“Keeping in Touch,” Aug. 24, 2021

You might think a garage is only meant to hold a car. But a garage is like a heart. No matter how much you store in it, there’s always room for more.

I once knew some friends with four little children, who bought a house that was so small they couldn’t put on a coat until they went outside. But it was all they could afford. So they turned the garage into a family room. This meant they had to park their cars on the street, or on the next block, if need be. It wasn’t always convenient for them or their neighbors, many of whom had also turned their garages into family rooms and had to park on the street, too. But to them, it was a matter of survival—not ideal, but the best that they could do at the time.

Two years ago, my husband and I sold a four-bedroom home in town and moved to a valley to a house half as big, surrounded by mountains. We love it. It’s like being permanent campers in a remote national park.

But when the pandemic began and we stayed home most of the time, the walls began closing in a bit, and we felt the need for a little more space. So we built a carport and turned the garage into a place where my husband can store his instruments and play music to his heart’s content. Talk about happy.

I wish you could hear him.

Maybe you can. I still hear him through the wall, practicing a song over and over. No matter how much you love somebody and his music, it can help at times to be a wall apart.

He stays connected to his music. And I stay connected to writing or phoning or playing FreeCell or whatever. A garage keeps cars cleaner. And rats might be less likely to chew wires in the engines. But we needed a place for music more than a place for cars. That is survival: Doing what works best for now. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come. Now is all we have.

What makes you feel most alive?

For me, it’s being in touch—with myself, with my God, with Nature and people I love.

I also find it helpful—OK, I’ll just say this—to bake cookies. (Here’s my favorite: Mix a cup of peanutbutter with a cup of sugar and an egg, spoon out on a baking pan, sprinkle with salt, bake at 350 for 10 minutes or so, then cool until firm so they don’t burn your mouth. Try not to eat them all at once. You can thank or curse me later.)

I need time to be alone, to hear myself think and to pray. As a child I worried that I didn’t pray enough. But my granddad, a preacher, told me prayer isn’t just asking God for things. It happens every time we smile and say “Ahh!” at something God created. I do that a lot. I’ll bet you do, too.

But I also need time to feel connected. I try to keep in touch with family and friends. I hear from readers who say my stories are their stories, too. I talk and laugh with my husband and we marvel a lot together at birds and sunsets and grandkids.

Lately I’ve been hearing lots of stories from people who, like me, long to stay connected and are finding ways to do so: Bookclubs that met for years in person, and continue to meet (and sometimes invite me to join them) online with Zoom. Children who stayed home, but went to school with distance learning and kept in touch with friends through FaceTime. Or a widow who meets every Friday with neighbors to sit in chairs 6-feet apart around their cul-de-sac talking for hours.

We survive by doing what’s best for us and those we love. By taking time to be together, and time to be alone. By knowing when to talk, when to listen, when to apologize and when to pray. By keeping connected to ourselves and to each other. By sharing stories, playing music, baking cookies and feeling alive.

What works best for you and your loved ones? How will you survive and feel most alive this day? I hope you keep in touch.

“Love that Red!” Aug. 17, 2021

There was a time in my life when I wore makeup every day. Yes, it was before the pandemic. But it began the day I turned 13. My mother didn’t let me wear makeup at that age. I complied with her wishes when possible, but like most children, I was hell-bent on doing as I pleased.

So for my thirteenth birthday, I asked my sister—who was six years older, married with a baby and a firm belief in makeup—for a tube of clear lip gloss. That is what she gave me with this advice: “Use it sparingly, Sissy. A little goes a long way.”

Thus began my devotion to makeup. Every morning, I’d apply that gloss, just so, to my lips. And that little bit of shine would miraculously transform me from plain and ordinary to almost—I’ll just say it—pretty.

That is how it made me feel. Even if I couldn’t see it in the mirror, I felt it deep inside.

