“My Royal Family,” April 6, 2021

When you were a child, who was the person you most looked up to, the one you hoped to be just like when you grew up?

For me, it wasn’t one person. It was a combination of two. Not just one or the other, but an odd sort of mixture of two distinctly different personalities. You won’t find their names in history books or on monuments or in lists of great achievement.

They weren’t rich or famous or powerful, at least not in a worldly sense. Their looks, by any standard, would leave much to be desired, though they didn’t seem to mind it at all. They were always unpretentious, never the sort to stand out in a crowd.

Yet they had all the things that I wanted in life—things I could never explain as a child, but have often tried, as an adult and a writer, to put into words.

What did they have that I wanted? In my eyes, and in my heart, they were the Queens. They had faith that propped them up in good times and bad. Families to love and feel loved by in return. Ears that listened and voices that were heard. Wealth to share, but none to flaunt. And a clear sense and full acceptance of who they were.

I wish you could have known them—my grandmothers.

One walked miles most every day on a mountain where she knew the song of every bird, the scent of every flower and the driver of any car that came growling up the gravel road.

The other kept watch over the main street of a small town where she knew the names of all the passersby, where they’d been, what they’d bought and how much they’d paid for it.

You would’ve liked them both. And they would surely like you. Provided, of course, that you liked me. And if you didn’t? Well, why wouldn’t you?

I remember the smiles they gave me, and how those smiles always lit me up. I promised myself, someday, when I had children and grandchildren, I’d smile at them that same way. I practiced it on my blind brother. He could feel it. He’d reach over grinning and pat my face.

It’s hard to explain how two women, whose lives were so different from each other’s, had such a similar impact on mine. Maybe it’s as simple as this: What I loved most about them was how much they loved me. Who doesn’t love being loved?

After college, I left my family in the South and moved to California, to marry and start a new family. I tried to keep in touch with phone calls, letters and occasional visits, but my new life left little room for the old life I’d left behind.

Over time, I lost most of the family I grew up in, including my grandmothers. But I never lost their love. People leave, but love remains. We don’t need to be in the same room to feel it.

Easter Sunday, for the first time in too long, my immediate family—those of us who live closeby—got together in my daughter’s yard to laugh and talk and eat too much and watch the kids hunt plastic eggs.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

I sat like a queen on a throne, while being served all manner of food, drink, two slices of cake, and a whole lot of sweaty hugs from grandkids running wild.

I kept looking from face to face giving each of them—children and adults alike—the smile that I give just to them, or to most anyone I truly like. And they, in turn, smiled back in a way that will always melt my heart.

I may never have the kind of strength and grace that God gave my grandmothers. But I am blessed with a great many gifts: A faith that props me up in good times and bad. A husband and family to love and feel loved by in return. Ears that listen and a voice that is sometimes heard. Wealth to share, but none to flaunt. And a clear sense, if not always full acceptance, of who I am.

It’s good to be the Queen.

“What’s a Mother to Do?” March 30, 2021

Recently I wrote a column on how surprised I was that my job as mother didn’t end when my kids grew up. They still need me in their lives, just as I need them in mine. It’s good to feel needed, isn’t it? The real surprise was seeing how much fun we have together as grownups.

Many of you wrote to say you feel the same way I do. I love it when you say that. Thanks. And this note from a young mother filled me feelings I’d almost forgotten. She wrote:

“I enjoyed your article very much. I read it while sitting here with my newborn, 3 year old, and 6 year old—wondering if I’d ever sleep again, or have a date night, and basically feeling tired and overwhelmed. It gave me perspective and cheered me up, largely because it wasn’t one of those ‘enjoy these moments because they go by so fast’ articles. It was real and personal. Thanks for sharing it.”

Her words reminded me of how it felt to feed a helpless newborn every two hours around the clock. I promised not to use her name, so let’s just call her Lovely. Here is my reply:

Dear Lovely: Your babes are the same ages mine were a lifetime ago. I remember when my firstborn was 2 months old. He had finally fallen asleep after a half hour of screaming (his screaming, not mine, though I was close to joining him.) I held him on my shoulder, walking back and forth, never daring to sit down for fear he’d wake up.

