"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 sacrificially given to my sister and me by my parents during lean times meant even more, and still warm my heart more when I think of them, than gifts given when money was not an issue.

The handwritten cards my sons, now in their twenties, 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! That was such a beautiful gift.

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 when I was an un-self-assured little girl.

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 of our classmates. They were always sweet.

But one experience stands out in my mind as a real expression of the love of friends, greater than all the paper Valentines I received 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 in our country, I guess.)

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 alone and 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 witness 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, even if, for them, climbing that rope was no difficult task. 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 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 funny, honest friendship was better than my whole shoebox full of Valentines, because it was real and meaningful, having been demonstrated in such a tangible way by my young friends.

That's the kind of friendship we all need in our lives; it's really the kind of friendship I see demonstrated in the aftermath of that brutal hurricane, as well. Neighbors helping neighbors, out-of-town strangers helping those so harshly affected, churches, organizations, fire stations and first responders doing all they can to demonstrate in a tangible way the love we all feel for each other and for the "Forgotten Coast." Though the national media has moved on, we know what the struggles are, and those affected are together in it. That's real, tangible love. Look for ways to show it, and be grateful when you receive it.

If you're like me, you enjoy expressing love and appreciation through small gestures like baking a batch of cookies or mixing up a batch of brownies to share. The two desserts below are simple to make, delicious, and would be a sweet way to show your love and appreciation for someone this week. The gesture means a lot, even though it may seem small for someone who has done so much for you. They will appreciate it whole-heartedly, though, I assure you.

 

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.

 

This recipe doesn't even require the use of your oven! It's delicious and fun to make, too.

 

3-ingredient Red Velvet Oreo Fudge

 

12 ounce package of red velvet Oreos

1 can cream cheese icing

12 ounce bag white chocolate chips

 

1. In a microwave-safe mixing bowl, microwave the white chocolate chips for 45 seconds. Stir. If not completely melted, microwave for 15 more seconds, and stir again until chocolate is completely smooth.

 

2. Open the icing, remove foil seal, then microwave for 30 seconds. If not a pourable liquid, microwave in 15 second increments up to one minute.

 

3. Pour the melted icing into the melted chocolate. Stir until completely blended.

 

4. Crush two rows of the Oreos, add to the mixture, and stir in until completely coated.

 

5. Pour into an 8x8" baking dish you've lined with foil or sprayed with cooking spray.

 

6. Top with larger Oreo pieces pressed into the fudge before it hardens.

 

Cool until completely hardened, then cut into 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.