Sometimes, love looks like zebra prints and butter tarts

Written by Tara K. Ross

I walked into the twilight. A fresh dusting of snow now cleansed the surrounding yards. My sister Erin already had the passenger door open for me, Tim Horton’s tea in both cupholders and Bing Crosby crooning “Silver Bells” on the radio. We were both pining for a short escape from the holiday madness. Driving north together would be just that.

Erin lowered the radio station and raised her phone to her ear. “Hi, Grandma. No, we will not leave you be this year or any year. Thanks, but we can have tea when we get back. We should be there around seven. Yup, both of us are coming. Because we love you. See you soon.”

The Toronto to Huntsville express was off.


My grandparents were married for 67 years, and each lived to the age of 97. They had unassuming but incredibly beautiful lives, centred around one small town. In the decade between their deaths, my grandmother held fast to that community, continuing to serve by making butter tart for church fundraisers, hosting four-course dinners, and cutting hair at the hospital.

She was stubborn in her ways, deeply set on etiquette and frugality, but also driven by unquenchable kindness. She refused to leave her Huntsville family despite the distance from her biological one. The more we visited, the more we understood why.


By the time we reached the turnoff for Huntsville, “Silent Night” had returned for the third time. Erin cranked up the volume and we drowned out the squeak of wiper blades with our off-pitch voices. We sang with different, but equally infectious enthusiasm—I with what I hoped was a reverent understanding, and my sister with comedic lyrical changes.

For both of us, that enthusiasm was fueled by carol book memories, passing around gingerbread, warming popsicle toes by the fireplace, and hearing imperfect voices joined in perfect harmony. Those harmonies were most resonant during open house nights, where every family member, our entire street, and most of our school friends piled into our home.

I turned down the volume as a commercial came on. “Remember how many people Mom squeezed into the living room to sing that one year?”

“Was that the open house when everyone showed up at four?”

I nodded and began to shake with laughter. “I still remember Grandma’s smile when all your friends swarmed her with compliments about her butter tarts.”


My family celebrated, lived, and sang like Christians at Christmas, but that was about as far as our religious practices went. Church was not part of our routines. As kids, prayers didn’t exist beyond Brownie promises, and Jesus took the back seat to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Until I was a teenager, that was okay. It was enough. It was wonderful, in fact. Jesus was lived in our home without rituals or routines, and I felt and learned to love Him before I even knew Him.


The snow that had only dusted our suburban homes lay three feet thick in Huntsville. Despite the drifts, Grandma was waiting in front of her building when we pulled up. Her first words when I squeezed her small frame were, “Bless your souls. You should have just left me.”

Along with her zebra-striped suitcase and an oversized gift bag full of butter tarts, she wore a smile of gratitude and knowing. It was a subtle smile. One you could miss behind her fussing about the weather and her stubbornness to carry her own bags. She knew.

Her legacy was not limited to Huntsville. She had set the stage for serving in our family. Serving that led to traditions. Traditions that led to questions. Questions that led to Jesus.

There was never a stigma against asking her those questions. For her, it was like talking about the weather.

Whether you were asking about the sunrise or why she served, the answer was the same. Because of Him. I became braver and broader with my questions. I took them to youth group meetings and searched for answers within my first Bible. Now I even find answers with the familiar carols on the radio.  


I’ve learned through both my parents and grandparents that sometimes faith doesn’t come from Sunday school lessons or mid-week prayer groups. Sometimes, it comes from seeing the lessons of Jesus lived out by our parents—even if their version of Jesus still lies in a manger.

Sometimes, it’s the previous generation’s example that inspires how parents live and love today. And how they choose to live can guide their children in more ways than we might realize.

During your next small group time, rather than asking about what a youth’s parents believe, ask them how their parents live. Allow them to identify qualities they recognize from the Bible and how they might replicate those same qualities in their own lives.

Our backstory is not our future, but it will likely influence the questions we ask, what we’ll believe, and why we serve.  

Tara combines her passions for youth ministry, mental health awareness, and YA fiction through her blog and podcast. Her debut YA novel Fade to White (Illuminate YA) challenges teens to consider the interplay of faith and anxiety in one girl’s story.