With my free hand (amazing, isn’t it, what a mom can do with one hand?) I opened a “how to baby” book and read that at three months, babies don’t cry quite as much. I thought, “Only one more month. I’ll be dead by then.”

The boy did indeed quit crying so much. He’s now in his 40’s and hardly ever cries at all. I survived those sleepless years as a mother for him, his sister and brother and even for a few “orphans” who needed a home. There were so many moments that filled me with joy, and quite a few I’d rather not repeat. I’m not sure how I did it, but I did.

My grandmother had 12 children. I don’t think she knew all their names. I once asked her for her secret for surviving motherhood. She said, well, she prayed a lot. And she dipped a little snuff. But mostly, she said, she made the older kids take care of the younger ones.

I tried that once. Not the snuff. I asked my daughter, who was 6, to watch her brother, who was 3, while I took a quick shower.

I showered in 30 seconds flat. The water never got hot. I came running out in a towel and found to my horror that my daughter had used her “child safety scissors” to cut every hair off the top of her brother’s head. It eventually grew back in time for his wedding. I can laugh at that story now, but I assure you I was not laughing then.

On our worst days, surviving is the best we can do. When the house is a wreck and the in-laws are coming and the dog threw up on the sofa and the 6 year old shaved the 3 year old’s head—we aren’t doing bad. We’re just surviving. It’s called life. And it makes great stories to tell later.

I survived. So will you, Lovely. And so will my daughter-in-law, who is due to give birth to her second child soon, and has both hands full with her first. Jonah is almost 2, and can open any dead-bolted door in five seconds or less. When the baby comes, I’ll stay with them for a while to try to keep Jonah entertained, or at least somewhat confined.

I never had much help as a mother (except from God, who probably laughed watching my daughter shave her brother’s head.) So I’m looking forward to doing what I can as a nana.

Thank you, Lovely, for helping me remember when my children made me feel so needed, and why I stopped taking showers.

Here’s wishing you (and all moms) the best of everything—grace and peace and joy and (please, Lord!) enough rest to survive.
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(Sharon Randall is the author of “The World and Then Some.” She can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924 or at www.sharonrandall.com.)

“Being a Mom Is a Job for Life,” March 23, 2021

Life seems long when we’re looking ahead, and so short when we’re looking back. That’s especially true for a mother.

One day you’re holding a colicky two-month old, wondering if he’s ever going to stop crying. And the next day you’re dropping him off at college, wondering if he’s ever going to call you.

Where does time fly between colic and college?

I had three babies in five years. I taught them how to walk and talk and do their own laundry. Then one day, I turned around, and they were grown. And gone. And on their own.

I found myself wishing I could get them back—the babies and toddlers and even the teenagers. I wanted them to grow up. But I didn’t want to let them go. Imagine my surprise to discover that grown children can be as much fun as little ones. Here are a few examples:

My youngest child was just finishing high school when we lost his dad to cancer. Instead of heading off to college, Nate got a job cleaning campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, his dad’s favorite place, where we had camped every summer as a family.

That January, when my father-in-law died, I called Nate to say I’d drive up to Yosemite, stay overnight and we’d drive out the next day to attend a service for his granddad. It was snowing when I pulled into the park.

The next morning, Nate and I left early, only to get stuck behind a bus that had skidded sideways, blocking the road. We sat for five hours in a blizzard waiting for the road to be cleared. Meanwhile, Nate entertained me with knock-knock jokes and other things he had learned in Yosemite.

I will never forget it.

A few years later, I flew to New York, to visit my older son, an actor, who was living in Manhattan, and appearing as a doctor on a TV series called “Ed.” I spent the day on the set watching Josh act, and met the other actors in the show. I’d planned to fly home the next day. But that night, Josh began having pain in his right side. We took a cab to a hospital, where he was admitted for an appendectomy.

