Category Archives: The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me

The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

What’s the best gift your mom gave you?  That’s the question behind my new series of guest-posts.  Today’s contribution comes from the ever-insightful Fran Rossi Szpylczyn.  From the corner office to the parish office,  Fran is a former corporate executive turned parish office manager, Catholic writer, blogger (see links below) and social networker. Fran works at The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, NY, worships at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY and is working towards an MA in Pastoral Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and ministry. When not working at, volunteering for, writing or studying about church, Fran is joyfully busy with her husband Mark and teenage stepdaughter Erica.   Thank you for sharing this reflection, Fran!

It was August 1966 and I was almost 9. We were temporarily living in an apartment in a Victorian house, which also happened to be a funeral home.

The apartment had its own entrance, segregating the living and the dead. One day my mother decided it was time for us to have “the talk.” Being Irish-Catholic, “the talk” was not about sex! No, “the talk” was about death, a favorite topic of many Irish Catholics, my mama chief among them.

The scent of perfume mixed with cigarettes enveloped me as she took my hand and led me down the stairs. I wondered where was she taking me as we entered the funeral home, suddenly becoming aware of very cold air and the smell of flowers. To this day, certain floral smells or the sight of gladiolas transport me back to that moment.

I felt so afraid, but mom squeezed my hand and said that it was time to talk. “Death is nothing to be afraid of,” she whispered, “people are afraid of it, but don’t be!”

Who died? I began to cry. When someone died, I knew that they went to Jesus and never came back, like my grandma did.  As much as I loved Jesus, I did not want anyone that I love going off to be with him!

Terror overtook me as we entered the viewing room and kneeled at the casket. I gazed upon a man in a dark suit. He was older and his hands were clasped and he had a rosary. My mind drifted and I remember thinking that it must be pretty good to be able to take your rosary! Could you take your scapular and missalette, too?  Reality snapped me back to the present, the reality of my mother indicating that we were getting up.

The room was empty; it was between calling hours.  My mother told me all about death, letting go, dying and going “home to God.” I was not exactly sure what she was talking about, but I listened. The point of living was to live well and then go home to Jesus and not to be afraid. This appeared to not be a negotiable choice from her perspective.

Mom went on about how people fear death and that death is actually a celebration.  This confused me, although I already knew at 9 that a funeral meant High Mass, lots of crying and then a big party. She was clear that there was much sadness and pain; she talked about how she still missed her own mother every single day and that you had “take the bad with the good.”

Suddenly I did not feel afraid of the man who appeared to be sleeping and I was not as afraid about the idea that we died and would be going to Jesus. It took many years but I ultimately learned to see death through a different lens.

My mom gave me the best gift that day, the day of  “the talk.” At 53, I am still in no hurry to go “home to Jesus” but I do not fear it nor do I fear death’s rituals. Mom gave me the gift to not be afraid to live – or die, even if I have not always lived that way over the years. It remains the best gift my mom ever gave me.

Fran has a personal blog at, a parish blog at and yet another parish blog at her workplace,  

The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Mitch Finley

What’s the best gift your mom gave you? That’s the question behind my new series of guest-posts.  Today I’m pleased to welcome the writer Mitch Finley as my guest!   Mitch is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between (The Word Among Us Press) and Key Moments in Church History (Sheed & Ward).   His reflection got me thinking about something I’ve never thanked my parents for … and should.   Thank you, Mitch!

My mother and father were young and naive when they married in 1943, he 21, she barely 19.  Hindsight reveals a couple of kids who, at that time, had no business getting married, to each other or, for that matter, to anyone else.  Having studied for many years what makes a resilient, lasting marriage, I can see that their marriage didn’t have a ghost of a chance.  That they stayed together as long as they did, some 20 years, is attributable to their decision to do so for the sake of the kids–myself and my younger sister–by itself never a good reason for any couple to stay married.

All the same, had my parents not married I would not have been born, so I have to thank them for that, as I must admit that I’m glad I was born.  To echo Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “So it goes.”  It’s also true that my mother had some spiritual/religious leanings, and for some reason these leanings inclined her toward the Roman Catholic Church.  After I completed second grade in a public school, she announced that my sister and I would, the next fall, attend the local Catholic school which was presided over by Benedictine nuns.  Then, a couple of years into that experience, she and my father “took instructions” from the parish priest, and one sunny Sunday morning in May each one of us inclined our head over the baptismal font and became Catholic.