Everyone—male, female, young, old, rich, poor, or ugly as sin—we should all feel pretty. That’s how God created us. God doesn’t do ugly. Even warthogs light up at each other’s looks.

In a world obsessed with beauty, it’s hard to feel pretty, inside or out, especially if we’ve been shamed by mistakes, or belittled by hurtful words.

My mother was a beautiful woman. Yet she had suffered in ways no one should ever suffer: A series of failed relationships. A child born blind and out of wedlock. And a never-ending longing to feel loved. One look in her eyes and you could feel her pain. I felt it every day.

But sometimes, before church or going to work to wait tables, she would stare into a mirror, while I watched in awe, as she covered her lips—blotting one layer, then adding another—with Revlon’s “Love that Red.”

I wish you could’ve seen her.

Marilyn Monroe had nothing on my mother. Both women bore their share of heartaches. But a little red lipstick helped.

When my mother’s battle with lung cancer neared its end, I flew home to spend a few days by her side in the hospital. She was heavily medicated, in a great deal of pain. As the meds wore off, her face would contort in agony. I’d ring a bell for a nurse to bring relief. And as the pain subsided, the lines in her face would slowly fade away.

To me, she never looked more beautiful. Where she was going, she wouldn’t need pain meds or lipstick. But I kept a promise to be sure at her funeral her lips gleamed with “Love that Red.”

The day she was buried, I drove 30 miles to pick up my brother Joe and his wife, Tommie Jean, to take them to her service. Both were blind. They’d met as students at the blind school and swore they fell in love at first sight.

We were running late. Joe refused to wear a tie, until I told him Mama would want it. Finally, they seemed ready. Then Tommie Jean said to me, “Sister, will you do my makeup? I want to look pretty today.”

We’d be late for the service, but Mama would understand. I did Tommie Jean’s makeup, with an extra coat of “Love that Red.” She was not what many would call “pretty.” But she had never seen her face. And as Joe led their way into the church with his cane, Tommie Jean proudly lifted her chin, as if she felt pretty inside and out.

I remembered that day a few years later, when Tommie Jean lost her own battle with cancer. I stood by my brother’s side, holding his trembling hand, as we laid his beloved, beautiful woman to her final rest.

Tell me this: If we never saw our faces, but felt truly loved by family, friends and the God who created us, how pretty would we be? My mother said, “Pretty is as pretty does.” But doing comes from knowing we are loved.

Real beauty isn’t skindeep. It shines from the heart.

But it might help to add a little “Love that Red.”

“Doing the Best We Can,” August 10, 2021

It was a mistake. Not my first. Or my last. I knew I’d regret it, but did it anyway. Funny, isn’t it? The things we do for love.

Last year, when the pandemic shut down life as we knew it, we had no idea how long it would last, or what it might require of us. In some ways, we still don’t. The journey has been infinitely more painful for some than for others. The loss of lives, jobs, homes and hope is a tragedy unlike any in our lifetime.

The only real difficulty for me—and it’s nothing compared to what so many have faced—is how much I’ve missed spending time with people: Family and friends, but also with strangers I’d meet on a plane or waiting in a line, strike up a conversation and hear their life stories.

Few things in life make us feel more human than sharing our stories with each another. I’ve missed that a lot. Lately, as restrictions slowly eased, I’ve loved reconnecting—meeting a friend for lunch, having my grandkids sleep over, or saying to a lab tech who’s drawing my blood for a check-up, “So, tell me, where did you grow up?”

It’s a magic question. Try it. You could hear a great story, not so different from your own.

I’ve been asking that question and others like it all my life. The pandemic hasn’t stopped me. It just made it harder, and gave me a new appreciation for it. Sometimes, we don’t miss what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Take, for example, hair.

In our 20 years together, my husband never asked me to cut his hair. Yes, he is a very smart man. But intelligence often defers to desperation.

Several months into the pandemic, with barbershops closed, his hair began to make him look—OK, I’ll just say this—like Larry of the Three Stooges.