When he was released from the hospital, I stayed for a week to take care of him. We watched movies and ate take-out meals.

I will never forget it.

Last fall, my daughter, who’s a mom to her 9-year-old, and a teacher to a classroom of third-graders, invited me to share a long weekend, just the two of us, at a house she’d rented a few hours from home. We cooked a little, ate out a lot, and spent hours talking and laughing.

I will never forget it.

In a month or so from now, when my oldest and his wife are expecting their second child, I plan to be on hand for “Nana Duty,” and try my best to keep 2-year-old Jonah entertained. I don’t know what it might entail, but I am certain—based on past experiences with the births of my older grandchildren—that I will never forget it.

Being a mother doesn’t end when our children grow up. We still want to protect them, just as we did the day they were born. But they won’t need us in the same ways they did when they were little. That’s what growing up means. Children need to be cared for. Adults can take care of themselves—except when they need a little help.

But grown children will always need a mother. Not to tell them what to do or, heaven forbid, how to do it. But to listen when they need to talk. And to pray for them day and night. And if they have children, to be a “nana” for their babes.

At the same time, we’ll always need our grown-up children to make us laugh and keep us young and fill that place in our heart that only they can fill. We can have a lot of great times together. Who knows? They might even do our laundry.

“How to Say I Remember You,” March 16, 2021

Sometimes my life gets a bit out of hand. If you don’t know what I mean, you’re probably not the kind of person whose life ever gets out of hand.
Or maybe you’re not the kind of person who talks about your personal life. In a newspaper. To strangers. Who’ll talk about you over the fence to the neighbors.

Never mind. I like you the way you are. Anyhow, what was I saying? Oh. I was talking about how my life suddenly got out of hand. Or out of control. Or out of order. Whatever you want to call it. Here’s what happened.

A few months after my husband and I moved to a new town, I finally got around to changing my business address (for reader mail) to a new post office. I added the new address (P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924) to the end of my column and arranged to forward mail that came to the old address.

Every week I’d go to the new post office and pick up a stack of mail. It was always a lot to answer, but I tried.

Then last week, my husband came home from the post office with a refrigerator-sized box filled with hundreds of birthday cards and letters from readers. Not to mention emails and posts on my website. It was too much to read, let alone, to answer. I asked my husband to help, but he mumbled something needed fixing and went to the garage.

I am not complaining. I love to get mail. Especially the kind that turns strangers into friends and makes me think, OK, maybe I can write another column.

All I’m saying is this: I cannot answer all the mail I’ve received lately. I wish I could, but I truly don’t expect to live that long.

I’ve been staring for hours at that big box. If I look away, and look back, it gets bigger. Finally, I’ve come up with a solution. I’m going to answer all of it—more or less—in this column. Here goes:

_ To all of you who sent birthday cards and greetings to wish me (and my husband, whose birthday is close to mine) a happy birthday and many more to come: Thanks for the card, even if I shamelessly wrote a column to remind you.

_ To those of you who replied to the column in which I posted a recipe for Dutch Babies: I’m so glad you liked it, but, no, I don’t plan to post any more recipes ever again.

_ To those of you who said reading my column is like getting a letter from a friend and you wish we were neighbors: Thank you. I’m honored to be your friend. As for neighbors, I warn you. My husband plays his music loud. And if I borrow a cup of sugar or some money, I might not remember to pay it back.

_ To those who replied to a column I wrote about letter writing: I loved reading all the ways you’ve found to keep letter writing alive, writing to friends and loved ones, your children and grandchildren and elderly relatives, and even to a newspaper columnist. Bless you.

_ To those who asked about my sister and brother who’ve been ailing: They’re both on the mend. Thank you for your prayers and your kind and gracious concern.

_ To those of you who said that something I wrote made you smile or gave you hope or let you believe we can get through this pandemic together: I’m so glad to hear it. Your words do the same for me.

