“A Time to Remember,” May 30, 2023

This column is from 2012.

Out of the blue, the boy asked me a question about a moment we shared years ago, he and I, a moment so momentous we would never be the same.

I remembered it, of course. How could I forget? I’d sooner forget my name. But that’s not what he was asking. He knew I hadn’t forgotten it. He just wondered what time it took place?

What time? As in hours and minutes?

Never mind, he said, It was just question, nothing important.

I smiled. He had no idea how important it was to me. Or how much it would haunt me, keep me awake, flipping dusty, dog-eared pages of my mind, trying to find the answer.

What kind of mother forgets the exact time her child was born?  It’s not like I wasn’t there. Yes, I had a few distractions. I didn’t check my watch. But still ….

Here’s what I do recall. I was 23 years old, married for nearly three years, living 3,000 miles from my family in a town so new and unfamiliar I could get lost going to the grocery store.

My husband had recently started teaching and coaching at a local high school. We had health insurance and a steady paycheck. We had been fortunate to buy a house for about two years’ worth of his salary. It would be our home for almost 50 years.

I was absolutely over the moon to be pregnant. All my life I had wanted to be a mother (a grandmother, too, but first things first.) I had limited hands-on experience with children, but had done a lot of reading and had no doubt I was ready for whatever lay in store.

Basically, I had no clue. It didn’t matter. What I didn’t know, the boy would teach me.

On the day he was due to be born, his father had to coach a basketball game. At half-time, I was sitting in the bleachers, like a whale riding side-saddle on a see-saw, when I felt the first contraction. At half time, I sent a note to the coach in the locker room: “In labor, might need to leave.’’

Minutes later it came back: “In foul trouble, game over soon.”

The game went into overtime. When his team finally lost, I had to bite my fist not to cheer. We went home to get my bag and a burrito for the Coach, then drove to the hospital in the same car the boy would drive 16 years later to get his driver’s license.

By 2 a.m., I was in hard labor. Or so I thought. Then it got harder. The nursing assistant was a woman whose son had been one of my husband’s students. 

“Don’t worry, child,” she told me, “I’m gonna take good care of you.” And she did _ not just for my first baby, but for my second, three years later, and my third, three years after that.

By afternoon, the second day, when I was still in “hard labor,” my husband made the mistake of asking me if I could “hurry it up a bit,” because he had another game to coach that night.

Later he would say he was joking. I was not amused. At one point, I heard him on the phone telling one of his players that he was sorry, but he needed him to fill in as coach at the game.

“I can hear you!” I said.

“Gotta go,” he whispered into the phone, “good luck!”

Things got a little fuzzy after that. Somebody told me to push, so I did, for a really long time, hours or days or years, I couldn’t say.

Next thing I knew, the Coach was laughing and I was holding a little person that had big hands like a King Kong action figure, tiny but huge, and a lop-sided head like the rag doll that accidentally went through the wringer of my grandmother’s washer. And he was looking up at me as if somehow he knew exactly who I was, someone that he was really glad to finally meet face to face. And I was falling, falling, fast and hard, forever and always in love.

What time was it? I can’t believe I forgot. What I clearly recall is this: It was the right time, not a moment too late or too soon, just when he was needed by the world, his dad and most of all by me.

But according to his birth certificate (that I finally found in a box after searching half the night) it was 5:57 p.m.

“Graduation,” May 23, 2023

It’s that time of year for all sorts of graduations, from preschool through college. The following column is a speech I was delighted to present at a high school graduation ceremony in 2014.

I am honored to stand before you on this fine and historic occasion. It is really quite something to look out at your beautiful, shining faces and see so much grace and poise and dignity, especially since we all know that not so long, you were still sticking peas up your noses.

Today you graduate from high school and it is my task to tell you as quickly and painlessly as possible something fine and inspiring that will stay with you all your life or at least won’t be so boring your dad will start snoring in the bleachers.

What I want to tell you is simple, but hard to remember. You can learn it 100 times and still forget. First let me say this: You are all achievers. You’ve been working toward this day all your life. You’ve learned how to take care of business, perform under pressure, do a job and do it well. That’s good. Keep it up. Achievers change the world. And Lord knows, the world needs lots of changing.

But while you’re busy changing things, here are some things I hope you’ll remember: Don’t work too hard. Don’t worry too much. Spend time with the people you love. Hold fast to your faith, whatever it may be. And live the life of your dreams.

