IN MEXICO, they actually have a word for those New Year's noisemakers made of rolled-up paper. They call them "mother-in-law frighteners."

And I've been told the Navajo language doesn't even have a word for "mother-in-law."Some cultures, it seems, like to ward off the woman or keep her at bay.

But I couldn't do such a thing if I tried. My mother-in-law has shared my life since I was 3 years old. My first memory of her goes back to 1955 when she offered me a cookie at her daughter's birthday party.

My most recent memory is from the other night. She lifted herself from her hospital bed to tell me to drop by her house and get myself some cookies.

Cookies R' Helen Westenskow, and have been for decades.

Still, where people like Hillary Clinton get to brood about whether to be a "cookie-baking mom" or a "tackle-the-world mom," Helen never had the luxury. She was both. When her daughters needed dental care and her husband decided to take a third job on Sundays to pay for it, Helen decided some changes were in order. She took up teaching school. For years she both made and won the family bread and learned to balance duty and independence like a circus performer.

And I'm here to tell you (as her husband would say), no one this side of Thomas Jefferson reveres the word "independence" like Helen Westenskow. Her father was a Democrat, so she's been a lifelong Democrat in his honor, even though Orrin Hatch often bends too far left for her taste. And when it comes to standing up for what you think, well, we've never had to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July at our house. We just stand Helen on the front lawn and call out the names of local politicians.

She believes people should act from the heart and speak their minds.

When my wife turned 46, even our kids were skittish about offering congratulations. Not Helen. She showed up with a flaming cake. "Forty six!" she called out. "Goll-lee, Jerry, how does it feel to have a wife who's 46?"

For years nothing has sent shudders through our kids more quickly than Helen saying: "Would one of you girls please explain to me . . . "

But more than her penchant for telling the truth, I've loved her for being my friend and defender. She pleads my case better than I do. For years I've known if my wife got annoyed and decided to move home with her mother, she'd have to do some pretty fancy talking.

Not me, however. All I'd have to do is ring Helen's doorbell.

Such things fill our family albums and memories. But beyond all the anecdotes of opinions and personal style, the true legacy of Helen Westenskow will be devotion. Honest affection has held her world together just as fresh eggs have held together her beloved cookies.

I remember a couple of years ago when the Festival of Trees asked if I'd put on a cookie-making demonstration. I agreed, if they'd let me bring along an expert.

I brought along Helen.

She thought it would be nice to demonstrate her "no-bake" cookie recipe - a recipe for pre-schoolers who can't handle an oven. To "practice" for the big event, she spent the night before making more than 200.

Needless to say, the demonstration went like clockwork. As I was downing the last dozen "no-bake" cookies myself, Helen motioned me backstage and pointed to a table full of gingerbread houses. She marveled at the skill and dedication of the men and women who made such things. Then she stepped out to take a little walk around the festival.

She was back within two minutes - smiling, excited and looking like she was 16 years old.

"Jerry," she said. "You've got to come out here. These houses are the losers. Wait till I show you the winners!"

But I didn't need to go out front to see the winners.

I knew I was looking at a winner right there.