How homemade stew taught me to accept love

Mary Hoover played girls’ basketball at East High School. That’s how I met her. She was one the stars of the underperforming Scarlets squad and I was sports editor of the school paper.

I took my job seriously. I went to every game. I took notes. I interviewed coaches and players after games. I refused to do the “give me a quote” thing that was common in high school journalism.

I was very nerdy about it.

Mary was an excellent player close to the basket and a good defender. She was tall and skinny, all elbows and knees, an Ichabod Crane on hardcourt.

She sold ads for the school newspaper with her friend Ginger. I probably flirted with them by making jokes or other childish things because I never learned to talk to girls. This remains true.

The last time I spoke to Mary was probably sometime before she graduated from East in 1992, a year ahead of me. She commented on my columns in the newspaper and my blog posts now and again, but that was the extent of our contact.

I remembered Mary fondly, but I wouldn’t have called us close friends.

I never expected her to lead the charge to rescue me.

A few weeks back, when I started writing about a ligament tear in my knee and the incredible insurance costs, Mary sent me a message through Facebook and said she’d like to bring me a home-cooked meal.

I accepted. She made a beef stew so thick with meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, and corn that I could barely jam the ladle into the container to scoop it out.

She came in for a visit and we updated each other on the last 28 years. I made my way in paragraphs and not much else. She worked in banking, then in marketing for a luxury car company. She married another East alumnus, had a son, and divorced.

Mary asked me if it was OK for her to open a Meal Train page for me. I didn’t know what it was. She told me it was a way for people to help me out while my knee was ailing by donating home-cooked meals, restaurant or deliver service gift cards, or just cash.

I said sure.

Mary was kind, but who else would bother with such a thing? I’ve been out of the public eye for more than a year.

My friends have already helped me a lot since I lost my job and went back to graduate school at Drake University. I couldn’t expect more of them with this latest wrinkle.

As is often the case, I was wrong.

As of early Monday, 139 people have donated nearly $9,000 to help me. Several people have brought meals or pledged to bring meals.

The money will help pay for the surgery and help me stay afloat during my last year at Drake before I earn my teaching license and (hopefully) secure a job teaching in the metro.

Meal Train takes a portion of the donations and credit card fees eat up another chunk. But even losing about $1,000 to fees, I am in a better position today than I was when I first met with the surgeon weeks ago.

I originally planned to get knee surgery on Aug. 20. That’s likely to be delayed less for financial reasons and more because I don’t think it gives me enough recovery time before school starts on the 30th.

A knee brace and cane have kept me mobile enough to do most of my tasks. In-person school means more walking than I’m used to, but I’ve got a temporary person with disability parking tag.

Acetaminophen tablets and prescription lidocaine jelly keep the pain in check. My flexibility has improved, and day-to-day household things are less painful.

I still struggle to stand for all but brief periods. Conversely, when I sit too long, the knee stiffens. It takes a minute to get moving.

This experience has given me new motivation to keep moving.

Positive emotions — especially those directed toward me — are hard for me to accept. Chalk it up to adverse childhood experiences too complicated to get into here.

When Parents 2.0, the people who raised me after my parents died, first took me into their home, they did not understand why I refused to accept their love. To this day, I struggle.

I just don’t see what others see in me. I never have. I’m imperfect. I’ve been cowardly and cruel, at times.

I try to be kind, but that is a relatively new path for me. I spent much more time trying to be cool or smart or right or funny.

It’s been especially hard since I lost my job at the local newspaper. I confused my identity with my job, a common mistake. Even now, with scores of people having lost their jobs during the pandemic, I feel like the unemployed are looked at as shiftless layabouts dragging everyone else down.

But maybe that feeling is just another negative one in the file drawer filled with them.

I look in the mirror and see only the bad things.

At some level, I still think, if you really knew me, if you really saw me in all my ugliness inside, you wouldn’t say all these nice things. You wouldn’t bring meals or send money.

I’m morbidly obese, broke, unemployed, and often very grumpy with a terrible case of self-loathing. I never believed that anything I wrote mattered to anybody. It felt like it evaporated into the ether the minute it was published.

That’s why I am so humbled, so deeply moved by this generosity from family, friends, my community, and beyond.

But you do it.

You keep doing it. And you’ve done so well that I will be able to get surgery, if not on Aug. 20 as originally planned, then after I’ve finished school in the spring.

My friend and Drake classmate Jason Clayworth wrote a story about the community’s efforts to help on Axios Des Moines.

I am so moved by what all of you have done for me. I promise you these two things:

First, I will become the very best teacher I can and pass on all the things I’ve learned about writing, reading, communicating, and being human to my students.

Second, I will work hard to see the me that all of you see, to accept love, and believe that I deserve it.

And this spark of hope started with my friend Mary, who wanted to make an old classmate some homemade stew.

Life, my friends, can truly be beautiful.

If you’re of a mind to contribute, the website is Or you can reach me through any of the contacts at the bottom of this column.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
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