My late husband was an achiever. For 30 years, he taught chemistry and coached basketball at Monterey High. In 1993, the year before he was diagnosed with cancer, he ran the Big Sur Marathon in just over 4 hours; not great time, but he finished and to him finishing was always more important than winning. And he truly loved to win. Almost as much as he hated to lose.

In class and on the court he stressed two things: Hard work, a term you know (or your parents will gladly explain it) and diligence, an old-fashioned word meaning “a constant and earnest effort to accomplish that which is undertaken.”

If you were in his class or on his team, you knew what those words meant because he taught them by his example. In the four years he battled cancer, there was never a doubt that he would continue, as long as he was able, to teach and coach and live the life of his dreams.

In the end, he told me that he had only one regret: He said if he could live his life over, he wouldn’t change a thing, except he’d spend less time at school and the gym and more time with his family and friends. He was proud of the classes he taught, the games he won, the lives he helped to shape. But what mattered most to him at the end of his life were the people that he loved.

Who are those people for you? Say their names in your mind. Now say them again. You will always have their love, but you won’t have them forever. Make sure that you treat them well.

Today when you marched in here, you were not alone. You carried on your shoulders the hopes and dreams and love of a lot of people: Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, your teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends.

They’ve all had a hand in helping you reach this point of your life, and they will always be glad to help you, if they can. But one thing will change when you leave here today:

From now on, you alone will be in charge of your life. You alone will decide what to do with it. Officially, you are one of us now. Yes, God help you, you’re a grownup.

You can’t control all the things that will happen to you in the future. And you can’t change the things that happened in the past. But you can choose what you do with those things _ past, present and future _ and how you let them shape you.

Going forward, there will be only one person to credit or blame for your life: You. You have your mother’s smile and your father’s eyes, but your life is all your own.

That is your graduation gift: Your life. I hope you like it. If it doesn’t fit or it’s not the one you wanted, feel free to exchange it. Be the person you want to be _ not the one someone else thinks you ought to be. Live the life of your dreams. Starting now.

I’d like to leave you with some tips from my grandmother. She was a smart woman, self-educated, though she never finished high school. She was wise in ways that can’t be learned in books. You’d have liked her, had you known her. She’d be proud of you. Here are some of her suggestions for “how to get along in the world.”

“Things My Grandmother Always Said, or Would Have Said if She Had Thought of Them”:

1. When you meet people, shake hands and look them in the eye and they’ll probably say nice things about you at your funeral.
If you’re going to tell a lie, tell one that people will believe. That way, you’ll only be known as a liar and not a lying fool.

2. Look after living things: Feed your animals, tend your garden, be kind to children and old people and everybody else.

3. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People can forgive ignorance, but they never forget a phony.
Be true to your faith and practice what you preach; in the eyes of God, the only thing worse than a heathen is a hypocrite.

4. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh. (It’s a lot like “don’t spit into the wind” but it’s more about the kind of company you keep than the kinds of things that you do.

5. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize at once. Say it like you mean it: “I apologize for my rudeness.” The only thing worse than rude is tacky and God forbid that you ever be tacky.

6. Avoid confrontation in the heat of anger, especially with members of your immediate family; remember that in some states, “the fool needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

7. If you have to swallow a frog, don’t look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; if you have to swallow two frogs, go for the big one first; and if you have to swallow three frogs, you might want to ask yourself what you’re doing in that pond.

8. Never say anything behind people’s backs that you don’t want to say to their faces. They’re sure to hear about it unless they’re dead and you should never, ever speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve really got it coming.

9. Don’t start doing anything that you don’t plan to do keep doing forever. (This applies mainly to marriage and children, but also to PTA, Rotary and church committees.) And never try to finish what shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

10. Finally, try to lead an interesting life, whatever kind of life that might be for you. To settle for anything less would be way worse than tacky.

It may seem that the world is in such a mess that you and your generation can’t do much to change it. Don’t believe that. Not for a moment. This is your turn to shine, and shine you will.

When you hear people say, “What’s this world coming to?” tell them that it is coming to you.

Thank you for listening. I am proud of you.

“Home,” May 16, 2023

NOTE: This column was written in 2018.

A lifetime ago, I grew up in these old blue mountains on the border between the Carolinas. After college, I moved to California of All Places (that’s what my mother called it) to raise a family and live the life of my dreams.

