“Negative Can Be Positive News,” Aug. 2, 2022

How should I describe this? Try to imagine, if you can, the way it might feel to wake up one morning and realize that, during the night while you slept curled up in your bed, you somehow got hit by an 18-wheeler pulling a double-wide mobile home.

I’d had sniffles for a few days, no fever or cough. Allergies, maybe. To be sure, I did a home test for Covid, waited and prayed for 15 minutes, and was very thankful to test negative. I wasn’t hit by a truck. It was just a cold. Remember the days when a cold was “just a cold”?

Since the start of the pandemic, even the slightest sniffle is enough to make me think maybe it’s time to put my affairs in order. In my case, that would mean cleaning my closet.

After so many months of face masks and social distancing, I can barely remember how it feels to have “just a cold.”

But I’ll never forget the day, about two years ago, when I phoned a friend who was hospitalized with Covid. She sounded so weak I wasn’t sure it was her. But when she heard my voice, she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called! I am so sick!”

We’d been friends since we were little girls, through good times and bad, and I had never heard her sound so ill. Thankfully, she recovered, not quickly, but completely.

Since that day, I’ve often heard from readers who’ve lost loved ones to Covid. My heart goes out to them. It seems most everyone I know personally has had the virus, and fortunately survived it. My husband and I have tested on several occasions, and always been thankful for good results.

After testing negative a few days ago, I wanted to believe I had “just a cold.” But it kept getting worse. Then, when I woke up yesterday feeling like I’d been hit by a truck, I decided maybe the test had been wrong.

I’ve known several people _ you probably have, too _ who tested negative one day, then positive two days later. So I took another home test. Waited and prayed another 15 minutes. And once again, I was thankful and relieved to test negative.

Yet, the way I felt seemed to say it was not “just a cold.” It was a nasty bug I never wanted to give to anyone. To limit the risk to my husband, I’ve been keeping my distance, sleeping in the guest room, using a separate bathroom and covering my mouth when I cough.

But when he insists on bringing me water or coffee or chicken soup or brownies, I don’t argue. I just say, “Thanks.” He says, “You’re welcome,” and I’m pretty sure he means it.

This morning, I rolled over in the guest bed and reached for a pillow I was given years ago by a friend. One side of it is embroidered with these words: “I love you to the moon and back.” The other side has a pocket for her photo. I took out the photo and, despite how sick I felt, her beautiful smiling face lit me up like Christmas.

In a day or so, if I still feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, I’ll probably get a lab test. And clean my closet. But today I’m feeling well cared for and trusting I’m on the mend.

It’s no fun to feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. But it helps to spend time waiting, praying, being well cared for and getting the glorious gift of good news.

I hope you will never for any reason get sick. If you do, I hope you’re blessed to have someone who loves you enough to bring you water and coffee and chicken soup and brownies.

I hope you take hope knowing countless others have recovered from the same illness you suffer.

Sick or well, I hope you’re surrounded by smiling faces that light you up like Christmas.

And if you or a loved one ever need to test for Covid, I surely hope you’ll get good results.

Negative can be positive news.

“Doing Something Big,” July 26, 2022

Do you ever dream of doing something big, but find yourself feeling too small to try? When I feel that way, as I often do, I like to think about Darleen. I first told this story 20 years ago. If you recall it, your memory is better than mine. It goes like this:

Long after it was over, folks liked to speculate about what exactly possessed her to do it. Some said it was the mower. Others blamed the bull. But there was more to it than that.

While visiting family in the Carolinas one summer, I wrote columns at a friend’s house surrounded by cow pastures, where I’d be free of distraction. At least that was the idea. I’d arrive early, work hard, then go have supper with my family.

One morning, I’d just written a promising lead, when I heard a truck coming up the road. It was Jason, the teenager my friend hired to mow several acres of her yard. I’d not met the boy, but I grew up with his daddy.

“Hey, Jason!” I said. “I’m glad to see you were lucky enough to get your mama’s good looks!”