So he ordered an electric hair clipper, handed it to me and for some reason, I accepted it.

Yes, that is the mistake I referred to at the start.

“It’s not hard,” he said, “the clipper will do all the work.”

Suddenly I remembered my grandmother’s words the day I phoned her to say I was marrying a Californian:
“Honey,” she said, “don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Yankees don’t make good husbands. I’m just saying they’re peculiar.”

Then she added, “Marriage is hard. Just remember: Don’t start doing anything you don’t want to keep doing forever.”

Why did I agree to cut my husband’s hair? I’m not sure. Was it the look of desperation that I saw in his eyes? Or what I saw growing on his head?

We went out to the patio, turned on the clippers and as we say in the South, the fur began to fly. Come spring, birds near and far would line their nests with tufts of his hair.

I didn’t do a great job. I just did the best I could. And really, what more can we do?

After I finished, he locked himself in the bathroom. I heard the clipper and thought, hmm. But when he came out he said thanks, and never complained.

I hoped that would be the end of my haircutting career. But I’ve hoped that about a lot of things in the pandemic. The end of Covid. The end of masks. The end of feeling like a prisoner under house arrest. But things don’t end until they end.

Yesterday, after his hair had grown an inch, my husband asked me to cut it. Again.

“Barbershops are open!” I said. “I’ll pay anything it costs!”

“I want you to cut it,” he said.

So I did. It wasn’t a great job. I blamed it on the clipper. But my husband didn’t complain.

We do things for someone, not because we’re good at it, but because we see a look in their eyes, or on their heads, or maybe even in the mirror, and it makes us want to help.

Little acts of kindness mean a lot. Listening to a story. Smiling through a mask. Or even giving a bad haircut. We don’t need to be the best at what we do. We just need to do the best we can.

“Keeping in Touch,” Aug. 3, 2021

Five years ago, my younger brother left this world for the next. I will never forget him. I couldn’t if I tried. If you’d met him, you’d remember him, too.

His name was Denton, but we called him “Bubba.” He was well known and much respected as a builder of fine homes. But he was loved best as a husband, a father, a brother and a friend.

This week, the anniversary of his passing brought me a gift that filled me with joy.

I met Jessica when she was 2, going on 21. We’d have met sooner, but I lived in California, far from the small Southern town where she and I were born. I missed my family, but didn’t get to visit them often. My husband and I shared three growing children. Life was full and travel was costly. But I kept hearing from my brother about his beautiful, brilliant daughter. I wanted to meet her and see my Southern family again. So we flew “home” to the Carolinas. And when the hugs and tears subsided, my brother presented his daughter like a trophy.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

She looked up at me and said, in a 2-year-old Southern drawl, “You wanna see me on TV?”

Every moment of her life, from birth until we met, had been captured in videos by her dad. We watched them all. She fell asleep before they ended. I stayed awake, thanks to Bubba’s running commentary. (“You gotta see this one! A seagull poops on her head!”)

He was right about Jessica. She was beautiful and brilliant. And she still is. I saw her this week for the first time in too many years, along with her husband and children, a boy, 9, and a girl, 7, who were both adored by their grandpa.

I had to miss my brother’s memorial service five years ago because I injured my foot and couldn’t walk. Jessica and I have kept in touch through emails and Facebook, but we were long overdue for an in-person talk. So when she wrote to say she and her family were vacationing this week in California (not close enough to see us in Carmel Valley) we arranged to meet in San Francisco, for brunch.

Our husbands sat at one end of the table. The kids sat between us, eating pancakes and behaving well, if occasionally kicking each other under the table. Jessica and I sat at the other end and talked for almost two hours. We caught up on family news and shared what our lives were like during the pandemic. And we talked a lot about her dad and all the funny, wonderful things he did.

We could’ve swapped stories about him until the cows came home. How he liked to pick wildflowers for her and her mom, wrap the stems in electrical tape, and leave them in their cars to surprise them.