I had a few dark hours in the Catholic school, but all in all I felt at home there, was thankful to be there.  I grew to love being Catholic, and while I can’t claim to be a cradle Catholic, all but the first nine years of my life have been Catholic years, and for that I am thankful, too.  I would never choose to be anything else.  I love being Catholic, I love following the Catholic calendar and being a member of the not infrequently wild and crazy Catholic community.  I love the sacraments, and the scriptures, and everything else about being Catholic.  And for this I have my mother to thank; this was the best gift she ever gave me.  She it was who prodded our father to agree to send us to a Catholic school, and it was at her urging that we all were baptized Catholic.  She is the reason I’m Catholic today and have been so for lo, these many years.  Were this not so, I would not have majored in Religious Studies at a Catholic university, would not have enthusiastically earned a master’s degree in Theology at yet another Catholic university.  For me, my studies truly were the fides quaerens intellectum of Saint Anselm, faith seeking understanding.

My mom did not have an easy life; that she was what I would call “emotionally challenged” led her to make some unwise, unhappy choices.  But she gave me the gift of life, and then she gave me the gift that surpasses even the gift of life, namely, the gift of the Catholic faith.  Thanks, Mom.

The Best Gift My Grandma Gave Me by Mike Leach

What’s the best gift your mom gave you?   That’s the question behind  my new series of guest posts.  Today I’m thrilled to share a reflection from  Michael Leach!  Mike is publisher emeritus and editor-at-large of Orbis Books.  His own recent [and absolutely wonderful] book is Why Stay Catholic: Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question (see He and Vickie are the proud new grandparents of twins Mae Victoria and Jackson John Leach.     Thanks, Mike, for sharing this special memory of your grandmother … and have fun with those new grandkids!

I was eight years old and lying next to Gramma Lou on her beat-up blue sofa that smelled like my Dad.  My parents were divorced and Gramma Lou was the harbor I could always go to, to know that I was safe.  Every weekday when I got off for lunch at St. Andrew’s school I’d walk through the playground to her house where she’d make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cold glass of Bosco chocolate milk.  After lunch we’d lie next to each other on the sofa and Gramma would read me a comic book.  Her favorite and mine was Blackhawk.  Blackhawk was an ace fighter pilot from World War II who gathered a motley crew around him to fight injustice.  Did I tell you that my Dad was a WWII pilot with more missions than Catch 22’s Yosarian?  That he earned two purple hearts and gave them to me along with his leather fly jacket that had 32 little bombs painted in white on the front?  He also killed Hitler with a pen-knife but we won’t go there because nobody believed me then and you may not believe me now, but believe me, it’s true.  He told me.

One day lying next to Gramma Lou, I pushed the comic book down with a finger and said, “Mamma Lou, I don’t want to go back to school.  I want to stay with you.”

“We’ll see,” she said.  “Oh, look, Chop Chop’s coming through the window!”

Chop Chop was Blackhawk’s sidekick.  He used to be a cook and carried a butcher’s cleaver.   I pushed the comic down, turned on my side and looked at Gramma Lou. “Momma Lou,” I said, “you love me, don’t you?”  It was more a statement than a question.

She looked at me with her sweet brown eyes the color of Cracker Jacks.  “Of course I love you.”

“Even when I’m bad, right?”

“Yes,” she smiled.

“You’ll always love me, won’t you, Mamma Lou?”

She took me in her arms and said, “Michael… you could take Chop’s Chop’s hatchet and chop off my arms and chop off my legs and chop off my head and throw them all in a garbage can and my head would still look at you and tell you again, “I love you!”

That was the day I knew everything I need to know about God.

The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Heidi Saxton

What’s the best gift your mom gave you?  That’s the question I’m asking  writers, bloggers, and other cool people for my new series of guest posts.  This week, it’s a joy to have Heidi Saxton here to share her thoughts!   Heidi is an adoptive mother and wife, and author of several books including My Big Book of Catholic Bible Stories (Tommy Nelson) and Raising Up Mommy (Simon Peter Press). Her blog for mothers of adopted, foster, and special-needs children is “The Extraordinary Moms Network.” She is editorial director of Ascension Press.  Thank you, Heidi!

“You bring ’em to us, and we’ll love ’em.”

I didn’t realize what a remarkable lesson in love this was until much later. I didn’t realize that not EVERYONE is as open to adoption as my family has been.

That simple affirmation of acceptance: “You bring ’em to us, and we’ll love ’em” was a pledge of love and acceptance that both my parents have made, and kept, for the past eight years (since we got the kids).