He laughed, thinking it was a joke. I offered iced tea (in the South, not to do so is a sin.) He said, “No thank you, ma’am,” and fired up the mower. I watched him cut a strip by the fence. Then I went back to work.

Minutes later, I heard the mower stop. I looked out the window and saw Jason sprinting across the yard, flapping his arms like Big Bird on fire.

“Lord help us!” I prayed, “the cows are out!”

For the record, I grew up with cows. I could still milk one, maybe, if need be. But milking is a far cry from catching.

Once, as a child, I got chased up an apple tree by a nasty herd of Herefords that held me hostage until I handed over every last apple in my bucket. Since then, I’ve been a bit wary. It’s not that I don’t like cows. I just don’t trust them.

Still, I’m a country girl, born and raised. When cows are on the loose, I can’t ignore them. Besides, poor Jason was pitifully outnumbered. I’d have given better odds to Custer.

The culprit was Darlene, a sassy little Holstein, all black and white and full of herself. For some reason, she’d apparently decided to jump the fence and lead her sisters in an unarmed, four-legged rebellion.

“Jason!” I shouted, running out the door, “What’s the plan?”

“I’ll try to cut ‘em off!” he yelled. “You go call Mr. Lee!”

I found the number. A woman answered on the third ring.

“Tell Mr. Lee his cows are out,” I said, “and it looks like they mean business!”

Meanwhile, Jason, bless his heart, had managed to corral most of the escapees under an apple tree where they now milled about munching apples, looking all guilty and glum.

Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I saw a black and white flash moving fast: Darlene was making a break for the road!

Not one to be cowed by a cow, I grabbed a big stick, planted my feet and met her head on.

“Stop!” I ordered. Much to my surprise, she did. Lowering her head, she turned her muzzle to one side and stared, as if sizing me up. And then I saw it: A fiery hot gleam in her eye. When she twitched her tail and charged, I threw down my stick and ran.

Darlene never looked back. She kicked up her heels, trotted across the road and jumped clean over a barbed-wire fence to join Bubba, the neighbor’s bull, in what I hope for her sake were much greener pastures.

What do you think? Did she do it for love? Or for adventure? Or just because the mower scared the bejeezes out of her?

No. I saw the gleam in her eye that day. I wish you could’ve seen it, too. She did it mostly for one good reason: Deep down inside of her big, bovine heart, Darlene believed in herself.

“Songs 4 Mom,” July 19, 2022

Memories tend to surface like starfish from the deep to remind us of things we need to know.

Last week my husband and I visited his son, Joe, wife Juli and their three children. We stayed at the home of Juli’s dad and his partner, who live near them, and were treated like royalty.

It was a far cry from the days my big Southern family would pile into my grandfolks’ place and I’d have to sleep in the bathtub with several cousins.

Family visits don’t need to be luxury vacations. They just need to happen often enough so we’ll know each other well and never forget that we’re a family.

We stayed two nights and might’ve stayed longer. But my son and his wife and their two babes were due to visit us soon and I had things to do. It had been three months since I last saw them. I could hardly wait.

When we got home, I checked my phone and saw a missed call and message from my son. He’s an actor on a TV show that’s been on a break before starting a new season. He said he’d just learned he needs to be back at work sooner than expected. So they had to postpone the visit.

I took a minute to get past the disappointment. I knew he was disappointed, too, and I didn’t want him to hear it in my voice. Then I called him to say, not to worry, I understand, we’ll get together soon.

I meant what I said. But I missed my boy. I also missed his wife and their sweet babes. But for some reason, I especially missed Josh.

It was strangely how I felt the day he left home for college. His dad and I helped haul his stuff into his new room, met his roommates, hugged him hard, said goodbye and drove away. I did it without shedding a tear. Until he was out of sight. Then I bawled like a newborn calf.

I’d spent 18 years raising that boy. He wasn’t a soldier going off to war. He was a high school graduate, smart, dependable and mature, going off to college to do things I didn’t want to think about. I wasn’t worried about him. Maybe I should’ve been. But I just missed him.

