“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?


“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.

“Christmas Dreams,” Dec. 15, 2020

The best gifts don’t wait for Christmas. They show up when we need them. On September 1, 2001, I published my first book and planned to leave soon on a multi-city book tour. Plans changed ten days later when thousands of Americans lost their lives in a terrorist attack.

But a few weeks later, I boarded a nearly empty flight to begin signing books around the country. It was a strange time to do a book tour. But I knew somehow it was right time.

Fast forward to October 15, 2020. In a worldwide pandemic, I published my second book, a novel. This time I knew there’d be no book tour. No hugs or handshakes or tears shared with readers. But again, I knew it was the right time. I’d spent years writing it. I was ready, at last, to let it go.

I’ve loved reading emails and book reviews from readers, and realizing how happy they are for me, finishing my longtime dream. But I’ve missed having a personal connection, getting to see the look in readers’ eyes and the smiles on their faces.

Imagine my surprise last week to be invited to speak at a book club that was reading my book. They had met in each other’s homes for more than 25 years, until the pandemic. Now they meet online with Zoom.

It was the easiest book talk I’ve ever done. For Zoom, you only need to get dressed from the waist up. I wore sweat pants and UGG boots, which I’d never do for a “real” meeting, lest my mother would spin in her grave.

The best part was getting to look (virtually) into everyone’s eyes, to hear in their voices and sense in their smiles the miracle that can happen when someone reads the words you’ve written and understands your heart.

Three days later, I joined a second Zoom meeting for a reunion of Youth Tour 2000, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I took part in 20 years ago.
On the first Sunday in 2000, I sat in Bethel Unspeakable Joy Fellowship in South Central Los Angeles, and heard Pastor Carol Houston talk about her dream to take children from her church on a cross-country bus tour.

I thought to myself, “That woman is crazy.” But dreamers need to be a bit crazy to dream of things like taking kids on a bus tour or writing a book.

Having done my share of chaperoning bus trips, I did not want to get on that bus. But when Pastor Carol invited me to join them, I knew it was the right thing to do. So I said “yes” to an experience that changed not only my life, but the lives of most of us on that bus.

That change was clear 10 years ago when we met for a reunion and shared memories of the trip and what it meant to us. And it was still clear last week when we met again, this time online.

At the end of the meeting, Pastor Carol urged everyone to hold on tight to our God-given dreams and to trust God to make them a reality.

I like Pastor Carol a lot. It was a gift to see her and her now grown flock again, and to realize her dream is still changing lives.

My third early Christmas gift came today, not on Zoom, but in the flesh. I’d been moping about, missing my family and friends and the pandemic-free life I once took for granted.

I thought the doorbell was a delivery. But it was my daughter and her 9-year-old Henry. They kept socially distant, didn’t come in the house, just wanted to surprise me with two early gifts: a potted narcissus (my daughter knows I love them) and a picture Henry drew (he knows I love his drawings) of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I wish you could see them.

The best gifts of all are dreams that come true. They can show up in any form, a smile or a kindness or an unexpected visit. But they are always what we need, just when we need it.

What’s your Christmas dream?

“The Gift of Christmas,” Dec. 8, 2020

What gift are you hoping to get this Christmas? And what gift are you hoping to give?

My husband and I share a big blended family that includes five adult children, their “others” and eight grandchildren, ages 10 years to 20 months. Like most families, we love to exchange gifts. For me, the hard part isn’t shopping. It’s finding out what all those people want.

The little people are easy. I don’t ask them what they want. It might be something their parents wouldn’t want them to have. Like the BB gun I asked my dad for when I was 10, but never got, because my mother swore I’d shoot my eye out.

Rather than ask the grandkids what they want for Christmas, I ask their parents, who know not only what the kids want, but what they, as parents, are willing to let them have.

The grown kids’ gifts are harder to pin down. Even if they know what they want, they never seem to want to tell me.

I’ll say, “You know we’re going to give you a Christmas gift. Do you want to get what you want, or try to exchange it later?”

Then they’ll say, “Mom, what do you want us to give you?”

And I’ll smile sweetly and say, “I don’t want or need anything. Just tell me what you want!”

This goes on for days until one of us says something like, “Fine, I want socks.” And the other says, “Fine, I want socks, too.”

