So Great A Cloud Of Witnesses


My grandfather, Mariano Iannarino, passed from this life when I was nine years old. “Grandpap” as all his grandchildren called him, was an immigrant from Sicily. He had emigrated to America when he was just a teenager and lived and worked here for the remainder of his life. He never owned a car nor did he ever visit other cities in this country. He just worked.

When my sisters and I visited our grandparents’ home on a weekend, “grandpap” often took us to Isaly’s, an ice cream store not far from their home. On the way home from the store, with chocolate ice cream dripping on our freshly washed and starched dresses, we would stop in the local park to spend some time playing on the swings while “grandpap” smoked a new cigar. Often my sisters and I would argue over the paper ring which was wrapped around his new cigar. It was always a treat to receive the ring and we all treasured it, even though its life was minutes long.

As a freshman in college, I was required to write a short biography of someone I knew for an English composition class. I wrote lovingly of those walks with “grandpap” and how the smell of cigar smoke always reminded me of him. When I returned to my dorm room after picking up the graded essay, I smelled cigar smoke. My roommate had flunked out of college a month or so before, and I had the room to myself. Smoking was not allowed in the ancient building which housed the girls’ dorm. Was I just imagining the smell since I had just written about my grandfather? Without telling the other girls on the floor what I smelled, I asked several girls if someone had been in my room to which they all said “no”. Everyone was as puzzled as I was about the smell of cigar smoke in my room. I was so frightened with the thought that my beloved grandfather was in the room that I would not sleep there that night.


I forgot about the event until some years later. My husband and I had been living in Round Rock, where we had built a house on a few acres. We had planted a chinaberry tree next to the front of our home, because we were told that they grew very quickly. The few trees on our property were hackberries along the fenceline, nowhere close to the home. We discovered a few years  later that chinaberry trees quickly become a nuisance. The chinaberry trees are also easily damaged by the wind, and our property was at the top of a windy hill. We decided to remove the tree – not a simple job, as it had grown in just a few years to be taller than our home.

As usual my husband took his time “getting to the task”. I am by nature very impatient and want problems solved as soon as they are discovered. When my husband was traveling on company business and would be gone for a few days, I decided that I would cut the tree down by myself. The wood was soft; I had a small hand saw which I thought would cut through the trunk, albeit with some effort on my part. I anticipated no problems with the task and thought of how impressed and happy my husband would be when he returned home and saw that the tree was gone. So early one day I set about cutting down the tree.

I  began by cutting several smaller branches on the lower part of the tree about 3 feet or so from the ground. I noticed that after I had sawed through a branch, rather than the branch falling straight down as I expected, it twirled a bit in the air, hesitated and then landed on the ground. I thought that was odd and wasn’t what I anticipated. It was then that I thought about my “grandpap”. 

My grandfather had lived all his life in a city where he walked to work. My grandparents’ home was small with a tiny backyard only large enough for a small garden. The front of the home was on the concrete sidewalk next to the street. All the homes on the street were attached to one another on one of the side walls. Small alleyways every now and then provided entrance to the backyards. When and where would my grandfather have had an experience of cutting down a tree? Why did I think of my grandfather at that moment? I was so puzzled by the experience that I abandoned my tree cutting until my husband returned home.

Home in Round Rock

Several weeks later my husband decided to remove the chinaberry tree. Having had more experience at cutting down trees than I did, my husband made all the proper preparations. He wrapped a heavy, thick chain around the trunk of the tree and attached the other end of the chain to our three quarter ton pickup truck while our teenage daughter and I held onto additional ropes to direct the fall of the tree trunk away from the home. Then and only then did my husband begin to cut away at the trunk of the tree with a chainsaw. As the tree began to fall, it took the strength of the three of us, aided by the old pickup truck, to save the roof. Though the tree had leaned away from the home to catch the light, it still fought as much as it could to fall into the roof of our home.

What did my grandfather have to do with the chinaberry adventure? Remembering the cigar smoke in my dorm room and linking it with the thoughts of my grandfather when I attempted to cut down the chinaberry tree by myself started to wake me to the idea, though I had heard it often, that those who have gone before us, are not completely gone. They are part of God’s universe and can serve as His messengers when He needs them. The Church has a way of telling us this, that “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” from Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews. We are never alone in this life, and those we love, who have gone before us, are right here beside us. Of that I am certain.