I wanted us always to know each other and stay as close as we had always been. I didn’t want him ever to … forget me.

That’s how I felt that day as I watched him through the rear window waving goodbye from his new life. It seems silly now. In many ways, we’ve grown even closer over the years. And yet, I felt that way again when I heard they weren’t coming to see us.

The next day, my husband and I were doing errands when I heard a song on the radio that brought back this memory:

The first time Josh came home from college, I was waiting. He drove up with a big grin and a back seat full of dirty laundry.

“Hey, Mama,” he said, hugging me hard. When he hugs you, you know you’ve been hugged.

“I brought you something.”

“I see it,” I said, laughing and nodding at the back seat.

“Not that,” he said, “this.”

He handed me a cassette tape he had titled, “Songs 4 Mom.”

“I think you’ll like it,” he said.

I didn’t like it. I loved it. He had taped some of my favorite songs (by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Temptations and others) plus a few he said he knew I’d like if I heard them.

“Where did you find all these?”

“I had some of them,” he said, “and borrowed the rest.”

“How did you know all those songs were my favorites?”

He gave me a look, laughed and said, “I know you, Mama.”

The tape included “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer. It was the song I’d heard on the radio that prompted that memory.

I played that tape countless times, especially whenever the boy left to go back to college. I have no idea how I lost it. I’m not good at keeping up with things. But I am fierce about hanging on to the people I love.

We need to know we’ll always be known and remembered by those who matter most to us. I lost that tape, but kept its memory. And memories can help us remember what is true.

“How to Say Thank You,” July 12, 2022

It was just a few lines in an email. But if you saw the smile on my face as I read it, you’d have thought I won the lottery. It came from a young man I’ll call Joe. That isn’t his name and he’s not young any more, but he’ll always be “young” to me.

My late husband was a high school teacher and basketball coach, twin passions that filled our lives with the laughter and energy of countless teenagers.

For several years, we also led the youth group at our church. It included a weekly potluck in our home for 20 to 40 high school- and college-age people who brought casseroles from their moms or pizza they picked up on the way to our house.

It was easy. I coordinated the meals and directed the clean up. The Coach played guitar and led the discussion. Our kids loved having a houseful of playmates. Everybody pitched in. And any time we needed a babysitter, we had a long list of possibilities.

Best of all were a great many conversations shared in small groups or one-on-one. I loved hearing kids talk about their lives and hopes and dreams.

Funny, isn’t it? Sometimes, when we do things to “help” others, we look back and see we were mostly helping ourselves.

Joe was part of that youth group. He married a lovely young woman, started a family and eventually they moved away to build a beautiful life together.

I saw him again a few years ago when the youth group met for a reunion. It was great fun to catch up. Since then, we email on occasion to keep in touch.

But his recent note was more than just a way to catch up. He wrote to say “thank you.” Not just to me, or to the Coach, but to several other couples in our church who had “invested,” he said, in his life and the lives of others in that youth group.

I honestly didn’t feel I’d done anything to deserve his thanks, other than opening my home and my heart. But sometimes, we just need to be open and leave the rest to God.

Looking back on my life, I’m thankful for so many people who “invested” in me. Teachers who made me feel smart. Friends’ parents who made me feel welcome. Adults I looked up to who helped me find my way.

In the final months of his life, as he neared the end of a four-year battle with cancer, the Coach heard from many former players and students about the difference his “investment” had made in their lives.

Late one night, I answered a knock at the door and there stood someone I’d not seen in years. I’ll call him Charles. A star forward in high school, he’d dreamed of playing in college. Instead, he went to prison. We’d heard he’d been released and was living in San Francisco.

“Hey, Miz R,” he said, giving me a hug. “I heard about Coach. I’ve got something for him.”

For the next hour, Charles and the Coach sat in our family room recalling games and plays and good times they’d shared.

Finally, Charles opened a bag and took out a trophy engraved with “Most Valuable Player.”

