, I worked with editors of the publication to create a new version of the story, “The Necklace,” which appeared in the January 2009 issue of Guideposts. National publication brought much attention to our story and inspiration to many who continue to write me as they discover the article even today. Still, I prefer the original version of the story, which I am posting here today as my Christmas gift to you. I hope it gives all the Married Widows (and everyone else who faces adversity of any kind) the inspiration you need to face tomorrow.

It was five days before Christmas and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I wasn’t even 50 years old yet, but my husband, David, was living in a nursing home full time with a progressive, degenerative neurological illness. My oldest son had married over the summer and the youngest one had started college in the fall; both were fairly self-sufficient and rarely were around. Also, I had not worked since August, so I was missing the day-to-day interaction with co-workers and the daily challenges that made me feel useful.

Although I had decorated and shopped and baked and mailed cards, I felt an emptiness as cold as the dropping temperatures outside. The house was large and empty; the memories of happier holiday seasons loomed large.

In tears this particular Thursday morning, I needed a reason to hope. I asked God, “Please send me a sign.” Then, as quickly as I had prayed, I wiped my tears, put on my makeup, dressed and went about the day’s errands.

Later that afternoon, I visited the nursing home to join my husband for the residents’ Christmas party. Santa came and brought presents for everyone. Most of the residents were at least 20 years older than my husband and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It brought me great joy to see their faces light up as Santa delivered their gifts and young child volunteers brought them punch and plates of cookies and goodies. Some focused on the wrapped packages or played with the bows. Others were intrigued by the stuffed songbirds, house slippers or picture frames inside.

Dave was no different. His voice, usually a faint whisper of one or two words at a time, now loudly belted out “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as we all carolled together. He smiled as he received his gift, enjoyed his cookies and had his picture taken with Santa.

A few of the residents couldn’t handle all the commotion and stayed in a quieter area of the nursing home. One of these, Willis, was the man whose name David had drawn. We left the big party and went back to the living room to find Willis so that David could watch him open the gift.

Looking at Willis, you could tell he had been a remarkably handsome man in his younger days. Now, ravaged by illness, he could barely communicate and I often wondered if he even knew what was happening around him. When the wrapped package was placed in his lap, Willis almost recoiled. It was as if he had a fear of the strange object in his hands. Always the encourager, David said, “Go ahead, Willis, open it. It’s yours.”

A caregiver removed the ribbon, bow and most of the paper to the point where all Willis had to do was open the box. After what seemed like an eternity, Willis pulled out a T-shirt imprinted with the logo of his favorite college team. He clung to it and the gold bow as if they were precious gemstones. David proudly said, “It’s from me.” I think I even detected a slight smile from Willis.

A few moments later, the activity director from the center came in with a small gift and handed it to David. He turned to me and, carefully placing the purple fabric gift bag into my hands, said, “From me.”

A surge of emotions enveloped me. One thing I knew about my precious husband of 29 years was how much it had meant for him to select my gift each Christmas. In the past several years, he had not been able to drive or leave his care facility, so I usually bought something that I wanted and wrapped it and placed it under the tree marked from him to me.

Taking as much time as Willis did with his gift from Dave, I wanted to savor every aspect of this precious moment. Still holding the bag, I commented to Dave how pretty it was and that he must have known that purple was my favorite color. Looking up to see his response, his big brown eyes welled with tears as he said, “I know.” I could see the genuine happiness in his face – the kind of joy that comes from knowing you have made someone feel loved.

Then my attention turned to the contents. As I looked at the bag, I felt that it must contain something that David had made in the center so I fully expected to find a small arts and crafts project inside. I carefully opened the small beaded velvet bag in the color of royalty and slowly pulled out a silver necklace. It was not hand-made, nor was it inexpensive. I looked at the charm dangling from the chain. Embossed in silver was one word.

Courage.

Here was my sign. I turned over the charm. On the back side, an embossed cross. Still another sign.

I burst into tears for the second time that day, this time of happiness.