I’ve often come “home” for visits. Too often, for funerals. But this trip, if partly for work, was mostly for pleasure.

It began with a speaking engagement in Winston Salem, where my column has been carried for years. People I’d never met asked to see photos of my grandkids. It felt (I say with a wink) like a family reunion … without the fistfights.

After the talk, a few autographs, and a whole lot of hugs, I drove 150 miles south to a cabin on a lake in Landrum, S.C., the town where I grew up. My sister wanted me to stay at her house but I said I had to work. When I stay with her, not much work gets done.

For the past four days, I’ve spent a little time working and a lot of time with family and friends. And with beavers and ducks, geese and squirrels, and with so many reflections that tap dance on the surface of the lake and in the back corners of my mind.

My dad loved to fish. He wanted me to love it, too. I never did. But I learned to love the peace that’s found sitting beside still water.

Some of us, maybe all, feel a physical connection to nature –especially to the land where we grew up — that is as real and as binding as anything we’ll ever feel for flesh and blood.

That doesn’t mean we like mountains more than people. It just means that, to feel whole, we need to spend time with both.

I wanted time with family and friends. But I also wanted time alone with these mountains, with red dirt and still water and a dazzling Carolina moon. Lucky for me, I did all of those things and more.

The day after I arrived, my sister and I drove to Spartanburg to pick up our brother and go to dinner at his favorite restaurant. Joe is blind, but he knows the menu at Wade’s by heart.

“I’ll have meatloaf, mac ‘n’ cheese, macaroni salad and cole slaw,” he told the server, “and sweet iced tea, please.”

When the food came, Joe said grace. “Heavenly Father, thank you that I can be with both of my sisters today. Bless this food to our bodies and us to your service. In Jesus name, amen.”

We ate and talked and told stories, old and new. Then we took Joe to his apartment and drove back to my sister’s place to spend the evening with her son, his wife and their children: Kiowa, who trains horses for a living, and Cree, a high school senior, showed me videos of their rodeo competitions and talked about their love for riding and roping and, on occasion, getting thrown to the ground.

Yesterday, with a chill in the air, I stayed in the cabin most of the day, watching shadows of clouds and flocks of geese, while gusts of wind ruffled the surface of the lake. That evening my sister and I had dinner with some friends we’ve known forever and reminisced about others who are no longer with us. After dinner, back at the lake, I bundled up in a blanket and sat alone on the dock in the dark, counting stars on the water and blessings in my life.

And then, this morning, around 4 a.m., I awoke in bed to thunder and lightning and an old familiar sound: Rain falling on a tin roof.

Have you ever heard that sound? I hope so. I drifted back to sleep for a while, dreaming dreams I can’t recall. Finally, I got up to make coffee and watch the mist rise off the lake. It’s been raining all day. I’ve been writing. Writing and rain make good company.

Tonight I’ll have one last supper with my sister. We’ll say a long, hard goodbye. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I’ll go back to my other home, to my husband, children, grandchildren and friends, to the life and the land I love on the coast of California of All Places.

But I will take with me the precious gift of time that I have spent here with family and friends, with a good lake for fishing (even if I don’t fish) cradled in the arms of these old blue mountains.

Home isn’t a person or place that you visit and then leave behind. It’s a feeling that you carry with you forever in your heart.

“A Letter to Elle,” May 8, 2023

This column was written in 2015, for my then newborn granddaughter, who is now 8, going on 21.

Dear Eleanor Rose,

It’s late. You are in your crib, bundled up like a pink burrito, in a room next to your mom and dad, who fell into bed a bit ago, limp as overcooked noodles. Your dogs are in their crate. Your cats are in their beds. Your brothers are in their bunks. All is right with the world. Everyone is sleeping, except me. I’m awake thinking of you.

There are things I want to tell you, things you need to know. Isn’t that what nanas do? The problem is, I’m not sure what those things might be. I keep thinking of catchy wisdoms to help you in years to come. But they’re mostly things you’ll figure out on your own. And they aren’t so catchy or wise. Anyhow. Bear with me. I’m your nana. Listen up.

First, I want to tell you about your family, all of us, your mom’s and your dad’s. We’re an interesting bunch. Not so different from most families, but unique in our own ways. Families are like babies. On the surface, they might look alike, but look closer and you’ll see no two are quite the same. We may take some getting used to, but you’ll manage. The main thing to know about us is this: We flat-out adore you.