“Coach,” he said, “I won this playing city league ball. I want you to have it. It’s my way to say thanks for all you did for me. I’m getting my life together. And I will not forget you.”

We never heard from Charles again. The Coach had collected a lot of trophies in his years. He didn’t say this, but I suspect (given the smile on his face as he accepted it) Charles’ trophy might’ve been his favorite.

We say “thank you” in all sorts of ways, a smile or a note or a trophy or just a word: “Thanks.” All that matters, really, is that we find the grace to say it, and mean it with all our heart.

Have you ever lost someone you wish you had thanked while there was time? Most of us have. But the surest way to say thanks for kindness is not with words, but with actions, by being kind to others. Thank Goodness, it is never too late to do that.

“Good Medicine,” July 5, 2022

Once upon a time, generations of families lived close enough to gather for Sunday dinner, help raise the little ones, look after the old ones, bear each other’s burdens and, despite their differences, try to get along.

Or so it was with the family that raised me. My mother and her eight sisters loved each other dearly. They sang in harmony on the porch with the voices of angels, and always had each other’s backs. But, at times, they fought like badgers.

I think of them often, always with a smile, especially when I hear Paul Thorn sing, “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love.”

My parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins were not just my family. They were my world. And I was sure they always would be.

But as my generation grew up, jobs and marriage and life in general pulled us in different directions. Many of my cousins stayed in the South. But some of us moved far away _ too far to show up for Sunday dinner.

I married and raised my children in California of All Places. Money was tight. Travel was costly. Family get-togethers were replaced with once-a-week phone calls and face-to-face visits every few years.

My mother longed to know my children the same way she knew her other grandchildren. She wanted to look in their eyes, hear their laughter and nuzzle the backs of their sweaty necks.

The best I could do was to send photos. It wasn’t easy. I had to (1) find the camera; (2) clean up the kids; (3) make them pose; (4) take the film to the drug store to be developed; (5) go back to pick up the prints; (6) pick out the least fuzzy pics and (7) put them in the mail.

My mother never cared about the quality of the photos I sent. It was good medicine, she said, just to see those fuzzy faces.

I often hear from readers and other friends who long to live closer to their families, and try their best to stay in touch.

My husband and I share five children, their partners and nine grandchildren. His two boys and their families live a few hours from us. My daughter and younger son and their families are only minutes away.

But my oldest and his family live near Los Angeles, a long five-hour drive. So our visits are often limited to FaceTime calls. Their son Jonah is 3 years old. A year ago, when his baby sister was born, I spent a month at their house pretending to help, but mostly playing with Jonah.

We got to be good buddies, Jonah and I. And we still are, thanks to our FaceTime talks. Recently he called to tell me about what he calls their new “castle house.” It’s really nice, he said, and it has a big room for me.

“Will you come see us, Nana?”

“Yes,” I said, “soon as I can.”

We talked about other things, birds and monsters and such. But Jonah kept asking, “When will you come see us, Nana?”

Finally, I said, “I can’t come right now. I have a bad cold and I don’t want to give it to you.”

His face lit up, the way it does when he gets a bright idea.

“Come now!” he said. “We’ll take you to a doctor! Doctors are really good at fixing people!”

I tried not to laugh. “Yes,” I said, “doctors are good at fixing people. But so are you. Just to see your face is good medicine for me. Are you a doctor?”

He thought about it. Then his face lit up again. “Yes!” he said, laughing, “I’m Dr. Jonah!”

We heard a deep voice in the background and Jonah shouted, “Daddy’s home! I’ve got to go see him! Love you, Nana! Bye!”

And with that, Dr. Jonah ran off to fix his next patient. And I went to the kitchen where my husband was fixing dinner.

“How’s your cold?” he asked.

“Better,” I said, grinning.

Face-to-face medicine is good for any ailment. But I hope to visit Jonah in person soon. Our FaceTime calls let me look in his eyes and hear his laugh. But I still long to nuzzle his neck.