The God of Surprises

Over this past week the weatherman had predicted rain for Sunday night into Monday and continuing during the day on Monday. Rain is so important for my husband and me as we collect rainwater for our household needs. The rainfall has been sparse over this past winter and in April we received less than a tenth of an inch when the month of April is when we usually receive the most rain in our area. The trees and all the native plants were thirsty after a dry winter and  especially after the trees set out full canopies of leaves and the wildflowers bloomed. 

Photinia after 25 years

My husband and I  made all the necessary preparations for the rain event on Sunday evening so that we would be sure to collect as much water as possible when the rain came. We eagerly watched the weather radar during the day and evening on Sunday to ascertain the truthfulness of the weather bureau’s prediction. We watched as a line of showers announcing a cold front approached us from north Texas.

Since the weather bureau predicted that the rain would come overnight, my husband and I went to bed believing that we would hear the pitter patter of raindrops on the roof during the night. When I arose on Monday morning the driveway and surrounding areas were dry; I had not heard any rain or thunder during the night. I was so disappointed and worried that this chance for measurable, collectible rain had passed us by. I looked again at the radar images and saw a small area of rain far out to the west of us, but there was nothing nearby that seemed to be approaching.

The swimming pool and some potted plants were in need of water, so I headed outdoors to attend to those needs. I had finished watering the potted plants and filling the pool which took about 30 minutes when I felt raindrops on my head. Before I could walk hastily indoors, the rain was coming down hard. Once inside I looked at the radar images on the computer. There were  large areas of rain headed our way. Where did the rain clouds come from, as I had not seen these radar images just 30 minutes before?

Yellow Iris

By the time Monday was over, we had received an inch and a half of rain. During the storms I ran outdoors several times to “save” some potted plants that were quickly being inundated by the heavy rain. We were able to collect over a thousand gallons of water from the rainfall.

I had to laugh later at my wet shoes, socks and shirts which came from my mad dashes between thunder claps to save drowning potted plants, because God had taken care of our immediate needs – and He always does. The weather bureau predictions of rain were correct, but the images on the radar maps which I trusted missed the rain until after it began to fall. 

God surprises me so often that in addition to saying that God is a  “God of Love” perhaps I should start saying that He is also “a God of surprises and unexpected blessings when I most need them”. I needed those surprises and blessings that were brought by the rainfall yesterday. So praise and thanksgiving to our good and gracious God who takes care of his little flock – and especially me.

Hearing the Voice of God

Home in Round Rock

In the early 1970’s my family purchased a bluebonnet covered 4 acre lot on a windy hill just south of Round Rock, Texas and had a home built there. We lived on that property for more than 20 years. The only trees on the property were a few scraggly hackberries along the barbed wire fence bordering the dirt road which ran by the property. Eventually we were able to plant several live oaks and coax them to survive in the heavy clay like soil.

From the back porch of the home we could see the spire of the Palm Valley Lutheran Church along Highway 79 in Round Rock. To the south of the home we could see another hill, similar to ours – mostly barren, except for the fence line hugging hackberry trees and the ever present scrub grass. Just south of that hill was the growing suburban city of Pflugerville.

What was most interesting about our location on that windy hill was our being able to enjoy the majesty of the changing sky. In the fall we could watch as the growing thunderclouds, which announced cold fronts, marched slowly our way. In the summer we could see the thunderclouds coming in off the Gulf of Mexico bringing much needed rain to Central Texas.

Summers in Round Rock

Our home in Round Rock had a well which served us for our water supply. When we first moved to that windy hill, the water level in the well was less than 50 feet down. As the years passed and Round Rock expanded, the pump had to be dropped again and again, as the city drew water from the same aquifer, until our pump was nearly 350 feet below ground level – quite a change in 20 years.

Summers in Central Texas are usually quite dry, so we limited outdoor watering during the summer season. Eventually we added a 5000 gallon water tank to draw and store water when it was more available during the spring. There were few options for us if we ran out of water. It might have been possible to buy water and have it delivered, but even that was questionable during the dry summers.