I wish you could see us, how our faces light up at the mention of your name; how our voices soften when we speak of you; how our eyes shine and hearts melt when we hold you. You should read all the notes and hear all the messages from those who couldn’t be here to welcome you in person, but sent their love, just the same.

Have you noticed all those flashing lights? Those are iPhones snapping your photo with some proud relative. You’re our trophy. Our treasure. Our hope. Our promise, despite all the misery in the world, that life is good and it goes on.

We will be your family forever in body or in spirit, watching over you and cheering you on. Not just those of us you’ll meet. There are countless others who left this Earth before you were born. They, too, will watch over you and cheer you on from afar.

That’s the thing about love, Eleanor. There isn’t any barrier, any distance it can’t cross. And here’s one more thing about your family. We can be a lot of fun to hang out with. You’ll see.

Next, I’d like to offer a little advice. Take it or leave it, but remember, in the game of life, you’re a rookie. I’m a pro. These are things the game of life has taught me.

1. Take care of yourself. If you don’t, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
2. Tell the truth. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Let your wealth be the gold others see shining in your words and your eyes and your deeds.
3. Treasure the men in your life and cherish the women, who’ll laugh with you in good times, weep with you in sorrow and tell you, “Honey, you’re not crazy.”
4. Pay attention. Be present. Count your blessings. Look for beauty and grace in everything and believe that you will find it.
5. Call your nana at least once a week. You can use other forms of communication, as well, but she’ll always need to hear your voice. If you visit her, she’ll spoil you rotten.

In closing, here’s a little secret: You are my favorite grandchild. Seriously. OK, it’s not a secret. You can tell your brothers and cousins. They’ll just laugh and say, “She tells us all we’re her favorites!” Which I do, of course. You are all my favorites. It’s not a competition. You each have your own place in my heart.

The older nanas get, our hearts keep getting bigger. My heart is pretty big. Take all the space you want.

I’m going to bed now. I need to take care of myself because I want so much, tomorrow and always, to help take care of you and your brothers and cousins.

Sleep well, sweet girl. Nana will watch over you. With her eyes closed. Possibly snoring. If you need anything, wake your dad.

“A Not So Happy Birthday,” May 2, 2023

Note: This column is from 2009.

My mother left this world years ago. I always celebrate her birthday with a phone call to my brother to remind him that he is still her favorite, despite the fact that he is hopelessly pig-headed.

As if Joe needs reminding. He never forgets anything. Our mother used to say it was because he was born blind, that God gave him a great memory to make up for his loss of sight.

That didn’t seem to me like a very fair trade. But every time she said it, Joe would light up like Christmas. I figured, if it made him happy, why argue?

Personally, I don’t think Joe’s memory has anything to do with being blind; he just likes to recall things that I’d rather forget.

My age, for instance. He loves to remind me that I’m older than he is. Or how when we were kids, I locked him out of the house and he smashed a window and cut his wrist and had to get 12 stitches.

Or the names of all the boys I dated in high school (both of them), and how he’d be waiting up for me when I came in late.

Or the exact date I left home for good, and the ill-chosen words I said to our mother on my way out the door.

He remembers all that and more. What he can’t seem to recall is this: Sooner or later in every loss, there comes a time to stop grieving, to let go of sorrow and be thankful for the memories you treasure in your heart and for the love that will never leave you.

But grieving is different for each of us; no one can determine it for anyone else. Joe and I lost our mother in 1996, and he has missed her most every day since _ especially on her birthday. I could tell him that’s long enough, he doesn’t need to be sad on her birthday any more. He can honor her memory with laughter as much as with tears and she’d be proud of him and want him to be happy.

I could tell him all of that, and he’d agree, absolutely. But it wouldn’t change how he feels, the ache in his heart, the catch in his throat when he thinks of her, the tightening in his chest.

When we were growing up, if Joe wanted to know what something looked like _ the wind in the trees, the lightning in a storm, a stained glass window at church, or the grease on his fingers from a leg of fried chicken _ he’d nag me to find words to “picture” it for him.

I have no words to describe his grief. I can’t picture it for myself, let alone for him. It is big and dark and scary. But that doesn’t begin to describe what Joe feels. It seems connected, and renewed, as grief often is, with other losses he has suffered in recent years: His wife, the love of his life; our stepfather, his best friend; and our younger brother, the buddy he grew up with.