“Seeing Danger,” June 28, 2022

My mother tried to teach me to see danger. Even the kind you can’t see until it’s too late.

“You have to watch for it,” she’d say. “Pay attention and try to use the sense God gave you!”

I remember an autumn when the trees were ablaze with color.

“Look, Mama,” I said, “aren’t those trees just beautiful?”

“If I had my way,” she said, “I’d cut ‘em all down. I’m scared they’ll fall on this house!”

She saw danger everywhere. I saw my share of it. But mostly, I saw what fear did to her. How it kept her from enjoying life. How it locked her up in a prison of her own making. And how, if I let it, it would lock me up, too.

My mother meant well. But I was young, full of myself and thought I’d live forever. I tried my best to be fearless.

My fearless days ended when my first child was born. After my third, I could see danger everywhere. Even the kind you can’t see until it’s too late.

My main mission in life (along with cooking, cleaning and trying to stay sane) was simple: I had to keep my children safe.

I tried to teach them to see danger. Look before crossing the street. Never run with scissors. If you fall off the roof, just remember on the way down I told you not to go up there.

But far more than danger, I taught them to see beauty, to feel joy and live life to its fullest. I never wanted them to be a prisoner of fear. I just wanted them to be safe and stay alive.

I meant well. But they were young, full of themselves and thought they’d live forever. They tried their best to be fearless.

Somehow, by the grace of God, they survived. They are now responsible, caring adults with children of their own. I never worry about my grandchildren. Their parents are teaching them a perfect balance of freedom and safety. If there are dangers, they see them long before I do.

When my kids were small, their favorite beach was Lovers Point, a sandy cove a short mile from our home in Pacific Grove, on California’s rocky coast.

The water is cold, below 65 degrees, but it’s a bit sheltered from the wind and the waves lap more than crash. We didn’t own wet suits, so the kids mostly waded in the surf and built castles in the sand.

It’s now the favorite beach of four of my grandkids, ages 7 to 11, who live nearby. They often swim there in wetsuits, while their mothers sit on blankets, as I once did, watching over their babes like ducks on June bugs.

On a recent day, they planned to meet friends at the beach but cancelled at the last minute.

That morning, a man who was swimming just off shore was attacked by what officials said was a 20-foot great white shark.

Several people _ including a police officer and a nurse, who were in town to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and a surfing instructor who was teaching a class _ heard the man’s screams and paddled out to pull him to shore. He was taken to a trauma center with massive injuries. But thanks to those who saw the danger, and yet risked their lives to save him, he is expected to survive.

Meanwhile, children who had been in the water stood dripping on shore watching the dramatic rescue. Who knows what they will take from that experience?

Life is not one thing, but many: Joy, heartache, heroes and villains, bravery and fear, danger and deliverance. In the same way we teach children to avoid what may harm them, we need to teach them to embrace what will heal them _ what will build them up, make them whole and give them peace.

That story is not just about a shark attack. It’s about bravery, compassion, kindness, survival and good people who faced danger to do the right thing.

If those children (and others like my grandchildren who weren’t there, but will hear about it) remember anything about that day, I hope they’ll remember the heroes. And soon, whenever they are ready, I hope they’ll get back in the water.

“A Summer to Daydream,” June 21, 2022

On my way home from the post office, I drove past a school. The parking lot sat empty, the place looked abandoned, like a dry well waiting for rain.

Summer vacation. The thought made me smile. As I waited at a red light, something zipped by my window: A boy, 10 or 12, sailed along the sidewalk on a skateboard _ kick, glide, kick, glide _ with his eyes, mind and fingers locked on a cell phone, texting. When he stopped at the curb just inches shy of traffic, I whispered, “Thank you!”

He glanced up to see the light had changed, then skated across the intersection texting all the way. I watched until he was out of sight. When the car behind me honked, I moved on. But I kept thinking about that boy. Things have changed since I was his age. Yes, I do mean in more ways than just the discovery of fire.