The lack of water and the infrequent summer rains led to great anxiety for me. One spring I had planted marigolds in the small planting area near our front sidewalk. The plants thrived and the blooms were glorious in the spring, but once summer came, the plants began to dry out and die.

Planting area for marigolds

I prayed daily that God would send us one of the summer storms from the Gulf of Mexico to supplement our meager water supply. The storms often came tantalizingly close, just to skirt around us when the clouds seemed just a mile away and reform and rain heavily north of us over Round Rock. This scenario played out day after day until one day I lost all hope to save my precious blooming marigolds. 

I ripped the plants out of the ground in a fit of anger as I saw another of the summer storms approach. I said to myself – “once again it won’t rain here, I don’t know why I even asked the Lord to help.” In my head I heard the following words loudly and clearly: “You don’t think I can do it, do you, Franciene?” The voice was from Someone who seemed to be laughing, as if God Himself was amazed at my lack of faith and my frequent emotional outbursts, and found it amusing.


Having recognized that the voice came from outside of me and Who was speaking to me, I wanted to find the nearest black hole and lose myself in it. Not having such a hole nearby I asked for the Lord’s forgiveness and have never forgotten the lesson He taught me that day.

The rain didn’t come on that day, but the storms did rain on us the next day. Sadly, It was too late for the marigolds, as by then I had tossed the dried out nearly dead plants in the recycle bin.

The questions I ask myself as I remember this incident: “ Have I grown in trust of the Lord since then? Do I understand that God answers prayers – and always answers prayers – according to His schedule and His will and not mine?”

I am still overly emotional. I want things when I want them. I am impatient and selfish. In short, I am a flawed human being and always will be. I repent each night of my thoughts and deeds which did not come up to God’s will for me. I frequently disappoint our God, but for some unknowable reason, He still loves me. For that I am thankful and always will be.

Dirt Road looking east south east in Round Rock

“And God shows His glory in all that we find”

Broken stems

Several years ago I found a few small stems of a cactus languishing in a small pot. I had not purchased the plant, or I would have remembered doing so. My husband didn’t remember buying the strange little plant either, but somehow the little stems came into our possession. I hate to throw away living things, so I replanted the spindly stems in a more respectable small pot. I said a short prayer over the pot as I wished it well: “ it is up to you little cactus. Grow and thrive as you are meant to do.” 

As the plant grew and thrived over the next couple of years I moved the stems to a new larger pot – a broken clay turtle which was missing a foot – that weird, slightly tilter pot seemed appropriate for such an unusual plant. I placed the turtle pot in a sunny spot and watered it weekly – the cactus plant happily grew and produced new stems over the past couple of summers.

Cactus in turtle pot

With occasional watering and its special place in the sun the little cactus grew. Even for a cactus, the plant’s long stems remained unusual looking as the stems multiplied, forming new stems at weird angles to the original stem. Then last year I saw something developing on the cactus that I didn’t expect and had seldom seen in cacti. The plant was developing a flower bud! When at last the flower opened, I was astounded. What had been a spindly little cactus struggling to live, unnoticed by us for years, had produced a large, magnificent and complicated flower.  The flower bloomed one night and lasted only until morning. Sadly my strange little cactus had no other blooms that year.

We had a difficult winter in 2021 with very low temperatures and even ice and snow which lasted for over a week. Just to be safe when the harsh weather was predicted, I had moved the cactus, along with a few other tender plants, inside to the seldom used breakfast room, where they took up all the space on the kitchen table. 

Blooming cactus

When spring finally arrived I moved the “turtle pot” cactus with its long stems, back outdoors. Just last night the cactus bloomed again, although I had been watching the blooms forming for several weeks. The cactus has two more blooms coming, and then, as in years past I suspect, the magnificent blooms will be gone for another year.

This strange little plant has given me such delight! I couldn’t have imagined that such an unusual, spindly looking cactus could produce such a beautiful and colorful flower. This is just one more proof that our world is full of wonder and surprise lovingly given to us by our Heavenly Father. We are all so very blessed to be His children.

The Fire Pit Miracle

This has been a difficult Lenten season which followed a horrible year of lockdowns and mask wearing due to the Wuhan virus. The Lenten season began the week following the once in a century Texas storm when many of us suffered from extremely cold temperatures and no heat or water for about a week. So I really wasn’t ready for Lent. My husband and I were still trying to return the household to normal, repair broken water pipes and try to clean up the downed trees. I had not even spent any time thinking about the Lenten season, about what I would do to repent and get my heart ready for Easter.