How, as a grown man, he hid in a bush, growled like a bear and scared our sister to tears.

How he comforted me and my children after their dad died, and even made us laugh.

But there is never enough time to tell all the stories about someone you’ve loved and lost. So we all hugged each other, said a long goodbye and agreed that the next time they come to California, they’ll come see us.

When I was a child, Sunday dinner was a weekly family ritual, a chance to talk face-to-face and eat fried chicken. These days, for many of us, it’s too expensive or too hard to get together in person. And some people won’t eat fried chicken. So we try to keep in touch long distance with phone calls, messages, videos and prayers.

I am certain my brother was with us at that table, laughing at the kids, listening to the stories, especially the stories we told about him. We couldn’t see him. (If he’d been there in person, he’d have picked up the check.) But we sensed his presence and felt his unfailing love.

People leave, but love remains. We can’t see them face to face. But we tell stories that connect us long distance in memory. And we keep forever close heart to heart.

“Saying Yes,” July 27, 2021

Two of the simplest words we know are often the hardest to say: “Yes” opens a door. “No” will close it. Yes or no, it’s up to us. But open or closed, doors can hold the power to change lives, for better or for worse.

Let’s call her Kelly. My late husband was a high school teacher and basketball coach. He phoned me from school one day to say a school counselor had told him about a 15-year-old student, who was living on the street working as a prostitute.

“Her folks kicked her out,” my husband said. “She wants to make some changes. But if she stays on the street, she’ll keep doing what she’s doing. I’m thinking maybe she could stay with us for a while? It’s up to you. What do you say?”

I looked over at my 10-month-old, grinning at me from his high chair while patting fistfuls of oatmeal onto his head.

“She’s a prostitute?” I said.

“She’s just a kid,” he said, “one who needs a little help.”

There’d been times in my life when I needed help. Nothing nearly as hard as what Kelly was facing. But help had been there for me when I needed it. I knew the difference it could make. So I said the magic word: “Yes.”

And that is how Kelly came into our lives. She was smart, funny and remarkably clever at appearing to follow rules, while doing exactly what she wanted.

Our rules were pretty simple. She had to be home in time for dinner, do her homework, get to sleep at a decent hour and get to school every day on time. If she planned to miss dinner, she needed to call to explain why.

My husband and I met her mother and father. They were late-in-life parents who loved their daughter, but found her behavior unbearable. We hoped to work together for her best.

Soon after she moved in with us, they began inviting her home for dinner. Kelly would call after school to see what each of us was cooking. Then she’d pick what sounded better, her mother’s cooking or mine.
Her mother usually won. After dinner, her dad would drop her at our place. She seemed close to moving back in with them.

One evening, while Kelly had dinner with her folks, and my husband was at basketball practice, I picked my baby up off the floor, pulled a tuft of dog hair out of his mouth, and answered a knock at the door.

And there stood someone I’d not met, but knew well from my talks with Kelly: A nice-looking, well-dressed, soft-spoken man, who had taken her in and turned her out as a prostitute.

“Hello, ma’am,” he said, smiling. “May I speak to Kelly?”

“She isn’t here,” I said, holding my baby a little tighter.

He nodded. “That’s a mighty cute boy you got there. Mind if I have a word with you?”

I grew up in the South, where if a stranger comes to your door, you invite him in for iced tea. I offered him a seat on the sofa but somehow forgot the tea.

He didn’t stay long. He just said he wanted us to know he cared about Kelly and that he was grateful to us for our help. Then he shook my hand, patted my baby’s head, and left.

A week later, Kelly went back to live with her parents. They were planning to move away and she wanted to go with them. I never heard from her again. Years later I saw her name in a list of college graduates. Was it the same Kelly? I hope so.

I don’t know what our time together meant to her. It was far from perfect. I wish I’d been kinder, wiser, more loving—or at least a better cook. But Kelly didn’t need me to be perfect. She just needed me to say “yes.”