In the midst of feeling sorry for myself, suddenly, David had given me not one gift, but many. As he carolled and enjoyed the party, he showed me the simple joy of being content with your situation. His loving act with Willis taught that there truly is more joy in giving than receiving. And, his precious gift for me made me realize that no matter what tosses and turns life has in store for you, there is no greater reason for being than feeling the complete, unconditional love of even one person, as I have from David. For it is only through this kind of love that you can begin to comprehend the immensity of the love God has for youA small gift was a big inspiration..

I cannot say that I will never host another pity party for myself. I am only human. But now, I can quickly return to the feeling I had that day in the nursing home by simply reaching around my neck to feel the chain and running my fingers along the embossed cross and the word on the charm.

Courage.

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The Best Cook in the World

My mother is the best cook in the entire world. Don’t take my word for it or the word of anyone else in our family. The fact is validated by Taste of Home and Southern Living, both of which regularly print her recipes. And each year when her hometown daily newspaper prints its annual holiday recipe guide, Mom always has two or three of the winning recipes. As a matter of fact, if Mom fails to submit some recipes, the staff at the paper calls to remind her of the approaching deadline.

Just this morning my sisters and I received emails from some of Mom’s friends to tell us that she was in the morning paper as the Grand Prize winner of this year’s contest for her “Snow Pie” recipe. Furiously, we went online to the newspaper’s website looking for news of this latest win and began posting messages to her Facebook page.

Apparently she kept this win under wraps, because when I called to congratulate her, she was out shopping for groceries and had not even told Dad about the honor or that she had been photographed at the newspaper office holding her pie. No big deal. After all, she is the best cook in the entire world.

What’s my evidence? My mother has a collection of spices that would rival just about anyone. She says you can tell how good a cook someone is by looking at her spice cabinet – cabinet, not rack, mind you. Plus, she always has plenty of things on hand in her well stocked pantry, two freezers and two refrigerators. “You never know when unexpected company might show up,” she always says, even though it has been just her and Dad for many years now. If an ingredient is missing, she’s a brilliant substitute, or just a half mile from the nearest grocery store, where everyone knows her name and the checkers ask her for recipe ideas.

Whether it’s baked goods, delicious desserts, fresh salads, stews, casseroles or pot roasts, Mom’s got it in her repertoire. And while she has lots of recipes and cookbooks, she is most comfortable creating comfort foods from scratch.

For Mom, food is wealth, it is family, it is the very embodiment of love itself. She grew up in the dust bowl days of the Great Depression in a very poor family as one of twelve children. Her alcoholic father made very little money and her mother took in laundry to help keep food on the table. Mom remembers going to bed hungry many nights and one specific time when she watched her mother look toward heaven and pray, “Please Lord, help me feed these children tonight,” only to have a truck of strangers drive up and offer fresh catfish from their successful trip to the lake.

As a girl, my mother dreamed that a handsome prince would take her away and make her rich. And riches for Mom meant shoes on her feet, regular doctor and dental care, indoor plunbing and food on the table. That handsome prince came in the form of a young South Dakota farm boy turned airman stationed at the nearby Air Force Base. Mom honed her culinary talents during travels around the world during Dad’s Air Force career, through the influences of friends who were good cooks, and as she fed four growing children.

Today, at the age of 78, she has grandchildren and great-grandchildren who sing the praises of Mee Maw’s cornbread dressing or lasagna. They will tell you that her letters and emails usually include at least one detailed description of a menu she has recently prepared, if not an actual recipe or two. And when family comes to visit her, she sets out desserts and snacks almost constantly, in addition to the three full meals she prepares each day. Yet she continually asks, “Is anyone hungry?”

No, Mom. Thanks to the good Lord, I never had to go to bed hungry like you sometimes did. But more than that, I’ve never been starved for love either. I feel it through every dish you so lovingly prepare, in those wonderful times in the kitchen together, and even during phone calls when we discuss a new recipe or food discovery. And when it comes to dishing out love, I am absolutely certain that you will always win the Grand Prize.

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