Forty days later and it was Good Friday already. Holy Thursday had come and gone. I had hoped to watch the liturgy on that special day when our savior, Jesus Christ, instituted the Eucharist. I even missed that event. I can make an excuse and call it the result of my “age” which is advanced in years, but that excuse is not a worthy one. I really don’t know what happened on Holy Thursday to  cause me to miss watching the liturgy. I haven’t attended the Holy Thursday liturgy in person in many years, because of the length of the service, the late hour in which it is celebrated and the liberal use of incense which causes my cough to be worse than normal.

Of course, both my husband and I had abstained from meat as required on Fridays during Lent. That is not really an act of repentance for us, as we normally eat little meat, especially on Fridays. My act of Lenten repentance turned out to be an entirely different one than I would have imagined.

Having been married for more than 50 years now, I am well acquainted with my husband’s habits, many of which could drive me to drink, if I were tempted in that way. My husband loves to start a new project, but once he gets going on it, has a lot of trouble finishing the project. I could regale the reader with story after story of unfinished projects, many of which were started years ago and remain unfinished to this day. And my husband, kind and generous though he is, seldom puts away tools that he is using, making it my job to keep the house in some kind of order which is a daily struggle.

The Fire Pit

On Good Friday, that most sacred of days, my husband began putting together a fire pit which he had purchased to burn up all the small branches that could not be used in the fireplace. I was working upstairs on necessary paperwork when he began to unpack and assemble the fire pit on the sun porch. 

The sun porch had been quite a mess the week before Good Friday. We had sheltered plants and lawn furniture on the porch over the winter. I spent an entire day the week before removing everything that was still on the porch and resettling it outdoors. I vacuumed and washed the marble tile floor, even scrubbing the grout between the tiles on the porch. I brought an area rug to the porch once the floor was dry and placed a glass top table and chairs on the porch. I added a few houseplants and a small table to hold the plants. I found an old oil painting to hang on one of the brick walls. I knew that the sun porch would be a quiet and pleasant place to pray in the early morning. I even put some placemats on the table in case we wanted to share a meal there. The end result was lovely, although it had taken an entire day and all the energy I could muster to make the change in the sun porch. 

When I came downstairs after paying some bills, I was horrified to see that my dear husband had set up his “construction project” on the sun porch. Gone was the quiet, clean place to pray and meditate. Strewn on the floor and the glass top table were tools of various kinds and the metal pieces for the fire pit. My husband had even dragged one of the old lawn chairs to the porch to sit on while he worked. I saw the mess that was being made and wanted to cry. All the work which had taken me so long to complete was completely undone. And given my husband’s work habits, I wondered how long this too would last.

working fire pit

I was tempted to say something, even to scream at what I was seeing, to remind him what it cost me physically to clean up the room. Strangely though for me, I kept silent, I suppose in reverence of the day. I had been thinking about the Divine Mercy Novena which began that holy day. I retreated into the house, walked to the piano room and began vacuuming. After cleaning up a bit in that room, I went back upstairs for some time. Later that day, as it was nearly evening, I decided to check on the fire pit work, to see if there was some way that I could “speed” the construction along or clean up the mess that my husband surely had left behind. When I opened the door to the sun porch, I was shocked to see that everything my husband had dragged out and into the room to build his fire pit was gone – it was all out on the patio. Now I really began to cry. I knew without thinking that the scene was God’s doing.

Even though I thought I had not spent the time necessary to prepare for Easter, though I had been too busy on most days to give adequate attention to God, it seems He was still looking after me. So often He seems to be so far away, to be inattentive to our needs, and yet He is always there, even when we don’t notice. My” fire pit miracle” is a blessing from Him, a reminder that we are always close to His Heart.