_ To those of you wrote about having recently lost a loved one: Please know my heart goes out to you. I can’t answer every letter. But I hope soon to answer yours.

Finally, I want to thank you all for a refrigerator-sized box of mail and all the mail that preceeded it in my 30 years as a columnist. A personal note can convey many fine things. An invitation. An admiration. An offer of comfort or friendship or hope. But most of all, it makes the reader feel remembered.

In her lovely card, a reader from Pennsylvania added these lines from W. H. Auden’s “Night Mail:”

“And none will hear the postman’s knock / Without a quickening of the heart, / For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”

Thank you for remembering me.

“The Promise of Spring,” March 9, 2021

Sometimes, when it seems winter will never end, it helps to get a promise of spring. This morning, two of my favorite girls (my daughter and a daughter-in-law) planned a family get-together at the beach. Not everyone in the family could make it. But those of us who live nearby (five to 30 minutes away) showed up.

There was my husband, sitting on the steps that go down to the beach, where it was easier to get back up, he said, than on the blanket in the sand, where I sat bundled up in a Polarfleece jacket like a beached grandmother whale.

There was my son, my youngest, offering to drive home to get me a beach chair, fetching me coffee from the snackbar, attending to my every need.

There were my girls, watching over their little ones the way I once watched over mine.

And there were four of the eight grandchildren my husband and I share in our big, blended family, ages 10, 9, 7 and 5, laughing and cavorting in wet suits in the frigid waves like seriously cute sea otters.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

It was a glorious sunny day, only 55 degrees, not balmy, but bearable. Lots of folks were on the beach, trying like us, to keep a safe distance apart. Most, but not all, were wearing masks.

If you’ve never tried it, take it from me, it’s weird wearing a mask at the beach. I didn’t like it, but I did it. There are lots of things we don’t like about living in a pandemic. But we do them because we like being alive.

This beautiful cove—Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, Calif.—holds so many memories for me. I raised my three children in an 80-year-old house about a 10-minute walk from here. We spent countless hours in every season on this and other beaches along this peninsula.

Their dad taught and coached at Monterey High nearby for almost 30 years, until we lost him to cancer. The kids grew up, married and had kids of their own. My oldest is an actor and a writer. My daughter is a teacher. And my youngest, who’s now a realtor, taught third grade for seven years at the school where he went to third grade. If I seem proud, it’s because I am.

I remarried years ago. My husband and I live in Carmel Valley, 20 miles from here. Today, on the beach, I pointed to the snackbar and told Henry, my grandson, how his mom worked there as a teenager.

Then I stood, looking out at the bay with my youngest, who wrapped me in a bear hug (when my boys hug you, you know you’ve been hugged) as I asked him this question:

“Do you remember,” I said, “when you were little, like your babes are now, when we came here, just you and me? I’d sit on a blanket and watch you boogie board in the surf. You’d keep at it until you turned blue. Then you’d run to me and I’d wrap you in a blanket and hold you until you stopped shaking. Then you’d go back and do it again?”

He laughed. “Yes, Mom,” he said, “I remember it well.”

Before leaving, I exchanged “I love you’s” with my loved ones. I don’t know if they needed it, but I did. Then my husband and I drove home to Carmel Valley.

This evening, we bundled up again and went out, as we do most days, to watch the sunset. The sky was turquoise. The air was cold. The sun was slowly sliding over a mountain we call Chocolate Drop.

Flocks of geese flew honking back to the river to bed down for the night. Wild turkeys gobbled in the distance. Frogs croaked. Hummingbirds buzzed. Dogs barked like they meant business. And on a plum tree that my husband had pruned and feared he had killed, we saw the first signs of life with tiny buds of snow white blooms.

Start to finish, it was a gift, a winter day filled with family and the promise of spring to come.

A promise isn’t everything. But sometimes, it’s enough.

(Sharon Randall’s new novel, “TheWorld and Then Some,” is available in bookstores and from amazon.com.)