Our family is big on socks.

Given a choice, I always prefer to give memories: A road trip together. A night out for the parents while Nana watches the kids. Tickets to a game or a concert they’ll never forget.

Great memories make great gifts. But they’re hard to come up with when you’re under house arrest in a quarantine lockdown for a pandemic.

My husband and I usually give each other a shared gift. This year it’s glider, to replace one we broke after years of sitting on it watching sunsets together.

By far the hardest gift for me to give is my brother’s. Not because he’s picky. Far from it. But because we live far apart and things I send him often get stolen off his porch.

Joe is blind and suffers from cerebral palsy. To walk, he needs braces and a walker. He lives alone in low-income housing, having lost his wife, the love of his life, to cancer.

“Sister,” he said, when I called him today, “you don’t need to get me anything. I’m fine.”

“I know you’re fine,” I said. “Fine and stubborn. But I’m getting you a Christmas gift so just tell me what you want.”

“OK, how ‘bout some food? Maybe some pickled eggs like you sent last year. Mmm, mmm! You know how I like to eat.”

“Yes,” I said, grinning, “I do.”

Our mother made pickled eggs for Christmas. I wouldn’t touch them. Joe couldn’t get his fill. Now, more than the taste they leave on his lips, he loves the memories they stir in his heart.

My next call was to a very kind woman in the office at Joe’s complex. Last year, after his gifts were stolen off his porch, she said if I’d send his packages in care of the office, she’d be happy to take them to him.

I wanted to make sure she was still there and willing to help. She was, and I thanked her.

So I ordered pickled eggs and a basket full of boxes of sausage and cheese and cookies and such. Joe will have fun figuring out what’s inside each box.

If I could give one gift to us all—to you and Joe and every soul in our weary world—it would be a Christmas like all the best ones we can remember, and all the best ones that are yet to come, free of fear and despair, full of peace and hope and joy.

Christmas is born like a baby in a manger, not in the past or future, but always here and now, when we hunger for its gift and make room for it in our hearts.

May the life-giving spirit of Christmas come soon to us all.

“A True Tree Story,” Dec. 1, 2020

Christmas at our house begins when we drag a tree in the living room, and ends when we drag it back out. But while it’s with us, the tree will tell stories that we’ll remember for years to come.

On Sunday after Thanksgiving my husband and I split the last piece of pumpkin pie, then drove to a Christmas tree lot to join dozens of other folks in face masks all hoping to find the best Christmas tree ever.

Marriage—as some of you may have noticed—is built upon compromise. Fortunately, my husband and I agree on most truly important things: What to eat. When to eat it. Whose turn it is to cook and clean up.

On the rare occasion when we disagree, we try to decide by weighing just how much the matter means to each of us.

For example: He cares more than I ever will about which games to watch on TV. And I care a lot more than he does, apparently, about getting a Christmas tree that looks like a Christmas tree and not like a Christmas tree scrub brush.

He prefers the short, squatty variety that he can carry with one hand. I prefer a tree that I can look up to, one that’s at least a bit taller than I am, requires a strong back for lifting, but with no need for swearing.

After 15 years of marriage, we’ve agreed: He gets to pick games to watch on TV. I get to pick our Christmas tree. But this time, we chose a tree together.

“How ‘bout this one?” he said, pointing to the first tree we saw.

I laughed. It was perfect. More or less. We paid for it, tipped the kid who helped us stuff it in the car, drove home and dragged it inside.

Now it’s standing in our living room, listing badly, as if it had a little too much eggnog. Tomorrow, we’ll decorate it. But tonight, we’re sharing a pizza. Then he’ll watch a game on TV, and I’ll write a column.

Christmas trees create memories that will tell us, if we listen, the stories of our lives. My earliest Christmas tree memory is from when I was 6. My parents were divorced. My my mother had remarried. For some reason she decided we should get, not a real tree, but a fake monstrosity. It looked like a TV antenna covered in tin foil.

The day after Christmas, I boarded a Greyhound bus, waved goodbye to my mother and the ugly tree, and went to spend a lovely a week with my dad on his parents’ farm. When I told my grandmother about the fake tree, she said, “Your mother works too hard.”