A tale of four leaves

Three years ago, a friend, Luanne, gave me four leaves from her night blooming cereus cactus. Three years later the plant is thriving. In fact the plant has grown so large that I cannot hang it in the tree anymore. It winters on the sun porch on the little table it sets on, and in the spring, we bring it outdoors with the table to set on the back porch.

original cereus grown from four leaves three years ago

Spring 2020

The following photos will tell the story of this plant. Two winters ago, as the plant grew so large and the leaves were dragging on the ground, I broke off a few of the leaves so that the original plant could be set on a glass top table on the sun porch during the winter. The leaves I had taken from the original plant were planted in a medium sized plastic pot with mulch and the next summer – 2019, plant #2 grew and grew.  

daughter plant night blooming cereus

Early summer 2019

Oh my goodness, I thought to myself, the plant looks top heavy, so I transferred the plant to a huge, and I mean huge clay pot. Wow, it is now so heavy that I need help moving it! So what to do  with the plant over the winter?

baby cereus cactus

End of summer 2019

With the size of the original cereus, I knew that both the clay pot cereus and the original cereus would not fit on the sun porch. So I decided to give away some leaves. I wrote to neighbors on a neighborhood website about my plant giving with photos and history of my original plant. I said that I would be giving away leaves so that others could make new plants to enjoy.

Apparently people were interested as neighbors emailed me, wanting to come by for a sample to try. One by one I took leaves from the clay pot cereus  (end of summer 2019 photo), retold the plant’s story and gave away leaves to neighbors. As the cold weather approached, I still had quite a few leaves that I had taken from the clay pot cereus. So my husband and I moved the clay pot to a front porch that is covered but not closed in, put the leaves that I had taken off the clay pot cereus as well as the original plant on the sun porch and waited for the freezing weather. When the weatherman said that temperatures were going to drop below freezing, we would throw an old sheet over the clay pot cereus and hope for the best. The original plant on the sun porch was kept warm by a small heater.

Fearing that I might lose the large plant during the winter, I took some of the leaves that were left over from the clay pot cereus and planted them in a basket with mulch that Larry had made from kitchen scraps and grass cuttings. Both the large original plant and the newly potted one made it through the winter. Much to my surprise, so did the clay pot on the covered porch in the front – the plant we covered with a sheet during freezing weather.

Spring 2020 – time to put out the plants. It was still a little cold, but it looked like the freezes were past us. The original plant went outdoors as the first photo shows. the “new pot” which I had planted from leaves from the clay pot had started to grow. I discovered that over the winter the leaves had grown roots.

hanging cereus stuck in pot last winter

New pot made from clay pot leaves

Fast forward to today – April 25, 2020 –  the winter pot planted from discarded leaves is surviving. I was able to hang it in a small tree where it receives some shade during the day. Each of the leaves planted last fall is adding new leaves.

There were still a pile of leaves on the sun porch. Hating to throw them away, I chose the best looking four or five leaves and stuck those in a hanging pot. I am guessing that the leaves are growing roots. The remaining leaves, to my shame, I threw away. That hurt my heart to discard something that might have grown. Of course, since the leaves were thrown in the woods under piles of leaves, they just may be growing?

cereus leaves left on porch last winter, just planted

Last group of leaves planted

So what, you might ask, happened with the clay pot that wintered on the covered front porch. My husband helped me move the clay pot back to where it set last summer.

clay pot with cereus cactus

Clay pot plant 2020

The leaves that were left in the clay pot are now growing. I expect that by the end of the summer, this pot will be completely full and I will have the same dilemma that I had last fall – what to do with all the plants during the winter months? Please contact me if you are interested in growing your own fascinating plant.

So I am wondering – wherever this plant grows naturally, is it considered a weed? Why else would it thrive in so many different climates and conditions?

Thank you, Luanne, for this beautiful plant and the puzzles and work it has given me. By the way, when the plant blooms – only at night – the flowers are exquisite. It is usually still blooming when I get up in the morning but by 10 or 11 am, the flower is wilted and closed.

cereus cactus bloom2

Blooming cereus cactus


God works in silence – Part 2

euphorbiaSome years ago I wrote a post about how God works in silence, far away from our eyes and ears. The previous post was about the small discarded stem of a plant that had fallen into a bucket of potting soil. Though the soil was subsequently covered, when I returned to the potting soil to use it again, I noticed the forgotten stem had grown roots and leaves. Now the plant is huge and there are several more pots of this plant growing from the original. Far from my eyes, God was giving the little stem a possibility of new life, preparing it for when I found it.