When we open our heart to someone in need, God uses our imperfections in perfect ways.

I think of Kelly sometimes and pray for her best. I like to think she’s doing the same for me.

She needed a safe place to stay a while. And I needed to know what she taught me: We don’t have to be perfect to say “yes.”

“The Love of Books and Reading,” July 20, 2021

Long before they learn to read, children need to be taught to love reading and books. They need to hold them in their chubby hands. Turn the pages one by one. Point to each word as it’s read aloud. Marvel at every illustration. And maybe chew a bit on the cover.

What else are books for, if not to be “devoured” by readers of every age, young and old alike?

My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother worked long hours as a waitress, leaving her little money or time to spend on “luxuries” like books.

Lucky for me, I was doted on by two of the best grandmothers who ever dipped snuff.

Make no mistake. Doting is different from spoiling. Spoiling spoils. Doting heals. My grandmothers taught me all sorts of things, but mostly they showed me how to be a good, doting grandmother, the kind I hope that I’ve become.

My mother’s mother taught me how to tell a story that makes people want to sit up and listen; feed a houseful of family without going broke; and cheat at cards without getting caught.

My dad’s mother taught me how to love mountains and songbirds and autumn leaves and a big hunk of buttered cornbread; how to wade across a swollen creek without falling in; how to love books and reading and best of all, how to read on my own, before I started school.

I wish you could’ve seen my teacher’s eyes the first day of first grade (we didn’t have kindergarten back then) when she realized I could read almost as well as she could teach.

Children need to feel good at something. I came from people who worked hard, but had little. I wore secondhand shoes, often had no money to buy lunch, and never felt pretty. But thanks to my grandmother, I could read like a house on fire.

In third grade, my teacher asked me to represent our class in the school’s reading contest. She gave me a book to practice for the competition. It was “Blueberries for Sal,” by Robert McCloskey, a story about a little girl who goes berry picking with her mama and meets a mama bear and her cub.

I learned it by heart. The night of the contest, I took a deep breath and looked out on a great assembly of parents, teachers and total strangers. Then I read, “One day, Little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill….”

I won that contest. But more important, I discovered how it felt to reach out with words and hold a roomful of people in the palm of my hand.

My grandson, Wiley, is 7 years old. He takes turns with his siblings and cousins sleeping over at our house. Every time it’s his turn, he always asks me to read “Blueberries for Sal.” Hearing him laugh his sweet laugh in all the right places is even better than reading to a whole roomful of people.

I wish you could hear him.

The last time he was here, he asked to take “Blueberries for Sal” home with him. He has tons of books at his house. I wanted this one to be special. So I said, “I think I’d like to keep it here for us to read together.”

He seemed to understand. But after he left, I thought about it some more. Since the pandemic, my husband has read most every day over the phone to his granddaughter, who lives too far away to visit often. Reading has created a bond between them that they’ll never forget—not what they read, but the time they’ve spent reading together.

“Blueberries for Sal” will always be special to Wiley and me for the memories it holds for us, no matter whose bookshelf it sits on. So I bought a copy for Wiley’s house, and will keep one here for when he visits.

Children need books to treasure, to read on their own and with someone they love, as a way to understand themselves, each other and the world.

Few gifts mean more to a child than a good book and a doting grandparent who’ll gladly take the time to read it together.

“Taking a Dream Vacation,” July 13, 2021

Summer is a good time to travel. As a child, I spent most summers roaming the Earth through the dog-eared pages of an encyclopedia. That’s how I first discovered faraway places like Casablanca and California.

Reading introduced me to the world. But I traveled on flights of imagination. I would close my eyes and recreate in my mind a photo of a place or work of art that had caught my eye. Then my mind would take wing and carry me away to imagine how it would feel to visit that place and see that image in reality.

I was especially fascinated by a photo of a statue that, according to the encyclopedia, had been carved hundreds of years ago by a man named Michelangelo. In my expert opinion (I was 10), it was a perfect rendering of the David I knew from the Bible.