Summers in my childhood were spent doing … mostly nothing. We lived miles from town surrounded by cow pastures and apple orchards, with a railroad track 50 yards from our back door.

I remember sitting for hours in an apple tree, daydreaming, watching clouds, tossing apples down to the cows and listening for the rumble of a train. When I heard it in the distance and felt the tree start to tremble, I’d scramble down and hold my breath, waiting.

The cows never knew what to make of it. They’d just stand there looking puzzled. Cows like to do that. If they could scratch their heads, they would.

As the engine roared by, I’d jump up and down, scattering the cows and waving my arms at the engineer. He in turn, bless his good, kind heart, would blow the train whistle, just for me.

Talk about fun. Clouds and cows and trees and trains and apples and kindness and, best of all, time to daydream. What more could a child _ or anyone _ want from summer vacation?

My children grew up on the coast of California’s Monterey Peninsula surrounded by beaches and parks and urban forests, just a few blocks from the Little League ballfield.

“Go play,” I would say, and they did.

I made sure they (and I) had time to daydream. What else is childhood (and motherhood) for? That’s what I want for my grandchildren, and for yours: A daydreaming kind of summer.

The skateboarder on his cell phone made me wonder: What will his summer be like? Will he take time to daydream? 

I surely hope so. We are all, I believe, contemplative creatures by nature, thoughtful and imaginative and curious. We long to examine our lives, to understand how we feel, to imagine possibilities and make great decisions for our futures.

Cows aren’t the only ones who find it hard to understand what’s going on. To do that, we need time to do “nothing;” to connect with ourselves and each other with our eyes and words and touch and hearts and souls.

My grandparents often sat on their porch on summer evenings saying little, enjoying the quiet, waving at passing cars. I loved sitting there with them.

My husband and I have a similar ritual, sitting on the patio, listening to birdsong and marveling at the sunset.

Machines and gadgets are grand inventions. Who would want to give them up? But somehow we need to learn to control how we use them, rather than allowing them to control us and our children and our lives.

It sounds simple, but it’s strangely hard to do. We need to summon the courage to shut them off once in a while _ our cell phones, TVs, computers and other diversions _ and allow ourselves the joy of being fully human, fully aware of life in ourselves and in others and in the world all around us.

Sometimes we need to do nothing. Especially in summer.

Here’s wishing you and yours a summer to daydream.

(Note: I’m taking off this week to daydream. The above column is from 2015.)

“Another Day in Paradise,” June 14, 2022

The calendar in my kitchen tried to tell me it’s still spring, but I found it hard to believe.

We live in a valley, 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay in Northern California. Our weather is pretty much perfect year round. Winter gets cold. Summer warms up. Spring and fall are mild. But every day, in any weather, I give thanks for “another day in Paradise.”

Imagine my surprise yesterday when a thermometer out our kitchen window registered 100 degrees. In the shade. At 9 a.m.

Seriously? In my experience, the best way to judge weather is to stick your head out the door. So I did. For 10 whole seconds. Until I started to sweat and thought I might pass out.

So I shut the door, cranked up the A.C. and downed a glass of cold water. A while later, my husband said he was going out to the garage to work on music for a gig he’s to play next week.

“It’s hot out there,” I warned.

“I won’t stay long,” he said.

Minutes later, he was back looking as if he might pass out.

“It’s hot out there,” he said, as he cranked up the A.C. and downed a glass of cold water.

I’ve lived in several climates. Growing up in the Carolinas, weather was exciting. Winter brought ice and snow. Summer was even more exciting with thunder and lightning, tornados and occasional hurricanes.

I loved it. Winter or summer, I wanted to be outside in the thick of it. My mother thought I was crazy. Especially after I grew up and moved off to California and its earthquakes.

(Note: In all my decades in California, I’ve experienced only one major earthquake. One is enough. Another could happen any time. But for the record, I’ve felt only one big one so far.)

I raised my children by the ocean. They wore jackets out to play in the summer fog.