The next morning, she woke me early. “Come see your Christmas tree,” she said, pointing to the window.

Snow was falling, turning everything white, except for one bright splash of red. At the top of a hemlock, a redbird sat perched, singing a birdsong version of “O Holy Night.”

I wish you could’ve heard it.

I remember other Christmas tree stories, too:

_ The Scotch pine where I found my 2-year-old hiding after he’d pulled all the bows off the gifts and stuck them on his head.

_ The Noble fir my kids and I decorated with their dad on his last Christmas to be with us, a few weeks before he lost a four-year, hard-fought battle with cancer.

_ The fake spruce I bought years later after I moved with my new husband to Las Vegas, and found that in the desert, fresh cut trees rarely last a week.

I wonder what story we’ll tell in years to come about the tree we brought home today? I hope it will be a story about a family that did its best in the midst of a pandemic to stay safe and well, to keep connected with friends and loved ones and to celebrate, like never before, the promise of Christmas: Life.

Our tree doesn’t look like much yet. But we’ll cover it with white lights, red birds and lots of memories. It will tell a good story that I’ll want to retell.

What story will your tree tell this Christmas? I’d love to hear it. Here’s hoping it will be your best Christmas story ever.

“My New Mug,” Nov. 24, 2020

My granddaughter Eleanor is 5 years old. She loves to have her photo taken. And every photo is just like her: beautiful.

Children need to feel beautiful. They also need to feel smart and good and loved. But it helps to have at least one person who makes them feel like a beauty.

When I was Elle’s age, that person was my granddad. He’d smile at me and quote Song of Solomon 6:10: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?”

I wasn’t sure about the “terrible” part, but overall, I took it as a compliment. He especially liked my waist-length hair. Then my mother had it chopped off into a Pixie and Granddad bawled like a calf.

But the worst blow to my self-esteem came in second grade, when I hit my mouth on a tile floor and broke out my brand new permanent front tooth.
We couldn’t afford a porcelain crown, so the dentist covered it with a metal cap. Boys at school called it the Silver Bullet.

For years, I hated posing for school photos. The photographer would try to get me to smile, but I kept my lips clamped tight to hide the Bullet. In every photo, I looked like my grandmother when she was dipping snuff.

Finally, when I started high school, my dad worked some extra shifts at the mill to pay for a porcelain tooth. I was glad to get rid of the Silver Bullet. But I’ve never gotten rid of my dread of having my picture taken. It doesn’t stop me from smiling. I smile plenty. I just don’t like smiling for a camera. I avoid it whenever I can.

All of that is to tell you this. The photo that appears with a column is called a mug. In my 30 years of writing a column, I’ve had a series of mugs. They all look like different women:

_ The woman who wrote about juggling the roles in her life as the wife of a coach, the mother of three young children, and a reporter covering everything from parades to earthquakes to violence in schools.

_ The woman who described her husband’s battle with cancer, her children growing up, her father taking his life, and her blind brother’s struggle to live alone after losing his wife.

_ The woman who wrote about being a widow, falling in love, getting remarried, living in Las Vegas, speaking at fundraisers to strangers who treated her like family, and having eight grandbabies in nine years.

They were all the same woman in different stages of life. And they all hated having their pictures made. In the past 10 years, I’ve kept the same column mug, despite being nagged by editors (and they know who they are) to update it with a new one.

Recently, however, I finally published a novel that I’d been working on for years, and I forced myself to get a new photo for the book’s jacket.

The differences in the old mug and the new one are simple: In the old one, I have long hair, a big smile and look more like my daughter. In the new one I have short hair, less of a smile, and look more like my mother.

I sent the new mug to all the papers that carry my column to use as a replacement for the old one. And now I’m hearing from readers who say either:

_ They love the new mug.

_ They like the old mug better.

_ Or they don’t believe the new mug is the same person as in the old one and they want to know what exactly I did with her?

Once, long ago, I was driving my 4-year-old and his buddy Eric to preschool. We passed a parked car that was covered with a tarp and Eric said, “Look at that, Josh. Grownups are so dumb. Everybody knows there’s a car under there!”

As for the column? It doesn’t really matter if the mug is old or new. Everybody who reads it knows the age of the woman who writes it. And she is never changing her mug again.