I wish you could see it. If you haven’t seen The David, look it up. You can thank me later.

Not only was it a breathtaking piece of art. It was also the first image I’d ever encountered of a totally nude male. I wondered: Did my mother know what was in that encyclopedia? And would I get in trouble for staring at it?

The only real travel I did as a child was to spend a few weeks on my grandparents’ farm in the mountains of North Carolina, or a weekend at Myrtle Beach. But after college, I flew from the Carolinas to California—a place I had often visited in my dreams—to spend a summer with my favorite aunt, Shirl.

That was it. I stayed, married, started a family and, in time, began a career. And “California of All Places” (as my mother called it) became my home.

My husband was a teacher and a basketball coach. Our travels were limited to away-games and summer camping trips. Our children grew up riding buses with basketball players and spending a week every summer splashing their mother in a river in Yosemite. They say it was a good way to grow up.

We seldom traveled far. But you can learn a lot about the world without ever leaving home, just by reading, watching, listening, asking questions, paying attention and dreaming.

My children were in their early 20s when we lost their dad to cancer. In the wake of his loss, we stayed close as a family. But we each began to find our own ways around the world.

My oldest, an actor, went to Romania to film a movie. My daughter went to Denmark to visit a friend. My youngest spent a month in Nepal, hiking the foothills of the Himalayas.

I did some “real” traveling, too. First, I went to Holland to be “best man” at the wedding of one of my husband’s former basketball players, who had lived with us for a year. Then I went to London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Casablanca and, yes, to Florence to see The David.

I also visited lots of places that didn’t require a passport, towns that had carried my column for years, where I met readers who made me feel like family.

The last chance I had to do that was more than a year ago, days before the pandemic lock down, when I flew to Wichita Falls, Texas, to speak to hundreds of good people at a fundraiser for a local charity. It felt (as I often say) like a family reunion, without the fistfights.

I hope to travel for “real” again soon. But it will never take the place of simply traveling in my dreams, recalling people I’ve met and places I’ve been, and imagining the people I’ve yet to meet and places I’ve yet to go.

If you can’t afford to travel—or don’t care to spend days wandering through airports, wishing you’d worn more sensible shoes—here’s another way to see the world.

When you meet someone new, or spend time with an old friend, smile into their eyes and ask: “Where did you grow up? What was it like? What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been? If you could go anywhere on Earth, where would you go? And why?”

I hope we all get to travel this summer. If only in our dreams.

“Lessons from a Plant,” July 6, 2021

You can learn things from watching a plant. And watching is more fun than weeding.

I might’ve been a gardener, if my mother had not forced me as a child to pick beans and okra and other stuff I never wanted to touch, let alone, eat.

Her garden was a haven, not only for beans and okra, but for beetles and worms and spiders and wasps, all sorts of creepy, crawly, nasty-looking vermin that loved to bite or sting or burrow into my skin.

I never timed it, but I’d swear an hour of gardening meant 10 minutes picking, 20 minutes wiping sweat and 30 minutes slapping bugs and mouthing words I’d never say out loud. More than once I saw a snake. My stepfather would laugh at me and say, “It’s just a garter snake, it won’t kill you!”

To me, snakes were no laughing matter. I kept a list in my Bible (where I thought God might be more likely to see it) of things that gave me pause.

Next to “garter snake” I wrote, “Nonpoisonous, but if it scares you to death, you’re still dead.”

Next to “garden,” I noted, “Stay out! Act sick! If need be, gag yourself and throw up!”

And next to my stepfather’s name, I wrote, “Buy a toy snake at the Five & Dime and hide it in the juniper bush where he hides his jar of moonshine.”

I would never do most of the things on that list. But I liked thinking about doing them.

Despite my distaste for gardening, I’ve gained a great respect for plants: For their infinite array of vegetables and fruits I’ve come to enjoy. For their fragrance and flowers that can brighten the saddest of places, even a headstone in a cemetery or a profoundly broken heart. And especially for how they make me smile. But I’m glad to leave gardening to my husband.