But as much as I try to make sense of it, and as much as I want to help him let go of it, I cannot pry it out of his heart. All I can do is sit beside him, long distance, and listen to the words he uses to try to tell me what he’s feeling, and how much it hurts.

As his sister _ and as my mother’s daughter _ that is the most and the least that I can do.

So on our mother’s birthday I called to let Joe say whatever he wanted to say, for as long as he wanted to say it. Then I told him he is still our mother’s favorite, and always will be, even though he is hopelessly pig-headed. I said he doesn’t have to be sad on her birthday; that he can honor her memory with laughter as well as with tears; that she’d be proud of him and want him to be happy.

But nothing I said to him seemed to help. We can’t take someone’s grief away from them. We can only help them carry it.

Wait! I suddenly remembered something I could say that would comfort my brother and light him up like Christmas.

“Hey, Joe,” I said. “It’s baseball season, isn’t it? I’ll bet you’re pulling like crazy for your Clemson Tigers.”

“Oh!” he hooted. “I sure am! There’s a game on the radio today!”

We ended the call, as always, with “Love you, let’s talk again soon!”

As I put down the phone, I said a quick prayer for my brother, adding, “Please, Lord, let Clemson win today.”

Then I smiled and whispered, “Happy birthday, Mama.”

“How My Sister Tried to Kill Me,” April 25, 2023

This column is from 2006:

Sometimes if I’m feeling low, I call my sister and it’s like candy, how Bobbie cheers me up. Never mind that she once tried to shoot me. Yes, with a gun. No, I’m not making it up. I have an eye witness who will back me up, if he knows what’s good for him.

But let’s not dwell on that. Far be it from me to hold a grudge against my only sister, even if she never said she was sorry.

Forgiveness usually requires repentance, but I afforded her grace for three good reasons: One, she’s my sister; two, I’m still alive; and three, by the time Bobbie repents, I’ll be dead of old age.

But enough about that. I want to tell you about how she brightens my day. Here are some examples:

When we were little girls, our parents split up. But Bobbie told me that sisters never split up, they always stick together.

When our brother was born blind, she said his blindness wouldn’t matter to anybody, except to people who didn’t matter.

When I won a scholarship and went off to college, and she stayed behind with three babies and a bad marriage, she told me to be safe, have fun and make her proud.

When I left the South to live my life in California of All Places, she flew out to be matron of honor at my wedding and let her 3-year-old scatter rose petals in my path.

When my first husband died, she put me to bed and made me rest. Six months later, she took me to Mexico and made me pose for a picture with a live chimpanzee.

Years later, when I brought my former editor to the South to meet my family, she told me if I didn’t marry him, she would.

So I married him. But that is not to say that jealousy was a motive in her nearly shooting me.

OK, here’s that story:

One summer, when I flew home with my new husband for a family reunion, my sister loaned us her car to pick up my kids at the airport. As we were leaving, I suddenly recalled what she always kept handy in the glove compartment.

“Wait here,” I told my husband, “I’ll be right back.”

I ran back in the house and found her half-asleep in her recliner.

“Sissy!” I said. “Wake up! Your gun is still in the car!”

She yawned. “My what?”

“Your gun!”

“Well, bring it in,” she said.

“I’m not touching it!”

“It won’t hurt you!”

I crossed my arms and gave her a look. She made a face, got up and stomped out to the car, mumbling words I won’t repeat.

My husband was sitting in the driver’s seat listening to a baseball game on the radio. He raised an eyebrow when he saw us.

As Bobbie opened the car door and bent down to reach into the glove box, she made a totally rude remark about my character. Never mind what. And then, OK, I’ll just go on and tell you: I poured a Diet Pepsi down the back of her pants.

It had not occurred to me that, at that very moment, she might already have the gun in her hand. I began to suspect it, however, by the look on my husband’s face — the same look I once saw when we went for a walk and a bulldog ran up and bit a chunk out of his arm.

Imagine my surprise when my sister’s head spun around like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.” And then, yes, she fired off a shot.

Never mind that she fired it up in the air. My husband didn’t know that. Suffice it to say, hers were not the only pants that were wet.

Bobbie claims that it was all my fault. And that, if she had actually shot me, she’d have gotten off free and clear on grounds known in the South as “The fool needed killing.”

Still, there is one good thing about that incident. I mean, besides the fact that she didn’t kill me.

Since that day, if I call her up and she’s not home? It still cheers me up like candy, just to think of my sister, and the sound that Diet Pepsi made gurgling down her pants.

