A lithe grandmother sidled from her home in Salt Lake City on a snowy afternoon to offer a cup of hot chocolate to a man shoveling out in the cold. No cameras were rolling. No one asked for the hot chocolate. It was the kind of gesture that didn’t really need to happen. No one would have lost their life if it didn’t happen; no one would get kicked out of hell or booted up to heaven if it did happen.

But it did, in fact, happen.

And consequently, something almost imperceptible changed in that Salt Lake City neighborhood on that day. The instant this woman left the warmth of her home to extend a cup of good will to a stranger, life on that street became slightly less solitary, a bit less poor, and — to steal a line from Hobbes — not quite so nasty, brutish and short.

Such was the effect of the late Patricia Terry Holland — disciple of Christ, wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbor, friend, speaker, educator, author and global religious leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As her husband, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, once said of her, “My wife was a general officer of this church before I was … she was a general officer over a global organization, years before anybody thought I had anything to offer.”

But it wasn’t entirely her visible positions atop a dais or behind a podium that endeared her to Latter-day Saints the world over; rather, her faith, demeanor and simple acts of Christian goodness marked a life and legacy whose influence will persist beyond this life.

Years after she offered that cup of cocoa to a stranger, we witnessed that same bedimpled soul, dressed in Sunday best with her iconic black bob, approach the home of a young couple who just welcomed their first baby into the world. She gave them hugs and handed them a swaddling blanket brought back from a trip to Bethlehem.

It was another small gesture. Again, it didn’t need to happen. The couple’s new baby surely would have stayed warm without it. But Patricia Holland knew this couple would soon be off to graduate school with an infant in tow and a Chevy full of modest belongings. She knew the struggles they’d face because she faced harder ones. She knew her gesture — a gift inspired by the gift of Christ — would warm the couple in ways unseen, but real.

Most of us go through life simply grateful to face its vicissitudes and still be standing when it’s over. We are, like a favorite musical in the Holland home puts it, not unlike fiddlers on the proverbial roof trying to scratch out tunes without cracking our necks.

But Patricia Holland lived differently. She saw her own hardships much like a scout who charts virgin territory in order that she might turn back to help those still on the trail behind better navigate what’s ahead. At Patricia Holland’s public funeral, her daughter, Mary Holland McCann, shared a story that underscored her mother’s deep faith — the kind of faith one gains once they’ve stepped into the dark only to find a firm footing, and are now eager to assure others.

How Sister Holland’s strength powered Elder Holland
Latter-day Saints gather to remember the inspiring life of Sister Patricia Holland

Recounting an unusually hard day in seventh grade, Mary said she went home and burst into tears. Her mom immediately comforted Mary and prayed with her. “Whenever I look back on this experience, I am always so touched by her desire to lead me to faith,” she recalled. “It seems really remarkable to me that she would take the bad day of a seventh grader seriously enough to make it a memorable spiritual experience. But what is even more remarkable is that it wasn’t at all remarkable at the time. That was a scene (similar to many others) that played over and over with my brothers and me throughout our lives.” 

It’s similar to another scene that involved a young man caught in the rain on Brigham Young University’s campus. The undergraduate in question, Matthew Richardson, went on, not just to graduate from BYU, but to eventually serve as one of the university’s vice presidents. But on this day, he was soaking wet and ended up in the Hollands’ car after the then-university president and first lady offered the student a ride to his apartment.

Richardson was uncertain about his future and didn’t know if he would “make it.” He expressed all this to the Hollands. They assured him as they drove him back to the very same apartment complex where they had once lived as students that they understood his situation — for it was once their own.

He would make it, they promised, and Elder Holland left him with this admonition: “You gotta believe, Matt. You gotta believe.” 

It’s the kind of admonition Elder Holland once received on a summer day in August 1963 as an undergraduate at BYU himself. He had a “new family, new life, new education, no money and no confidence.”

“Do you think we can do it?” Elder Holland asked his wife, Patricia. “Do you think we can compete with all these people in all these buildings who know so much more than we do and are so able? Do you think we’ve made a mistake? … Do you think we should withdraw and go home?” 

“She grabbed me by the lapels and said, ‘We are not going back. We are not going home. The future holds everything for us,’” Elder Holland would recall.

“She stood there in the sunlight that day and gave me a real talk. ... So we laughed, kept walking and finished up sharing a root beer — one glass, two straws — at the then newly constructed Wilkinson Center.”

Elder Holland has been known to wait patiently after church meetings in his congregation as Patricia would visit with a line of friends and ward members. Occasionally, he’d quip to others waiting alongside him that if the Latter-day Saints ever got called back to Missouri, the Hollands might have a hard time getting there on time.

But now Sister Holland is waiting, undoubtedly, with an eternity’s worth of hot chocolate and root beer at the ready, eager as always to help lift sights, strengthen faith, and help in her own gracious way to guide those of us following far behind to make it back home.