“A Recipe for Memories,” March 2, 2021

What are the foods that you can only taste in memories? Your mother’s biscuits? Your dad’s eggnog? The mud pies you made as a child? And what are the recipes that bring those memories to mind?

This morning, for the first time in more than a year, I made Dutch Babies. From scratch. And I didn’t burn them. Yes, I’m the kind of cook who’s always amazed to pull anything out of the oven that isn’t burnt. But sometimes, I get lucky.

(For the record, I’ve written about Dutch Babies in the past. But I can’t remember when. And if I can’t remember, you probably can’t either, so the subject should be fair game.)

What are Dutch Babies? Picture a cross between a pancake and an omelet that tastes better than either one. They’re easy to make with stuff you probably have on hand. And you can make a lot of servings in one pan all at the same time.

Wait. Before you think this is a food column, and start looking for that “Jump to the Recipe” link, let me tell you this story.

Making Dutch Babies brings to my mind some of the happiest memories of my life. I was given the recipe by a dear friend, a gourmet cook who knew a great dish when she tasted it. Sally was older than I was, and wiser than I’ll ever be. Her children were grown. My three were at the stage when their friends often slept over and expected the next morning to be fed.

“Do this instead of pancakes,” Sally said, handing me a recipe. “You can thank me later.”

So I made Dutch Babies a few thousand times for sleepovers and houseguests and Sunday night suppers. They were always a hit, even if I burned them. And I always thanked Sally.

After my kids grew up, we lost their dad to cancer and for years I didn’t cook much, except for holidays or other big occasions. But if I had a houseful, I’d make Dutch Babies for breakfast.

When I remarried, my new husband and I loved having our grown kids visit us. As they married and began having babies, our numbers quickly grew. It took four pans of Dutch Babies to feed us all. The babies ate them with their fingers.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

I can’t recall the last time I made Dutch Babies, before today. I know it was more than a year ago, before life as we knew it shut down for Covid and we stopped having breakfast guests.

So why did I make them this morning for only my husband and me? What was the special occasion? Let’s call it “Life.”

It’s been a long hard year for all of us, filled with things we couldn’t do. I was hungry to celebrate being alive.

So I mixed up the batter and stuck it in the oven. While it baked, I thought of all the family and friends I’ve baked it for over the years, including Sally, who’s now in Heaven teaching angels how to cook.

I pictured my children and their buddies sitting at our kitchen table, giggling and acting goofy with syrup dripping off their chins.

I recalled making it for my mother when she was gravely ill and hearing her say, “Well, where’s this been all my life?”

I even imagined how I’ll feel someday when I can serve it at a sleepover for all my grandkids.

Good food can feed a hungry crowd. But if it’s made with love and seasoned with memories, it can fill a weary soul with hope of better days to come.

OK, here’s the recipe: In a 400 degree oven, melt a stick of butter in a cast iron skillet or 9×13 pan. Beat five eggs with one cup each of all-purpose flour and milk. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 20 minutes until it’s golden and puffed up like crazy. It will fall flat when you take it out, but it will still taste just as good.

Serve it with maple syrup or lemon and powdered sugar. Add your own memories. And say thanks to my friend Sally.

“Keeping Close,” Feb. 23, 2021

Have you ever read a letter that made you tremble like leaves on a poplar?

My grandmother raised ten children, nine high-spirited girls and one tight-lipped boy. In his defense, she often said, “Jim would talk if the girls gave him a chance to open his mouth.”

To support the family, my granddad became what he called a Jack of Many Trades: A baker, a chef, a traveling shoe salesman and a part-time preacher. His wife would say, “Fred works for the Lord, when he can’t find a paying job.”

After their children grew up, my grandmother missed having someone to dote on. She’d beg my mother to let me stay for a night. Or a week. And Granddad would drive me to and from school, 10 miles each way.

I loved it. I’d sit in the porch swing resting my head on my grandmother’s bosom, singing and swinging for hours.

I’d stay up late watching TV with Granddad: “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide,” and my favorite, “Father Knows Best.”