Recently I bought a hanging plant covered in dazzling purple flowers. I don’t know its name. I call it “Shirley” for my favorite aunt. “Shirl” for short.
To hang it, my husband would have had to drag a ladder to the patio and risk his life to climb up to reach a hook on the eave, while I held the ladder praying he didn’t fall and kill us both.

We tried easier spots. But Shirl really wanted to hang there. So I held the ladder as my husband climbed up, adjusted the chain and settled her on the hook.

I wish you could see her.

She looks like a ballerina in a frilly purple tutu, whirling and spinning, dancing on the wind. I like watching her through the window as I work on a column. But I find her a bit distracting.

A while ago, from the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like an army of black widow spiders crawling up the steps from the patio to our bedroom.

Talk about giving me pause. But to my relief, I soon realized it wasn’t spiders. It was only the shadows of Shirl’s flowers. Have you ever noticed how our darkest fears often turn out to be nothing but shadows?

Here are some other things I’ve learned watching plants:

_ Life can be a hard row to hoe. It helps to have help. Especially if he likes to garden.

_ Some people are like artichokes, prickly and tough. But with proper treatment, even an artichoke can be a treat.

_ If you have to hold a ladder, hold it tight and pray the person you are holding it for won’t fall and kill you both.

_ Children need love and encouragement and discipline the way plants need water and sunlight and weeding. Some need more, others less. Good parents (and grandparents) are like the best gardeners, always aiming for the perfect balance and delighting in the blooms.

_ Shadows may look like spiders but they’re only an absence of light. They’re harmless. Unless they distract you and keep you from working. Or cause you to trip and fall and break a leg.

Maybe we’ll move Shirl to a less distracting spot.

“Falling in Love with Life,” June 29, 2021

How many times have you fallen in love? When was your first? What was your last? Do you recall how it felt to walk on air, trying to hide a goofy smile on your face, thinking nobody knew, but everybody did?
Some of us are slow to fall in love. I can do it in a heartbeat. I’ve had a lot of practice.

My first true love was my dad. I thought the sun rose and set in his eyes. He’s been gone for years, and I still think that.

I was 4 when I fell in love with my baby brother. He grabbed my thumb in his tiny fist and held on tight. And I decided, if need be, I would kill to protect him. He let go of my thumb, but never lost his grip on my heart.

In first grade, I fell for a boy named Clint. Our class elected us to run for King and Queen of the Halloween Carnival and I started planning our wedding. He showed up at the carnival in a monkey costume. When we walked out on stage, he twirled his tail like a lasso. The crowd roared with laughter. And I did not love him any more.

I can name every Mr. Right who ever won my heart. Some weren’t so right. A few were, well, wrong. I married only two.

My first marriage lasted 30 years and gave me three children who became my best friends and teachers in life. I fell in love with them every day, even when they acted like toads.

When the kids grew up, we lost their dad to cancer. And I found myself alone in a four bedroom house with five sets of dishes and nobody to feed.

It was the first time in my life I had ever been truly alone and it taught me several lessons:

1. Cooking for one is no fun. That’s why God created restaurants.

2. If you need someone to talk to, be a good listener. In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks’ best friend was a volley ball.

3. There are worse things than being alone. You’re in good company if you like yourself.

4.. No two losses are the same, but every loss brings gifts. The best gift for me was this simple truth: People leave, but love remains; you don’t need to be in the same room with someone to know you still love each other.

In time, I learned to like being alone. My kids and I were always close, and losing their dad brought us closer. I had family, friends, a job I loved and a faith that kept me whole. I never planned to remarry.

Then, like the song says, I fooled around and fell in love. So I married my former editor. We share five children, their others, and nine grandchildren.

Speaking of grandchildren (as I often do) I fell in love with them at first sight. You would, too, if you saw them.

