"When you ask God for a gift, be thankful if He sends not diamonds, pearls or riches, but the love or real, true friends." - Helen Steiner Rice

Typically, we think of love, especially around Valentine’s Day, as romantic, deserving of bouquets of red roses and boxes full of decadent chocolates. And it certainly is excellent to have that kind of love in one’s life, no doubt. However, the love of family and friends is also worth celebrating.

Love can be expressed to, and by, people of all ages. The fat little fist of my three-year-old son clutching a bouquet of dandelions was the most-loved bouquet I’d ever received. The presents given to me by my parents during harder times meant more, and still warm my heart more when I think of them, than gifts given when money was not a problem. The handwritten cards my 20- and 21-year-old sons gave me for Mother’s Day last year are among my most prized possessions, because they didn’t just say, “Love you!” but they said WHY they loved me, in actual sentences! These things touch our hearts more than expensive gifts, most would agree. The love of one’s family is deeply felt.

The love of friends is a great gift to be treasured, as well. I have been blessed over my lifetime to have had, and to still have, some of the best. I was taught how to really love my friends by one particular group of kids in the 1970s.

Do you remember the Valentine’s Days in elementary school when your class would exchange little paper Valentines? We did that every year at Highland View Elementary School. We’d have our creatively-decorated shoe boxes on our desktops, and we’d shuffle all around the classroom, dropping the tiny envelopes into the shoe boxes. They were always sweet.

But one experience stands out in my mind as a real expression of love, greater than all my paper Valentines, combined; it happened in fifth grade.

I remember thinking of myself as non-athletic in elementary school, and I guess I was. I assumed I couldn’t do things like pull-ups and rope climbing. Nope, my feet were happiest on the ground, where I felt safe. But every year, our p.e. teachers would pull out that darned clip board and line us all up to be tested. Coach would count how many pull-ups we could do, and see how high we could climb on that rope. (I’m still not sure why this was a feat to be valued and measured, but it was a different time.)

Early on in my fifth grade year, we were back in our school routine after our busy summer. Spelling, reading groups, amazing science with Mr. Jones, incredible history with Mrs. Colbert, lunch with the generous lunchroom ladies, was the order of each day. It was going along fine. I loved school, usually, making straight As in all my classes. There was only one that gave me real trouble from time to time: P.E.

One day in P.E. it happened: the dreaded walk to the climbing rope. One of our P.E. teachers. equipped with a pencil and a clipboard, lined us all up near the rope. I already knew I, the non-athletic kid, was going to fail at climbing this thing. I didn’t have great upper body strength. I wasn’t the fastest runner in class, and I didn’t really even understand the rules of football. I didn’t believe in myself outside the classroom. I felt defeated before I began.

My turn to climb came up, and with a face that was surely downcast and with head hanging low, I approached the rope, ready to fail. I waited for the laughter of the kids behind me, or the giggles of the gleeful kids who’d already finished successfully, who were standing by watching.

I reached up. I can still feel the bristly rope in my little girl hands, wishing I could get out of this, and that no one would have to watch my defeat.

I began the climb, struggling to go even a few inches upward.

Then, I heard it

“You can do it, Roonie!” Scott Watkins, the funniest kid I knew, called out over the other kids.

“Yeah, go Roonie, you can make it!” Renee Smith yelled out, using my childhood nickname.

My friends. They felt what I was going through. They supported me, whether I believed in my ability to move up or not.

Following their lead, the other kids yelled out encouraging words, urging me to go just a little further. They told me I could do it. They believed in me! Their friendship lifted me up.

And you know what? I stretched my little hands upward just far enough to tap that piece of tape way up high on that rope, and then I slid back down to the ground, not even caring about the rope splinters that had just poked their way into my skin, while my cheering little friends jumped up and down for me. I felt their love and excitement for my small accomplishment.

Scott wrote in my elementary school year book that year, “Dear Roonie, I will always love you, unless I start to hate you.”

That kind of friendship was better than my whole shoebox full of tiny, adorable Valentines.

Now, here's a delicious treat for you to share with your friends; Happy Valentine's Day!

Red velvet-chocolate chip cookie bars

Ingredients:

Chocolate chip cookie dough (make your own from scratch or use one roll of pre-prepared dough)

1 box of red velvet cake mix

1 1/3 sticks of salted butter, melted and cooled some

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Powdered sugar for dusting

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8×8″ square baking pan with cooking spray.

2. Press cookie dough into bottom of pan, to cover. Make it as even as possible.

3. Bake cookie dough 15 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to cool

4. In medium bowl, whisk together cake mix, melted butter, vanilla extract and eggs until combined.

5. Spread the cake batter over the cookie dough crust. Smooth with offset spatula. Bake for 25-30 more minutes.

Bars are ready when toothpick inserted into center come out clean. Allow to cool before cutting, and sprinkle with powdered sugar, sprinkles or whatever you like for presentation.

Tip: Line your pan with foil before spraying with cooking spray. Leave overhang on two sides to make removal of cooled bars easier. Place on cutting board to cut into 12 squares.

Enjoy!

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.

She is married and has three sons who are her favorite Valentines. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.