And I could eat whatever I pleased: Cornbread, fried chicken and Grandmother’s famous banana pudding.

My only chore was to walk two blocks to the post office to fetch the mail. Grandmother would stand in front of her house like a prison guard to watch me. “Look out, child!” she’d yell, “that fool is driving too fast!”

The post office door was heavy. I’d wait for a grownup to open it, then dart inside before it shut. I’d run my hand along the mailboxes to find the right one, turn the dial to the exact combination (I knew it by heart), open it up, pull out the mail and clutch it to my chest.

My grandparents’ youngest daughter had married and moved to a foreign country that my grandmother called “California of All Places.” Phone calls were costly, so she and Aunt Shirley exchanged letters most every week. If the mailbox held a letter from California of All Places, I knew it was going to be an especially good day.

Hurrying back, I’d wave the letter in the air. When Grandmother saw it, she’d do a funny little grandmother dance. I felt so important placing it in her hands. But the best part was watching her read it.

She’d rip open the envelope, unfold the pages and smile at the words: “Dear Mama.” And then, for some reason, she’d start to tremble like leaves on a poplar.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

I didn’t understand it then, but I do now that I’m a mother and a grandmother. It’s called joy.

She’d read the letter silently to herself, laughing or pausing to dry a tear. Then she’d read it aloud just for me. It was better than a bowl of banana pudding.

Years later, after college, I flew to California of All Places to spend the summer with Aunt Shirley, her husband and their 2-year-old. Summer stretched into the rest of my life. They introduced me to a friend they called “a good guy.” I married him and started a family.

For years I wrote letters to my grandparents, who were too hard of hearing to talk on the phone. And I called my parents most every week.

One by one, they all left this world for a place with no need for letters or phone calls. I lost the good guy to cancer. Years later I met another good guy and married him, too.

My children are grown now, with children of their own. We keep in touch with texts and emails and phone calls. But letters are a thing of the past.

Communication has changed in so many ways, but some fine things remain the same. We still need to keep in touch with our loved ones. Feeling close to them will always bring us joy.

An hour ago, as I was writing this column, my phone rang. It was Henry, my 9-year-old grandson, calling to tell me about his day.

When I picked up the phone, I heard him say “Hey, Nana!” And I felt my heart tremble like leaves on a poplar.

“Friendship,” Feb. 16, 2021

The first time I saw her was on the playground. It was my first day in second grade in a new school. I was miserable, hating life and having to be there in a tacky dress and ugly shoes.

She was the prettiest girl I ever saw. Part of me wanted to hate her, too. But somehow I decided I wanted to be her friend. It wouldn’t happen overnight.

Her name was Martha. We were never in the same classes, but everybody in a small school knows everybody’s name.

One day in fifth grade, I missed my bus to go home. As I stood on the curb, wondering how long it would take me to walk four miles in the rain, I heard a voice say, “C’mon, my mama will give you a ride.”

I climbed in the back of their car, looked up to see her mother beaming at me in the rear view mirror, and I realized where Martha got her good looks.

I asked her to drop me off, not at my house, but nearby. I didn’t want them to see where I lived. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said, climbing out of the car. Then I looked at Martha and heard myself blabber, “Sometime, maybe I’ll come to your house.”

Martha and her mother both said, “That would be so nice!”

In years to come, I would often find myself at Martha’s house. Sledding in winter. Barbecuing in summer. Sleep-overs on the floor in her basement. Or just talking with her mom and dad.

They were the kind of people who make you feel welcome and wanted. I liked talking with them, feeling happy and smart.

Somehow Martha ended up in the same college where I was offered a scholarship. We roomed in separate dorms, but most mornings, on her way to breakfast, she’d stick her head in my room to wake me up and yell, “You know how cold it is on Grandfather Mountain?”

It nearly ended our friendship. The fact that it didn’t says a lot about how much I liked her.