In a way, this pledge is at the heart of all good parenting. For better for worse, for dirtier or cleaner, for naughtier or nicer. I will love you, no matter what.

Of course, in some ways this can be easier to do as a grandparent. If the kid ticks you off, you can just hand him back to mom and dad. Even so, this pledge of love, whether or not it is returned with the same level of enthusiasm, is one that I’ve been forced to contemplate from time to time. “Yes, my darlings, I will love you EVEN WHEN . . . ”

*  even when I’m sleep deprived.

*  even when you’re being rude and mean.

*  even when a million things are vying for my time and attention.

*  even when the very last thing in the whole world I want to be is a wife and mom.

Yep. You come to me, and I will love you. Even when.


The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Mike Hayes

This week, I’m excited to be kicking off  a new series of guest-posts called The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me.  It’s a series where writers, bloggers, and other cool people share the greatest gift they got from their moms.  I’m delighted to have Mike Hayes as our first guest!  He’s the author of Googling God and the co-founder of, as well as a campus minister and blogger (check out his full bio below).   He’s also a seriously nice guy with a really inspiring mom.   Thanks, Mike,  for sharing!  (and Happy 61st Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes!).


It’s 1975 and I’m a kindergarten student.  I had a crush on Heather Wilson, the girl next–door, and enjoyed spending my day at school because she was there.  I always told mom about her the second I got home from school and she just smiled and would always ask if anything other than Heather had caught my interest.

It was those times after-school that was just ours, Mom and I.  My Dad and older sister were still at work and that gave us time to be together.  We’d watch an afternoon baseball game or Casper the Friendly Ghost on TV.  She taught me euchere, a card game that I eventually got good enough to beat her at.

And then, it started to happen.  Mom got sick, they told me.  I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I knew it didn’t seem good.  Mom was in and out of hospitals so often that people would always remark “AGAIN?” when I’d tell them she was in the hospital.

Rheumatoid arthritis can play games with your body.  Coupled with severe asthma and it could be deadly.  One would get horrible pains and it would bring on anxiety, coupled by the asthma.  The chain reaction brought the ambulance to my house on a few occasions.  Once when mom fell, she asked me to call 9-1-1 and I was brave enough to tell the operator where I lived and what had happened.  Mom was proud and thankful.

Those after-school times got less frequent.  So when mom was home I was always excited to head home and spend that time with her.  If a teacher threatened to keep us after-school (a horrible threat!) I would begin to cry, often loudly.  Teachers would try to comfort me to no avail.  When asked why I was so upset (seemingly none of the other classmates thought it to be a major catastrophe), I would often reply, “Because I’ll never see my mommy again!”

To be sure it was an irrational thought.  And yet, it was real to me.  At any moment she could be whisked away to a hospital bed, perhaps for the last time.  The ambulance came that Christmas Eve and they very nearly lost her on the way to the hospital.

Years passed, and mom’s health had its ups and downs.  The hospital was a frequent stop.  She spent my high school graduation there and years later when her colon ruptured, she was there on my wedding day.  Until recently, I had never strayed too far from home, mostly to be close to mom, just in case anything would happen.

Mom never asked me for anything.  Her persistence in simply living through pain and suffering reminds me of how strong any one of us can be.  Her resilience has been her biggest gift, not merely to me but to our family.  She’s the matriarch of her clan now at nearly 83 and has been my father’s Mrs. Hayes for 61 years this week (speaking of resilience!).

My college roommate, Joe, joined our family for my parents’ 60th anniversary, a milestone we never thought she’d reach.  He turned to me and said, “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve had this terrible anxiety about your mother dying.  Mike, don’t hate me for saying this, but I think you can let that one go now.”

Indeed.  Freedom from our fears is a great gift and the tenacity of my mother to endure has come at a great price, none greater than the loss of security.  And yet, it’s also given  us a mighty faith.  My mom is devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, a young girl who suffered in her own right without complaint.  It is that faith that has sustained a family around their mother, who I plan to spend a good deal of time with after-school this week as we celebrate life.

Mike Hayes is the author of the blog and is currently a Campus Minister at the University of Buffalo housed at St. Joseph University Parish.   He is the co-founder of and remains as the editor of the Googling God section, a catechetical outreach of the site.   Mike authored the book Googling God in 2007 and is currently working on a book on career discernment called Loving Work with Orbis Books.  He is married to Marion and lives in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst.