“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.

“One Day at a Time,” Jan. 26, 2021

One of the finer qualities that sets humans apart from other species is our capacity to care about people we’ve never met.

I first became aware of that quality years ago when my late husband was battling cancer. I often wrote columns about our experiences. And I heard from readers around the country who said they or a loved one were battling cancer, too; that they were praying for my husband and me; and their children were praying for our children.

It’s quite a gift having someone whose face you’ve never seen write to tell you that they and their children are praying for you and yours. Their prayers didn’t change the outcome of my husband’s illness. But the loving kindness and compassion that moved them to pray for us healed his spirit even as he was dying. It comforted my children. And it changed me profoundly. I will never be cynical again.

If we can find it in our hearts to pray for strangers, anything is possible. I believe that. So I keep praying. I hope you do, too.

Last week, I wrote a column about how helpless I felt not being able, due to Covid-19, to visit my sister in South Carolina, where she’s been hospitalized after suffering a stroke.

Since writing that column, I’ve heard from countless readers who said they’re praying for my sister’s health and for my sanity.

I like those people a lot. But here’s a new twist to this story. No, I don’t make this stuff up. Two days after Bobbie was admitted to the hospital, our brother Joe—who is totally blind and severely disabled by cerebral palsy—took a bad fall and was taken by ambulance to the same hospital, where he was admitted for a series of tests.

Bobbie and Joe both tested negative for Covid-19 and were assigned to a non-Covid wing of the hospital. Their rooms are on separate floors, but that didn’t stop Joe from sweet-talking a nurse to put him in a wheelchair and roll him to Bobbie’s room.

Imagine my surprise when I called Bobbie and heard her say, “Hey, Sissy! I have a visitor!” Then she handed Joe the phone.

“Joe?” I said. “How the heck did you get in there?”

“Well, Sister,” Joe said, “it’s like this. I fell and I couldn’t get up. So I yelled real loud and my neighbor called 911. After I got admitted, I asked to see our sister and that’s how I got here.”

Joe has a way of making sense out of total senselessness.

“So how are you?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been better, but I’ll be all right. My legs are still weak, but I’ll just take it one day at a time and remember to be thankful.”

Joe will move to a facility for physical therapy as soon as there’s an opening. And Bobbie just had surgery to remove a blockage in her carotid artery.

The hospital is so busy it’s hard to get calls through, but I spoke to both of them last night. Bobbie was groggy from pain meds. Joe was happy to get, not just one, but two supper trays with barbecue sandwiches, cole slaw, fries and ice-cream.

“How did you get two trays?”

“I told ‘em it was so good I wished I had more. So they gave me another one. I wish you could’ve tasted it. Hospital food is a lot better than it used to be.”

Their hospitalizations have caused a praying frenzy among their loved ones—cousins, nieces, nephews, friends and even people we’ve never met.

Sometimes I worry about what tomorrow may bring. Maybe you do, too. But like my brother, I want to live one day at a time and remember to be thankful. Today I am thankful for ambulance attendants and doctors and nurses; for family and neighbors and friends; for hospital beds and pain meds and barbecue sandwiches; and for the unexpected kindness of strangers and their prayers.

We’ve been better, all of us. But together, we’ll be all right.

“Being There,” Jan. 19, 2021

My mother tried her best to teach her children to see danger. To always be prepared for it. To never let it catch us unaware. To be ready at any minute to run.

It was a waste of time with my brothers. Joe was blind, couldn’t see anything, not even danger. And my baby brother, Denton, never met a risk he didn’t love.

She tried especially hard to drill the fear of danger into me and my big sister, Bobbie. We’d be women someday, she said, and women needed to be extra wary. We didn’t know what we needed to be extra wary of, and we were too afraid to ask.

Bobbie never bought the “be wary” business. She’d stick out her chin and stand her ground to any threat that came our way. Whenever I got scared, she’d tell me not to worry because she would always be “there” to protect me. We shared a room, a bed and a lot of late night talks. Then I would fall asleep at peace listening to Bobbie breathe.

If you ranked my mother’s children for bravery, Joe would be first. It takes courage to live a life that can’t be seen. The dare devils, Bobbie and Denton, would tie for second. I’d be last for bravery, but first for fear.

As I grew older, I got better at hiding my fears. Or maybe I got tired of carrying them around. I thought I was pretty brave to move to California, marry and start a family. But one day, I heard my oldest child, who was then about 8, say to his friend, “What’s the safest thing you can think of? My mom will tell you 12 ways it can kill you.”

Something clicked inside my soul that day. I wish I could say my little boy’s words changed me instantly. But I’ve always been a work in progress. I still see danger if I look for it.

But I began that day to make a conscious effort to keep my eyes open wide to everything in life—not just danger and suffering, but beauty and grace and peace and joy. To fear less and trust more. To laugh more and worry less. To expect the best and leave the rest to God.

For months, I’ve been praying for rain. After a summer with nonstop wildfires, Lord knows we need it. But lately we’ve had clear blue, 80-degree, gorgeous weather. My husband and I sit outside every evening to watch the sun go down, the moon rise up and the stars fill the sky.

I wish you could see it.

I can’t make it rain. But I can enjoy the gift of a beautiful day.

Yesterday my friend, Martha, who lives nextdoor to my sister in South Carolina, called to say Bobbie had a bad fall that may have been caused by a stroke, but didn’t go to the hospital.

My sister is a retired ICU nurse. She hates hospitals. I called her right away.

“Hey, Sissy!” she said, “I was just thinking about you!”

“Martha told me you fell and I can hear that you are slurring your words. Will you call 911 or do you want me to do it?”

“OK,” she said, “I’ll call.”

She ended up in ICU after it was confirmed she’d indeed had a stroke. When I phoned her today, her speech seemed to be worse. She sounded like our daddy, after he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him.

Suddenly I saw danger all around my sister. The threat of another stroke. The risk of getting Covid. The thought of being on her own without me.

The last time Bobbie had a stroke, years ago, I took the first flight I could get to be with her in the hospital. Then I brought her home and took care of her until she was back on her feet. This time, I felt so helpless.

“I wish I was there,” I said.

“Don’t even think about it, Sissy,” she said. “I want you to stay home and be safe. You’re my best friend in this world. I don’t want to lose you.”

I needed to see the beauty in those words, to let them quiet my fears and give me peace. So for a moment, I didn’t speak. I just listened to Bobbie breathe.

“Sissy? Are you there?”

“Yes,” I said. “Always.”

“Good Words for Hard Times,” Jan. 12, 2021

What do you do when the unthinkable happens? Where do you go to find peace? And how do you explain it to a child?

On January 6th— when throngs of President Trump’s supporters cheered for him at a rally near the White House, and then violently attacked the U.S. Capitol building—my mind raced with questions.

My husband and I spent most of that day watching the news on TV. It reminded me of other horrific events I’d seen on TV in my lifetime—the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

I didn’t realize how emotional I was feeling until my phone lit up with a FaceTime call from my 10-year-old grandson. Before answering, I took a moment to dry my eyes.

“Hey, Nana!” Randy said, “I have a surprise to show you!”

“Really?” I said. “What is it?”

He grinned ear-to-ear and I could clearly see the surprise.

“Woohoo!” I said. “No braces!”

“Yep!” he said, laughing. “I got them off today!”

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Suddenly, it all seemed too much—the joy in Randy’s eyes, and the terror I had just been watching in the news.

“Are you OK, Nana?” Randy asked, studying my face on his computer screen.

“I’m fine, sweetheart, I just….”

Stopping mid-sentence, I tried to think of what to say. How could I tell that sweet child something so wrong? He would learn it soon enough. I didn’t want him to learn it from me. So I did what grandparents often do. I left it to his parents.

“I’m fine,” I said, “really. I’m just happy you got all of that metal out of your mouth!”

“Me, too!” Randy said.

We talked a bit longer, then he said goodbye to go show off his teeth on more FaceTime calls.

And I went back to watching the news with my husband. We stayed glued to the screen all evening until finally, Congress officially affirmed Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

In the closing prayer, Senate Chaplain Barry Black condemned the acts of violence and the “desecration” of the Capitol building.

“These tragedies,” he said, “have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”

He asked God to “Use us to bring healing and unity to our hurting and divided nation and world.”

Finally, he prayed, “Bless and keep us. Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to do your will and guide our feet on the path of peace. And God bless America. We pray in your sovereign name, amen.”

I said amen, too. I can almost hear some of you saying it now.

Late that night, as I lay in bed thinking, I remembered a hymn I learned as a child. It’s called “It Is Well with My Soul.” The first verse goes like this:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

I often sang that hymn when I was growing up. It has helped me through a lot of hard times. Years ago, I read the story behind it. The hymn was written in 1873, by Horatio Spafford, shortly after he lost four young daughters in a shipwreck at sea.

I can’t imagine the agony of losing a child, let alone, four children. But in Spafford’s grief, he found words that have helped countless souls find peace.

I won’t tell Randy what I saw on TV the day he called about his braces. His parents will do that when he’s ready to hear it.

But I might give him the music for “It Is Well with My Soul” and tell him a bit about why I like it. He might want to learn to play it on his guitar. Who knows? Maybe we will sing it together.

“Unexpected Gifts,” Jan. 5, 2021

Unexpected gifts are always a nice surprise. But sometimes, they’re also what we need.

On New Year’s Eve, my daughter and her 9-year-old, Henry, brought us dinner: her fabulous enchiladas and Henry’s famous avocado dip, with homemade flan for dessert.

Two days later, my daughter-in-law brought Randy, 10, Wiley, 7, and Eleanor, 5, over for a “driveway visit.” They all wore masks like a band of really cute bandits.

And today, a package arrived. I recognized the return address right away. My oldest and his wife and their Jonah, who is almost 2, had already spoiled my husband and me with Christmas gifts. We didn’t expect anything more.

When I opened the package, I began to cry. It held a statue of a woman seated on a stool. Her long hair was pinned up on her head with tendrils falling on her neck. In her arms and in her lap, she held a child, a boy about 2-years-old. His head was tucked beneath her chin. His arms and legs were wrapped around her.

I studied it closely, turning it over in my hands, smiling through my tears. It looked like me, or rather, like how I looked long ago, holding my first child when I was that young and thin.

Then I read the note that was enclosed: “Dear Nana, I hope this reminds you of how you once held my daddy. And then, how you held me and, soon enough, my little sister. But also how you will ALWAYS hold all of our hearts (my Mama’s too!) We love you ALL! Jonah xx”

The “Love you ALL” is a thing I’ve taught my grandchildren. When I ask, “How much do I love you?” they’ll lift their arms and shout, “All!” Because “all” is as much as anyone can love.

Jonah learned to say it (with a British accent like his mom’s) when he was barely a year old. I’m hoping he’ll help me teach it to his baby sister when she makes her debut this spring.

Some of us grow up with great expectations of extraordinary achievements in our lives. Me? I just wanted to be a mother. Actually, I wanted to be a grandmother, but I figured being a mother came first.

My mother quit school to marry at the age of 15, then worked hard most of her life as a waitress and a millhand. My grandmothers raised large families, but never worked outside their homes. They took care of me when I needed them, which was most of the time.

My dad’s mother taught me to love nature and how to read and write before I started school. My mother’s mother taught me how to tell a good story and make everybody’s business my own.

Those two women could not have been more loving or more different. I’m blessed, or cursed, with both of their natures. At times, it’s a bit confusing. I’m never sure which woman is whispering in my memory. Sometimes it seems they’re both shouting to be heard. But their guidance helped me raise my three children, and it is helping me now to be a “Nana.”

I know so many young women, like my daughter and daughters-in-law, who work so hard to do their best for their children.

A great many older women raise grandchildren full time, or serve as backups to help overworked parents care for their little ones. Not just to feed and clothe them, but to comfort and teach them, to keep them safe and give them hope that the world is a magical place where their dreams can all come true.

Those are gifts we can give our children and grandchildren and other young lives that we are blessed to hold in our arms and our hearts and our prayers. We give them ourselves and they, in turn, give us purpose and joy and a whole lot of hugs. And sometimes they surprise us with unexpected gifts that make us smile through tears.

How much do we love them?

All.

“Family Feuds,” Dec. 29, 2020

(NOTE: I’m taking off Dec. 29 for the New Year’s holiday. The following column is from 2009. Happy New Year! _ Sharon)

People say things happen for a reason. But sometimes it’s hard to say what the reason is.

I had a big fight with my sister. She called late one night driving home after she’d had a big fight with our brother.

Joe is blind and barely walks. He has other problems, too, none the least of which is his stubbornness and the fact that he had to leave his apartment and spend the winter smoking his pipe on our sister’s porch with a stocking cap pulled down over his nose.

I wish you could’ve seen him.

After five months of sharing a bathroom, they were both glad when he could move back to his own place. The nasty weather didn’t stop them _ freezing rain, black ice on the roads _ and my sister was fit to be tied.

Before I tell you what she said, let me just say this. The woman is crazy about Walmart. She loves Walmart a lot more than she loves me. Once, when I went to visit her for a week, she stopped by Walmart to “get a few things” and left me sitting in the parking lot for two hours.

I am not making that up. Ask Joe. He was there, too, standing by the car smoking his pipe with his stocking cap over his nose. People passing by kept a wide berth around us.

Anyhow. After settling Joe in his apartment, she went to Walmart, she said, to “get a few things” Joe needed. Two hours later, she was about to check out when the store made an announcement: They were closing due to an emergency generator shutting down.

No, they said, she could not pay for the items in her cart. And yes, they were sorry about her blind brother, but she could not take the items for free. She had to leave Walmart, hopping mad, find a grocery store and start all over. 

To top it all, she said, after she finally lugged the stuff into Joe’s kitchen, he had the nerve to ask, “What? You only got one half gallon of milk?”

“The little cuss doesn’t even drink milk!” she said. “I love him to death, I’d give him an eye, but I could strangle him!”

“I wouldn’t,” I said.

“You wouldn’t strangle him?” 

“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t give him an eye. The doctors said it wouldn’t help, remember?”

 She got quiet, possibly trying to swerve back onto the road. 

“If I give him an eye,” she said, “you have to give him something. Maybe a kidney?”

“He doesn’t need a kidney.” I said.

“Well, he doesn’t need an eye, either, or I wouldn’t offer mine! It’s the principle of the thing!” 

“OK,” I said, “I’ll give him a kidney. At least kidneys don’t show.”

“You could get a glass eye,” she said.

“I don’t want a glass eye.”

“Fine!” she said, “Give him a kidney!”

“Fine!” I said, “I will!”

We got quiet. I thought of my brother in his dark apartment and my sister driving home dodging black ice. I could hear her windshield wipers slapping out a tune, an old hit by Aretha Franklin (“You better think,” slap, slap, “Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me!”)

“Sissy?” I said. “Did you run off the road yet?” 

“No,” she said. “I’m here.”

So I cleared my throat and found the voice that I use when I want to be sure I am heard.   I told her she’s been a saint looking out for our brother, always being there if he needs her, and how much it would mean to our mother.

“When you get to heaven,” I said, “God will run out of stars trying to fill up your crown.”

She didn’t seem to know what to say to that. So I said, “Things happen for a reason. Do you know why that generator shut down on you at Walmart?”

“No,” she said, “why?”

“Because of the time you left Joe and me in that parking lot for two hours.”

“Christmas Snickers,” Dec. 22, 2020

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week for the holiday. This column is from 2016.)
<
What’s your favorite Christmas treat—one taste that says to you, “Merry Christmas!” Gingerbread? Eggnog? Sugar cookies? I bet it’s not fruitcake.

Treats in my childhood were simple. My mother made peach cobbler and her mother made banana pudding. But my dad’s mother—a farm wife, who cooked three meals on a wood stove most every day of her life—made my favorite dessert: Homemade biscuits left from breakfast, slathered with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, drizzled with cream and heated to bubbling. Oh my.

Sorry. I tend to go on a bit when I’m talking about food. All those tastes speak of love to me, but they don’t say “Christmas.” For that, I need a tangerine.

The year my stepfather was out of work for six months with a broken ankle, he limped home Christmas Eve with a box of tangerines, slid it under the tree and said, “Merry Christmas.”

That was our only gift that Christmas, except for a box of food and a canned ham from some good people at church.

Even now after all these years, one taste of a tangerine brings to mind my mother’s words as she fried up the ham (which my stepfather called—and refused to eat—charity.)

“Life,” she told me, “is a bank. Sometimes you put into it. Other times you take out. But you need to remember how hard it is to take, because one day, you will do the giving.”

Why do I prefer tangerines to ham? The ham was a gift from good people who meant well. Their kindness was a blessing.

But the tangerines were a gift from a man who would’ve given us the world, if he could, but had nothing else to offer.

Which gift would you prefer? I thought so. Me, too.

My husband loves snickerdoodles. He also loves the chocolate crinkles his mother, rest her soul, used to make for him for Christmas.

I’ve tried both recipes with mixed success. But I’m better at snickers than at crinkles. As it turns out, my husband prefers snickers. Or so he says. So do I.

Every Christmas, I used to bake a batch of snickerdoodles just for him. I ate them, too, but mostly, they were for him.

A few years ago, when I was recovering from a broken ankle, he decided to make the snickerdoodles himself.

He’s a great cook. We usually share cooking, except when I do something like break an ankle. I often prefer his cooking to mine, especially if I don’t have to clean up the mess. For all his culinary expertise, his baking experience has been somewhat limited to microwaving a pizza. But he was not about to let that stop him from making snickerdoodles.

“Where do I start?” he asked, rolling up his sleeves.

“You’ll need a mixer,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow.

I pointed to the cupboard. “It’s got beaters and a power cord.”

He held up a stick of butter to ask, “How much is half a cup?”

“Half a cup,” I said.

“The labels are worn off these measuring spoons. How do you know which one’s a teaspoon?”

“I’m smart,” I said. “I just guess. Try the middle one.”

Then I watched, laughing through a cloud of flour dust, as a man who would give me the world, if he could, baked up a fine batch of snickerdoodles. I wish you could’ve tasted them.

The kitchen, of course, was a disaster. No matter. Cookies are like companions. Even the best ones can be a bit messy.

He did such a fine job I put him permanently in charge of baking snickerdoodles as Christmas gifts for our grandkids and their parents.
Maybe next year I’ll make chocolate crinkles. Or not.

From our kitchen to yours, here’s wishing you your favorite taste of Christmas, shared with your favorite someone, who will always clean up the mess.