Why do babies tend to make us fall in love with them? Maybe we’re meant to fall in love with everyone, starting with babies and working up to old people, all ages, all races, all religions.

Every morning I fall in love with a cup of coffee, the man who pours it, and the life we are blessed to share together.

Day and night, I fall in love with family and friends trading messages, phone calls and visits.

I fall for people I’ve never met, for readers who write to tell me about their lives, for people who do or don’t agree with me, and for every soul I read about in the news struggling to survive.

I fall in love with the world—with its sunsets and dahlias and hummingbirds and a good peach cobbler. I don’t much care for gophers, snakes or tarantula hawk wasps. But I try.

I fall in love as often as I can, knowing it might be my last chance. When my time here is up, I hope God will smile at how I’ve loved his Creation and let me keep watching it from afar.

It would be such a gift to get to see what my children and grandchildren will do with their lives, how they and their peers will right every wrong, solve every problem, that my generation left behind.

I want forever to fall in love. How will you fall in love today?

“Fears, Past and Future,” June 22, 2021

On June 15th, I stood on our patio in Carmel Valley, Calif., looking east where once again, the sun had somehow managed to climb over the mountains. Then I said a prayer of thanks and felt a great sense of relief.

It was official. California was lifting most of the coronavirus restrictions that for more than a year had painfully impacted schools and businesses and life as we knew it. Hallelujah!

Three days later, when my phone lit up for an emergency alert, my husband and I looked east and saw what we had hoped never to see again: Smoke.

A wildfire had erupted near Big Sur, in a rugged, remote part of the Ventana Wilderness some 30 miles from our home. Air tankers and helicopters were dropping retardants and water, while hundreds of firefighters were risking their lives, cutting firebreaks.

We weren’t in any immediate danger. But this was not our first dance with wildfire.

Last August, three fires erupted in Monterey County, all within three days. They burned for weeks, threatening lives and homes and wildlife, and filling the air with toxic smoke. Two raged on either side of us and nearly merged before being stopped. A third grew to within a mile of our place, forcing us to evacuate, along with neighbors for miles around. Our home was spared, but dozens were lost.

We were not alone. The same nightmare kept replaying all summer with varying details in forests and towns throughout California, and in much of the West. We prayed for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors, stayed tuned to news and wore masks for months both for Covid and for smoke.

Hopes for a wet winter ended when the season’s rainfall was one of the driest on record. Still, we thought June would be too soon for a fire. We were wrong.

You know that feeling when life sends you spinning—here we go again? I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t think I could. But here’s one of the many things I keep trying to learn: We don’t need the tickets to take a hard ride until it’s time to get on board.

After seeing the smoke, my husband and I decided to repack the emergency bags we’d packed last summer and had used more than once. Mine was under the bed. I’d forgotten what was in it. Three changes of clothes. A pair of walking shoes. A week’s worth of meds and toiletries.

We washed the clothes, put them back in the bags, and updated a sack of important papers. Our laptop computers were backed up and most of our photos were on our phones. Slow as we are, we could grab it all and be out the door in five minutes. Give or take. We were ready. As ready as we could be.

That was yesterday. Today we drove into town to meet my son and his family at the beach where I often took him when he was a little boy. We stayed for an hour, talking and laughing and watching the grandkids play in the surf with their dad.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Then we went home to have lunch with my husband’s son, who drove from San Francisco to spend the afternoon with us. It was lovely, as always, to be with him. When he headed back north, we waved a long goodbye. Then once again, we looked east at the smoke on the horizon.

An hour later, as I sat down to write a column, my mind filled with fires, past and future.

Suddenly I recalled something that made me smile. Sifting through a drawer, I pulled out a quote I had copied on a scrap of paper. It’s by Mother Teresa:

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

We never need to dwell on our fears, past or future. One is gone. The other may never come. Today is a great day to be alive. And tomorrow? Lord willing, we’ll begin again.