“Saying Goodbye,” April 18, 2023

This column is from 2014. The grandboys are older now (yes, so am I) but so far, they still seem to remember who I am.

Most things get easier with practice. But no matter how many times we do it, it never gets easier to say “goodbye.”

Some years ago, when my husband changed jobs, we left our families and friends in California to move to Las Vegas.
It was hard having 500 miles between us and the people we love. But we tried to make the best of it, visiting often, especially after grandchildren (that we thought we were never going to get) started coming out of the woodwork.

The difference between grown children and grandbabies is not how you feel about them. I love and miss mine all the same. But the little ones change overnight.

Skip a month in the life of a toddler and you’ve got to start all over. Not only will he forget you, he will look and act like an entirely different child, one that doesn’t want you near him.

My grown kids don’t change quite that fast. If I don’t see them for a month, at least I know they’ll remember me.

They’d better. I’ve spent a lot of years chiseling my name in their memory banks. I started when they were born: “I’m your mama,” I whispered in their tiny ears, “don’t you dare forget me.”

I said it so often that in time I didn’t need to say it. I could just give them a certain look and they knew what I meant. So far it seems to be working. Either they remember me or they’re pretty good at faking it.

The grandbabes are different. I don’t see them often enough to do much chiseling. But I try. For starters, I send them stuff. Books, usually, that cost $3.99 and ship for free. Talk about a bargain. I order online and a few days later, I get a call from a little voice: “Thank you for my book, Nana, I yuv it!”

And every time they see a FedEx truck, they shout, “Look! It’s Nana’s truck!”

When I go to visit, as I did recently, I send their parents out for a break, so I can spend time alone with each of the boys, doing whatever they like best.

Randy is 3. He likes trains. So I built a trestle that went nowhere, and he doubled over belly-laughing when I showed him how trains can fly.

Henry is 2. He likes jungle animals. So I threw a jungle party and all his favorite animals showed up: the lion, the rhino, the gorilla, the giraffe. And we danced until I dropped.

Wiley is 1. He likes his mama. I can’t compete with that. But he also likes to eat. So I fed him his favorites: eggs for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, pizza for dinner, crackers for snacks. And he gave me a big Wiley kiss.

I bathed them, diapered them, zipped them in their jammies and read 50 books, give or take. (“Goodnight, Gorilla,” “Giraffes Can’t Dance” and “Snuggle Puppy”were the biggest hits.)

Randy said, “Thank you, Nana, for being my nana.” Henry called me his “little darling.” Wiley pointed at me with his chubby finger and grinned.

Then I tucked them in bed, one by one, rubbed my face in their curls and asked God to watch over them forever and always and, please, Lord, bring their parents home soon.

It was easy. Exhausting, yes. Even my teeth got tired. But it was easy in the ways it’s always easy to do what you love to do. The hard part, as usual, was having to say goodbye.

It is an unnatural act to leave someone you love. Especially a child who can’t understand why you show up for a few days to build train tracks and throw jungle parties and let him eat too many crackers, and then get on an airplane and fly away.

There’s no way to explain it to them. So I kissed their parents and promised to come back soon. Then I hugged those little boys tighter than I should and whispered in their ears, “I’m your nana, don’t you dare forget me.”

Then I flew home and went online to send them more stuff.

You cannot buy love. You can only give it freely and hope to get it back. But $3.99 is a small price to pay for a memory.

And especially to get a delivery truck renamed in your honor.

“The Waiting Game,” April 11, 2023

NOTE: This column was written in 2014. It’s about my oldest child, who is now married with two children, and still acting.

His message was brief. I read it twice: “Hey, Mom, can I come see you guys this weekend?”

I wrote back, “Yippee!” Then I called the boy to get the plan. He had stuff to do before leaving town, he said, but hoped to make it in time for dinner.

I laughed. Dinner would be whenever he could get here.

“No hurry,” I said, “drive safe.”

It’s about four hours from where he lives in Los Angeles, to our home, if traffic isn’t bad. And traffic is always bad. I figured I’d be lucky to see him by 6, at best.

I made a quick run to the market, put sheets on the guest bed and set the TV to record the Warriors’ game, so if traffic was awful, he wouldn’t have to miss the first half. Then I got busy cooking, cleaning, watching the clock, pacing the floor, praying for his safety, listening for his footsteps coming up the walk.