Years later, a job change took my husband and me to Las Vegas for 12 years. Having spent a lifetime in Southern humidity and Pacific Coast fog, I actually liked the dryness of the desert.

When my husband retired, we moved back to California, and now live in Carmel Valley.

I wish you could see it.

Every place is a piece of Paradise if we choose to see it clearly. The mountains that cradle this valley remind me of where I was born. And they keep assuring me that I am home.

Unlike the South, California gets most of its rain in winter, almost none in summer. In late spring, emerald green hills will turn golden, then brown. And suddenly, it’s wildfire season.

Summer before last, we left home three times due to fire _ twice when smoke made the air unbearable, and once for a mandatory evacuation. Our home was spared, but nearby, others burned to the ground.

I love summer, but I’m no fan of fire season. With less rainfall and record heat, this summer could be one of our worst.

So yesterday, when the temperature hit 100, I kept my cool, so to speak, and repacked the emergency get-out-quick bag that I keep under the bed. It’s stuffed with a few clothes and other things I’d need if, God forbid, we had to run.

My husband has his own bag. Most of our photos and records are saved electronically. But we also keep a couple of boxes we’d grab on our way to the car.

That’s about all we’d have time to take if we woke in the night (as friends did in Calistoga) and saw flames racing up the hill.

Our house is a scrapbook filled with keepsakes, a lifetime of treasures we never want to lose.

But life is teaching us to (1) know what’s important; (2) hold everything loosely, except for the people we hold dear; and (3) refuse to live in fear.

We’ll do what we can to be prepared, keep an eye out for smoke and give thanks for every day, whatever it may bring.

Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and lovely summer in your own piece of Paradise.

“Making the Best of It,” June 7, 2022

My dad was a simple man. He loved simple food, like the cornbread his mother baked every day. Simple people, who never tried to put on airs. And simple pleasures, like hunting and fishing and being with me.

I loved most everything about him. He could also be what my mother called “hard to figure,” but I didn’t mind. I was a little hard to figure myself.

Dad grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, hunting, fishing and farming. He married my mother when he was 25. She was 15. They moved a few miles from the farm, near the mill where he worked different shifts every week.

My sister was born two years later. For a while, they were happy. When WWII began, Dad enlisted in the army. My mother begged him not to go, but he said he felt he had no choice.

He was shot crossing the Rhine River into Germany, and spent a month recovering in a military hospital. Finally, he was discharged and returned home to his family and his mountains and his job at the mill.

I was born a few years later. My mother never forgave him for going off to the war. They divorced when I was 2, and Dad moved back to the farm. I lived with my mother, but often spent weekends with him. He’d pick me up on Friday, and on our way to the farm he’d say, “A weekend’s not forever, but we’ll make the best of it.”

And we always did. He taught me how to ride a horse, milk a cow, slop a pig, drive a tractor … and that you don’t have to live in the same house with someone to know that they love you.

He also tried to teach me to fish, until he realized I’d much rather talk than bait a hook.

Like most good parents, he taught by example more than by words. He kept every promise. Showed up on time. Worked hard at the mill, harder on the farm. Tipped waitresses at the cafe for ham and grits or just a cup of coffee. If I needed him, he was only a phone call away. And he never forgot to thank his mother for her cooking.

He loved her cornbread. So did I. But I’d never do what he did. At the end of a meal, he’d crumble a hunk of cornbread in a glass of buttermilk and spoon up every bite. I called it a waste of good cornbread. He called it making a good thing better.

We weren’t alike in every respect. But he was my dad, and I am _ and will always be _ his daughter, a simple woman, who loves simple food, simple people and simple pleasures.

He’s been gone for 30 years, but I remember him clearly and think of him often, in the same way I hope my children will remember and think of me.

Last night, in a rare mood, I decided to make a Boston cream pie. Never mind why. I just wanted one. As you may know, it’s actually a cake. I found a recipe online: Bake one layer of a cake, split it in half, fill it with custard, put the halves back together and cover it with chocolate sauce.

