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As a widow, Marlene Lee knows the special need for fellowship at Christmas. She welcomes guests without friends or family in the area to her home each season for a holiday dinner.
Every Christmas season, guests gather around Marlene Lee’s long dining room table for turkey and trimmings. The members of the group change each year – as do the date and desserts – but one constant always remains. Nothing is ever asked of them, except that they leave happy.
Her only hope for the meal is that those who are alone at Christmas have somewhere – and someone – to be with.
“Christmas is a time of the year when everybody is supposed to be happy, but many people are very unhappy,” Lee said, her European accent striking the consonants of each word. “It’s a time of depression; it’s the dark time of the year. People say, ‘Oh, I am so lonely.’ I say, ‘If you are lonely invite someone.’ It doesn’t take much.”
So Lee opens her Meadow Brook home to 20 or more guests each year. She may not know them all, but she treats them like family. They talk until midnight sometimes, celebrating the birth of Christ with good wine and a traditional Christmas menu.
Lee has held this custom since she came to America 36 years ago. At 31, she had left her home nation of Austria and the sunlit mountains she adored for an American professor who “enticed” her away. Now 67, Lee lives in a large house she and her husband built together. Her basement acts as a warehouse for a mess of religious educational literature from their publishing company. She hasn’t sold the business, she said, because her husband asked her not to before he died in 2004.
Like many of her guests, Lee is a widow, but the annual crowd of 20 also includes people with different stories of loneliness. She’s hosted a woman who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina, a NASA scientist with no other family in Birmingham and an exchange student from Germany, among many others.
But Lee’s hospitality manifests in more than just this traditional, annual burst. Her door never closes, her smile always invites and she refuses to turn her back on those who ask.
“If she can take a burden away, she will do it” said Donna Francavilla, a reporter for CBS and close friend of Lee.
Francavilla, who has attended Christmas dinners at Lee’s home, said having Lee as a friend has been more than a positive force, thanks to her generosity. Not that she’s thankful for the material things Lee has given her, but rather for the time and knowledge. Francavilla said having Lee in her life has taught her to learn to love what truly matters – herself and others.
“She always says, ‘You have to be a friend to have friends. Friends don’t happen by accident. They have to be earned,’” Francavilla said of Lee.
And Lee has earned many friends over her years of reaching out by not only giving away possessions, but also to share her wisdom. As Francavilla suggests, it is difficult to spend time with Lee and not be changed. Everyone who comes to dinner is also presented with Lee’s outside-the-box ideas — ideas that challenge the way her guests think.
Lee is Catholic and celebrates the birth of Christ, but also believes all religions are tools to encourage humans to love one another. Curiously, she blames herself for contracting the breast cancer three times. More curiously, she has no trouble explaining why.
“If I don’t do the right thing, I am punished,” she said. “We make our own beds. But if you are a giving person, you don’t look for a reward, and it comes automatically. And sometimes it comes faster than you think.
Conversation is as much of a staple at Lee’s table as the turkey and dressing. She is quick to assert her opinions and philosophies. But everyone around the table will also agree that the Christmas Spirit lives in Marlene Lee, and she’s willing to share it year round.
“I don’t seek fame and I don’t seek fortune. All I want is to be living my life the best that I can in order to improve other people’s fortune. That’s it.”