It’s called waiting. I’m good at it. I’ve had a lot of practice. I’ve been waiting for that boy in one way or another all of his life.

For the record, I’ve waited just as much for his brother and sister. Maybe more for his sister who spent half her teen years barricaded in the bathroom blowdrying her hair. But he was my first child, my introduction and guidebook to the waiting game for moms.

When he was a newborn, I’d wait for him to fall asleep so I could do something fun like eat or brush my teeth. But pretty soon, I’d start to miss him. Then I’d stand by his crib waiting for him to wake up.

I waited, watching in awe, as he took his sweet time learning to walk and talk and feed himself; button his shirt, tie his shoes, comb his curls; pick up his toys and stop teasing his sister or putting the dog in the dryer; throw a ball, swing a bat, ride a bike, read a book.

I waited for him to start preschool, kindergarten, middle school, high school, and spent years waiting in parking lots to pick him up.

I waited with dread for him to start driving. And I waited up for him, every single time he came home late.

Next thing I knew, he was off at college and all that time that I’d spent waiting for him didn’t seem like much time at all.

So it goes with being a mother. We wait for our children to grow up _ to learn to manage just fine on their own without us. And then one day, sooner or later, they do.

That doesn’t mean the waiting game is over. It never really ends. But some waits are more memorable than others.

I well recall, for example, waiting on the set of a few TV shows to watch the boy work. (He grew up to be an actor.)

Once, when I visited him at his place in New York, our dinner plans were interrupted by an attack of appendicitis. We took a cab to the hospital. I waited for him to come out of surgery. Then I spent a week taking care of him, waiting for him to heal.

On the morning of 9/11, when I learned of the terrorist attack in New York, I kept trying to call him, but lines were jammed.

There was nothing I could do but wait and pray. When he finally called, after trying all morning to get a call through to me, he was standing on the balcony of his apartment in Manhattan watching smoke rise from the World Trade Center. 

I was far more fortunate that morning than my neighbor. She also waited by a phone, praying to hear from her daughter, only to learn hours later that she had died on board the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Mothers wait for all sorts of reasons _ good news or bad, happiness or heartache, grace or forgiveness or just a little peace of mind. But the waiting is soon forgotten, usually, the minute a long-awaited child finally walks through the door.

My boy will be here soon, Lord willing. If he’s late, I’ll wait. I’m good at it. And he’s worth it. I will always leave a light on for him.

“An Easter Story,” April 4, 2023

This is an Easter story. I first told it some 20 years ago, but it’s still true. And truth bears repeating, now more than ever. Here it is.

I don’t need new shoes for Easter. There was a time in my life when I thought I did. But maybe I just wanted them. How do we know the difference between want and need?

The best thing about the small Southern town where I grew up — aside from its peaches, its views of the mountains and its interesting assortment of characters — was that it seldom let any of us feel truly poor.

A lot of us were, in fact, poorer than the red dirt beneath our feet. We lived, as my mother said, hand to mouth, from one mill paycheck to the next. But the families that were well off never flaunted their wealth nor allowed their children to do so.

We all went to the same school, played the same games and ate the same fried chicken in the cafeteria. We had most of what we needed, some of what we wanted and very little sense of anything that we lacked.

On Easter Sunday, most folks went to church, rich and poor, saints and sinners alike. The difference, as I saw it when I was 9 years old, was simple: Some wore new shoes, and some wore old, and we all knew who was who and which was which.

I sat in church that Easter Sunday dangling my legs from the pew, staring at the shoes my mother had polished to look almost, but not quite, good as new. They weren’t just old. They were ugly. So I promised myself, next Easter, I’d be wearing new shoes.

Want to know how I kept that promise? I lied. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I told my daddy that my mama said I needed new shoes for Easter. She didn’t say it, but I’m sure she thought it. Ever since their divorce, if she said I needed something, he’d try his best to get it.

The look on his face when he saw the price tag told me those shoes cost a fortune. But, oh my, they were worth it –white patent leather with bright silver buckles. And the clerk threw in a pair of frilly socks.

I wore them to church that Easter Sunday feeling shiny and clean, fancy and free, saved by the blood of Jesus and a brand new pair of shoes.

Then my feet started to hurt. I had blisters on both heels and all ten toes. After church, we went to my grandparents’ house for a big family dinner. My mother wouldn’t let me hunt Easter eggs with my cousins because she said I’d ruin my new shoes. I didn’t care. My feet were already ruined.