I was thinking about our silent, ever working God this morning as I prayed the Glorious mysteries of the Rosary. I was thinking about the Resurrection and other “mysteries” of Christ’s life. The most important events seem to be hidden from the view of human eyes. A few of the mysteries are attended only by a chosen few, for example the Transfiguration or the raising of the daughter of Jairus.

And it seemed to me that God works on our souls in silence as well, in the quiet and darkness, far away from our eyes or even our thoughts. Now and then we notice that we have changed, and if and when we turn to remember how we once were, we see only shining little breadcrumbs to mark the way our souls have walked. We recognize then that God has been at work, slowly and silently filling our souls with His work and His love. And we are awestruck that our patient God has been so diligently at work, making us more like the image of His Son.

May the Lord be praised through all the earth.

Night blooming cereus

mother plant night blooming cereusTwo years ago I was given a “start” of a night blooming cereus from my friend, Luanne. The plant I was given was just a few leave stuck in a small pot with dirt. Over the first summer and the next the plant grew tremendously. Cereus is a kind of cactus which does not survive freezing weather, so each winter I put the plant on the sun porch to protect it from the low temperatures.

Last winter the plant was so huge – obviously I had re-potted it to accommodate the large size – that I had to break off some of the leaves so that the plant could set on a table on the porch. Usually I hang the plant from a tree branch. I hate to throw away anything growingdaughter plant night blooming cereus which is why I have a half dozen Aunt Rosie philodendrons, so I got a pot with some dirt and stuck the leaves in the pot. The leaves survived the winter and this spring I put the pot of leaves outdoors. What has happened to the plant is phenomenal. Each of the leaves which were just stuck in the dirt last winter has grown multiple leaves on the sides of the leaf. I am afraid that the plant will fall over so I will buy a pot from Home Depot as I did last year for the mother plant and hang this one from a tree.

What this continues to show me is how amazing is the world that God has given us, how living things are meant to thrive.

A special morning

My beautiful Lillie

As has been my morning habit since my friend Lillie passed away, I took my cup of tea outdoors, sat in one of the lawn chairs and enjoyed the little bit of coolness we will have today.  I always check on Lillie’s final resting place, for I know that some of the wild creatures who live nearby might want to disturb her. Miss Kitty took her place next to me, doing her best to have all of her favorite spots rubbed and scratched. The sun was coming up just over the trees. There were just a few clouds, and those were on the horizon. I had put the bird feeder on the little metal table when I first came outside and already the titmice and chickadees were flying in for a bite to eat.

I sit very still when I am outdoors in the morning, as the bird feeder is less than ten feet away from me. I don’t want to frighten these little friends. I know they are hungry. And they get fussy when they are disturbed from eating their morning meal.

Then from back behind the water storage tanks I saw something coming toward me. It was a little grey fox. I am amazed at how small the foxes are, and how very thin. Miss Kitty is almost as tall as the fox and definitely fatter. The fox walks with his tail straight out behind him, as though he is carrying a flag. I had seen him once before in the yard when I was pumping excess water from the pool. The fox had come to where the water was pooling to have a drink. Today there was no water, but it turns out there was something even better.

grey fox copy
Small fox

Mr. Fox sauntered around the grass about 30 feet from me, never noticing that Miss Kitty and I were watching him. He didn’t seem to know that we were even there. The fox was searching for something to eat in the grass that Larry had watered last evening. And that search was successful! For almost 15 minutes the fox wandered around the wet patch. It seemed to me that he was eating bugs, although it was too far away to see what he put into his mouth. Every now and then the fox would jump and pounce on something in the grass. It must have been crickets. After a while the fox continued on his way to the woods which surround our home.

I was filled with joy and peace at the sight of these little four legged creatures and birds who live around our home.  I know God prepared this little scene for me,  and I am grateful.

My Lillie has left us

Lillie's stareOn Thursday our Lillie returned to the Lord who had graciously given her to us. She had been suffering, limping even with the pain medications I was giving her. The vet thought it might be bone cancer as Lillie’s breed is prone to that disease. Lillie was with us ten years.

I have lost so many best friends – Lillie, Teddie, Nicholas, Annie and those are just when I was married. They graced my life with so much companionship and goodness. God certainly has blessed me.