What matters in the end is that we love.” Those were the words from my husband driving home from our friends’ house last night. We both decided, after 5 hours of intimate, cherished time with our friends, that in the end this is what really counts.

Through our weaknesses and our strengths we find ourselves loving others in a more passionate way. And this happened last night in our homes with our friends, as it is has become our tradition to participate in a progressive dinner with the same 4 couples for 5 years now. What a great way to take the “reluctance” out of entertaining when all you have to provide is one course!

Our families have all felt life at its hardest, and joy at its fullest. We’ve experienced death, divorce, blended families, caring for elderly parents, addictions, homeless siblings, adoption, and parenting. We’ve had many celebrations along the way, too! But in the end, what brings us all together is love. Love that came to us as a babe wrapped up in rags. Swaddled by an ordinary mother and a hard-working father. Love that loved so deeply that it went to the depths of the grave and back again to live in our hearts. It’s a beautiful love that we can share with others, if we are only willing.

We started with appetizers at our house. I told myself this year that I was going to use the Christmas decorations that I had, and not be running to the store for something “new” and exciting. After all, do our friends really care? I also pulled out an old framed Christmas picture of my kids when they were babies for the table.

We enjoyed our wine with crab cakes with raspberry dipping sauce, blue cheese, crackers and pomegranates, and toasted spicy pecans. I thought it was most appropriate to read my “Ornaments and Memories” writing (blog) to the group since all 8 of us knew our friend Jack quite well. Then our daughter Abby serenaded us with her violin and we blew out the candles and moved on to the next house.

For our salad course we enjoyed a beautiful snowflake table setting and delicious pear and walnut salad with cheese bread. Our friend’s young sons played piano and Christmas carols for us. And we were informed that the hostess of this house did not clean her house, to the depth that she has felt obligated to do in the past! She had a chance to take cleaning to another level, but she decided to not take the time. Of course it was picked up, but none of us even noticed. She seemed to really enjoy herself and what really mattered were the people sitting around the table and the conversation that took place.

And then we were on to the next home for prime rib dinner with polenta and carrots. By the time we got to this home (decorated with 63 snowmen!) we savored every bite of delicious cooking and laughter and cheer.

We journeyed on to the last home, which was under construction for a remodel, but you would never have known. It was so warm and the ambience and background music made Christmas come alive. We now have our FAVORITE CHEESECAKE recipe (which I will post below) that we all decided was the “ultimate” tasting we’ve ever had! Our conversation got more serious at this home but this is where we felt “love covers it all.”

As we drove home, once again Paul said, “In the end, love is what counts.” Our hearts were warm with love toward our friends and we were quite thankful for them.

Gingersnap-Pear Cheesecake
(from Real Simple magazine)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups crushed gingersnaps (about 40 cookies)
2 small ripe pears (any kind), peeled, cored, and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
16 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Heat oven to 350° F.

*In a medium bowl, combine the butter and crushed gingersnaps. Press the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan, working the crumbs over the bottom and then up the sides. Bake for 20 minutes.
*In a small bowl, toss the pears and ginger. Line the cooled crust with the pears, overlapping the slices slightly.
*In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium, beat the cream cheese for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the sugar and beat for 2 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix until combined. Stir in 2 teaspoons of the vanilla. Pour the mixture over the pears. Bake until the top is barely set but still slightly wobbly, about 50 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack but leave oven on.
*In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and the remaining sugar and vanilla. Pour over the cheesecake and bake for 8 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.

In Advance: Make the cheesecake and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Slice it just before serving, running the knife under warm water after each cut.

Yield: Makes 8 to 12 servings

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, and confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” (Melody Beattie; author)