After college, we went our separate ways, but always stayed in touch. She flew to California, to be a bridesmaid in my wedding. Years later, I stood on a beach and watched her marry Byron, my favorite Texan.

We never had a lot of time together. But true friendship doesn’t need a lot of time. It picks up where you left off, with the same feelings, the same laughter, the same light in the eyes, as if you were never apart.

When my husband died of cancer, Martha and Byron flew out for the service and wrapped me and my children in their arms and their love.

Years later, as Byron’s health began to fail, they left Texas to be closer to Martha’s family in South Carolina. So when I went “home” to see my family, I’d get to see Martha and Byron, too.

One evening, not long before he died, Byron told me about a funeral he attended for a friend.

“People talked a lot about the things he did,” Byron said. “I just wanted to hear somebody say he made them happy.”

Byron was a great friend. He did his best to help whenever help was needed. But mostly, he just made people happy.

Martha is like that, too. Maybe it’s what drew them together. They made each other happy.

Last week, I called Martha to say “hey,” and bless her heart, she was sick as a dog. I wanted to help her. But we live 3,000 miles apart, so she said, thanks, no, there was nothing I could do. I kept checking on her, but she didn’t feel much like talking.

Finally, she called today and sounded like herself, laughing and full of life. She knew my sister and brother had both been ailing lately, and she wanted, as always, to help. I said thanks, but no, they were on the mend and there was nothing she needed to do.

So we did what friends do if they can’t help each other. We just talked. It made us happy.

What do you think? Tonight, when Martha’s sleeping, maybe I ought to call her up and yell, “You know how cold it is on Grandfather Mountain?”

I knew you’d say that.

“Making the Best of It,” Feb. 9, 2021

Birthdays in my childhood were always remembered, but not especially memorable. My mother would bake a cake and the family would sing happy birthday off-key. The birthday person would blow out the candles. Then we’d eat the cake and tell funny stories about the birthday person.

No gifts. No balloons. No bounce houses. It was simple, but we made the best of it. Making the best of things is the best anybody can do.

Imagine my surprise when I grew up to be a mother of three, and was duly informed in no uncertain terms that a birthday deserved more than a cake. The informant was my middle child, who by the age of 3, wanted to plan her own parties along with those of her brothers, her dad, her mom and our dog.

I’m not always the smartest person in the room, and I’m smart enough to know it. So I wisely let my daughter take charge of family celebrations. She was thrilled. The only hitch was limiting the cost.

“We can spend $20,” I’d say, “but that’s about it.”

“You’re not serious,” she’d say.

I’d give her a look that said, “Yes, I am.” And she’d give me a look back that said, “Fine!”

We threw some good parties thanks to her brains and my twenty bucks. Then my kids grew up, got married and had kids of their own. Now they plan their own celebrations.

My husband and I fill our social calendar each year with birthday parties for our eight grandchildren. Talk about fun. We get to take turns being a bouncer at the bounce house.

But the pandemic has changed a great many things in our lives, including how we celebrate.

In August, our oldest grandchild marked his tenth birthday with a drive-by party, standing outside his house with his family, waving at his friends and their parents who drove by honking happy birthday.

I wish you could’ve seen him.

It wasn’t how he’d hoped to celebrate. But he and his family and friends made the best of it.

My husband and I have been together more than 20 years. Our birthdays are ten days apart. We often celebrate both at once with dinner at a favorite restaurant, or a weekend some place with a heated pool.

Not this year. Restaurants in our area—Monterey County, California—are closed, except for take-out. We talked about going away for a few days, but decided we’d rather stay home.

So today, on my husband’s birthday, we treated ourselves to cinnamon rolls for breakfast. I stuck a lighted candle on his cinnamon roll and he blew it out. If I’d given him a candle for every year in his age, we’d have needed a lot more cinnamon rolls. And possibly burned down the house.

A few hours later, our kids—the two families that live closeby—showed up with cards and gifts they’d made just for him. We sat on the patio laughing and talking through face masks like a happy family of bandits.