Sounds easy, huh? You also have to make the custard and chocolate sauce. I did it all in about three hours, thinking “this thing better be good.” After it chilled, I cut two slices, one each for my husband and me.

It was pretty good. Not great. My husband said he liked it, but he’s learned not to complain. The cake was dry. It looked a little like cornbread. Suddenly, I knew what to do. I cut two more slices, one for each of us. But this time, before serving, I crumbled them up a bit and drizzled them with milk. And “pretty good” got a lot better.

My dad would’ve loved it. Maybe not as much as he loved cornbread in buttermilk. But he’d be proud I remembered what he taught me.

Life is like cooking. We can’t make everything the way we want it to be. But we can make the best of what we’re given.

The next time I want a Boston cream pie? I’ll buy one.

“A Dose of Sunshine,” May 31, 2022

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. That’s what my mother always said. Actually, she said a lot of things. They took root long ago in my brain and bloom in my memory without warning.

I was 8 when she introduced me to the cleansing power of the sun. She was on the back porch running clothes through the wringer of the washer. I was in the living room watching TV.

“Get out here!” she yelled. “I need help with this wash!”

I had no idea how my life was about to change.

She had hauled a load of wet wash to the clothes line in the yard and was standing, hands on hips, waiting for me.

I sat down on the steps and said, “What do I have to do?”

“Come hand me these clothes and I’ll pin ’em on the line!”

“Do I have to do it now?” I said. “I was watching TV.”

She gave me a look. So I got up and handed her a wet shirt.

“These clothes need sun to get dry before it rains,” she said, glancing up at dark clouds rumbling over the mountains. “And sunshine kill germs. It’s the best disinfectant.”

I’d never heard of disinfectant but it wasn’t hard to figure.

“Doesn’t soap do that?”

“Soap helps,” she said, “but sunshine’s a better cleaner. And cleanliness is next to godliness.”

I couldn’t argue with that. So I said, “I’m just a kid. You could do it faster without me.”

She rolled her eyes. “Quit stallin’ and get to work,” she said. Then she added with a sigh, “Someday you’ll be blessed with children of your own.”

Her tone made me think: Did she mean blessed or cursed?

That story surfaced in my memory this morning. I hadn’t thought about it in years. My husband and I were sitting outside our house, soaking up sun on a spectacular spring day and brainstorming all sorts of improvements we could make. Put in some new plants. Replace the fence. Resurface the patio….

It was one of those wishful conversations where anything is game until reality creeps in and you start to see dollar signs.

“OK,” he said, “I’m gonna start a load of laundry. Would you like a second cup of coffee?”

He often reads my mind. I nodded and smiled. Moments later he handed me a fresh cup, just the way I like it.

“Mmm,” I said, “lovely.”

He went inside and I leaned back in my chair to sip coffee and savor the morning.

We live in Carmel Valley, Calif., 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay, on a hill where we see mostly rolling green mountains and a big blue sky; buzzards, hawks, hummingbirds and quail; rabbits and gophers; bobcats and deer; and maybe, on occasion, a mountain lion.

I never tire of the sights. But this morning, I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds.

Down by the river, wild turkeys gobbled. A donkey heehawed. Dogs barked like they meant business. A hummingbird buzzed past my ear. And a breeze from the coast swept the valley like a broom, rustling the limbs of oaks and pines and cottonwoods, and rattling the leaves on a plum tree above my head.

The air carried a faint, mixed fragrance of the plants we often use in cooking _ Meyer lemons, rosemary, sage and thyme.

And best of all, I could feel the sun, warming my face, easing my aches, clearing my mind. All that and a taste of coffee.

Some days it’s worth waking up and going outside just to let Nature cleanse your soul.

My mother was right. Sunlight is the best (natural) disinfectant. Cleanliness is next to godliness. (I still can’t argue with that.) And I have indeed been blessed with three children of my own, plus nine helpful grandkids.

But I’m also blessed with an automatic washer and dryer. And especially with someone who seems happy to use them.