But the next day I smuggled the new shoes to school (I hid them in my jacket to get past my mother) and put them on before class. We played tag at recess and I had to be “it” the whole time because I couldn’t limp fast enough to tag anybody.

Then at lunch, I sat next to a friend who was wearing, I swear, a pair of old, beat-up, hand-me-down sneakers that were three sizes too big and had once belonged to her brother. She kept staring at my new shoes. And the longer she stared, the more my feet hurt.

By the time I got home, I never wanted to see those shoes again, let alone, wear them. I finally gave them to my cousin Bad Linda, who wore them unbuckled because they were too small, and nagged me until I gave her the frilly socks.

I learned some lessons that Easter. First, salvation is a lot like true wealth. It’s not about the shoes on your feet; it’s about the love and compassion and saving grace that’s in your heart.

Second, if you’re going to lie to your daddy about something your mother said, you’d best be sure he never talks to her.

Finally, it doesn’t matter how good you look or how fancy it makes you feel. If the shoe doesn’t fit — if it hurts your feet or your friend or slows you down in any way — you’ll be happier without it.

I don’t need new shoes this Easter. Maybe next year.

“All That Matters,” March 28, 2023

This column is from 2003:

“All that matters,” said Lewis Carroll, the English cleric who gave us Alice and her wonderful adventures, “is what we do for each other.”

I’m not sure if what we do for each other is all that matters. But I do know that it matters a lot. Sometimes it matters more than anything. And often, it’s the smallest things _ a touch, a smile, a few kind words _ that somehow seem to matter most.

Looking back over my life, I can list a thousand kindnesses, large and small, that were just what I needed, when I needed them most _ and I’ll always remember the people who sent them my way.

When I was a very little girl with a rather broken heart, my grandmother made for me a doll _ a magic doll that had the power to heal, she said, a doll that would tell me, if I listened closely, all the things I needed to hear, things that every child ought to be told. Her name _ both that of my grandmother and the doll, who still tells me, if I listen closely, things I need to hear _ was Grace.

When I was a senior in high school, praying for a miracle to pay my way to college, a deacon in my church made all the arrangements _ signed me up, paid the fees and drove me to the school _ to take a test that resulted in an all-expenses paid scholarship. His name was Mr. Christopher, but I mostly called him Sir.

Years ago, when my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, we had a chance to find out, as they say, not only who our real friends were (more than real, they were true) but also, how incredibly kind so-called strangers can be.

Readers of my column _ people we had never met _ wrote to say they were praying for us, and that their children were praying for our children.

So many casseroles showed up at our door I began to think I might never need to cook again.

There were countless offers to do errands or chores, whatever we needed, if only just someone to sit and listen. I can assure you, every kindness mattered.

But one of kindnesses that I remember best is this: A colleague of my husband’s _a fellow teacher he knew, but didn’t know well _ came to visit him after his first surgery. And then he kept coming back. He showed up most every day, come what may, on the best and the worst days of our lives _ for the last four years of my husband’s life.

It was gift to my husband, to our children, and especially to me. But I am certain it was also a gift to the giver. When we feel as if there’s nothing we can do, it helps just to do whatever we can.

The things we do for each other _ to prop each other up _ matter once in the doing, and always in memory. Having sat on both sides of that lovely fence _ and having received far more than I’ve given _ I have to say I like the giving side best.

To some, or maybe to all of us, nothing matters more, or feels better, than doing something to help someone in need. That’s just how we’re made. Sometimes, if you’re feeling low _thinking you don’t matter, wishing you could hide under the porch with the dogs_ maybe it’s be it’s because you’re not doing enough to help someone who needs you. Or maybe you’re doing too much. Only you can be the judge of that.

Often the hardest part of helping someone is knowing what to do. Recently, I learned that a dear friend was hurting for her child, a burden almost too much to bear. I wanted to help her carry that burden, but couldn’t think of a way. Then I remembered what someone had done for me once. And I offered to do the same for her.

It’s simple. When she needs a break from worrying about her child, she tells me and, for a while, I do the worrying for her, so she can take a break. We all have our gifts. I’m good at worrying. And slowly, after years of practice, I’m learning to turn worry into prayer.

Like candles on an altar,or fireflies on a lake, kindness makes dark days brighter and hard times easier to bear.
My friend says it helps her to know I’m praying for her child. It helps me, too. And it matters a lot to us both.