Then our out-of-town kids began calling and sending “happy birthday” videos. It was more fun than a bounce house.

After everyone left, and the phone quit ringing, we talked again about our birthdays. We wanted to share a gift, like the glider we gave each other for Christmas, where we sit most evenings to watch the sun set.

There are things we could do, plants for the yard, paint for the house, a rug for the kitchen. But we realized, honestly, we have our health, our home, our loved ones, and each other.

The only gift we truly need is the grace and grit to be thankful.

A grateful heart beats slower and holds within its walls both the loved and the unlovely. It lights a candle of hope to find the best in everything, even in the darkest of times.

My husband and I are thankful to celebrate another birthday.

You don’t need to send us a card. Unless you really want to.

“The Art of Distraction,” Feb. 2, 2021

Just when I think I’ve told every story I know, another one will pop up in my memory. This one is about the art of distraction. It might cause you to think less of me, unless it’s not possible to think less of me than you already do. We’ll see.

First, I want to thank all of you who wrote to offer kind wishes and prayers for my sister and brother. I wrote about them last week after they ended up in the same hospital for different reasons. (My sister had a stroke, my brother had a bad fall.)

I’m happy to report they’re both on the mend and hope to go home soon. We are all truly grateful for your kind concern.

OK, here’s the story. I’ve told parts of it before but new stories often need pieces of old ones.

My brother Joe was born when I was 4 years old. One look at him and I knew he’d be a whole lot more fun than chasing cows around the pasture.
Our sister Bobbie was 10, and wanted little to do with us. So Joe and I became best friends. I could tell him stories, sing him songs, or drag him by his toes from room to room, and he would laugh as if I were the best storyteller, the best singer, the best drag queen in the world.

He was six months old when I learned that he was blind.

“He can’t be blind,” I said, “he always laughs at my face.”

Mama said, “He laughs at your voice. He’ll never see your face.”

Joe’s blindness didn’t change how I felt about him. But it changed how I saw the world. As we grew older, he taught me some handy skills. How to find my shoes in the dark. How to sniff the air and know it was time for supper. How to pretend not to listen, and hear what we weren’t meant to hear. But most of all, he taught me how to see.

“Sister,” he’d say, “tell me what this looks like.”

It might be a snail he found in the yard, or a litter of pups he heard under the porch, or the sun he felt shining on his face.

I tried to describe it all for him. Sometimes he’d nod “Yes.” But often he’d say, “No, that’s not it, try again.” And I’d have to keep trying.

Joe was stubborn. He never gave up. So one day I decided to try distraction.

“Joe,” I said, “I think I smell smoke. Is your hair on fire?”

This gave him pause. Slowly he patted his head. Finally, he grinned and said, “Sister, you’re teasing. You can’t fool me!”

But the distraction worked! He quit nagging and went back to pushing his tricycle. Until he rolled into a ditch and yelled for me to get him out.

After I grew up and moved to California of All Places, and our mother and other loved ones left this world for the next, Joe and Bobbie became best friends. They love each other dearly, call each other daily and sometimes they fight like badgers. With words, of course, not teeth.

Recently Bobbie and I were discussing one such dispute.

“Why won’t he let me tell him anything?” she said. “He gets so mad if I offer any bit of advice!”

She knows how determined Joe is to do everything on his own. She just wants to help.

“Sissy,” I said, “the next time he gets hoppin’ mad, try asking him, ‘Joe, is your hair on fire?’”

She laughed so hard she had a coughing fit.

“I’m serious,” I said. “He’ll either laugh or check his head. Either way, it’ll cool him off.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

I don’t know if she’s tried it yet. She’s a saint in how she cares for our brother. And he cares just as much for her.

The point of this story is simple: Disagreements should never drive us apart. Words matter. It’s easy to use the wrong ones or to say them the wrong way. Sometimes they can be hard to forgive. But love matters more than words.

The next time you’re in an overheated argument, try this: Roll your eyes, pat your head and shout, “My hair is on fire!”

Distraction works both ways.