“Keeping Close from Afar,” March 24, 2020

Hardship comes in different shapes and sizes. Losing a job. Bills overdue. Illness or injuries or the death of a loved one.

Every kind of difficulty takes its toll. But few things in life are as heartbreaking as feeling cut off from the people we love.

As a mother, I didn’t do everything right. Far from it. But when my three children were small, most nights before bed, I would read to them.

Sometimes on rainy days after school, we’d build a fire in the fireplace, curl up together like foxes in a den, and I’d read to them until it was time to start dinner and do homework.

There’s something important — something comforting and healing — about the age-old ritual of reading to each other. Sometimes the words we read are so powerful they will never be forgotten. But hearing them read is a different experience.

My stepfather quit school as a boy after his father died, to go to work to help his mother feed their family. He never learned to read. But whenever I read aloud to my brothers, he would sit nearby hanging on every word.

When we read to ourselves, we see the words with our eyes. (Or if we’re blind, like my brother, we use our fingers to read Braille.) But when someone reads to us, we just need to be still and listen. Sometimes, the voice and the love it conveys mean far more than the words.

Babies might not understand every word of Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon.” But they will follow the cadence in the sound of their parents’ or grandparents’ voices in much the same way a falling leaf will follow currents on the wind.

Recently, while “sheltering in place” against the coronavirus, I’ve started reading to my grandkids via FaceTime.

(Note: You don’t need to use FaceTime to read to someone from afar. A phone works, too.)

Mostly I read to them because I love doing it. But I also do it for their parents’ sanity. Besides having to shelter in place, they are homeschooling the kids, who can’t go to school or to the park or play with their friends. So I try to read them something that’s fun. My husband does the same with his granddaughter.

Today I read from “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume, a book my kids loved long ago. Randy, 9, and Wiley, 7, think it’s hilarious. Elle, who’s 5, usually prefers to read to me. This time she just wanted to talk. Then Randy played a song for us on his guitar, the very first song he has written.

I wish you could’ve heard it.

Next, I FaceTimed with Jonah, who is almost a year old. I read “MOO, BAA, LA LA LA!” by Sandra Boynton. He liked it so much he gave me kisses over the phone. Then he bumped his head, so we said goodbye.

Finally, I FaceTimed with Henry, who’s 8. He wanted to read for me “Life,” by Cynthia Rylant, a book I’d given him as a gift. It opens with these words: “Life begins small. Even for the elephants. Then it grows.”

Henry loves that book. But he asked to read it to me because he knows I love it, too. Maybe we both needed to hear it.

Isn’t it funny how so often, when we try to do something helpful for someone, it ends up being helpful for us, too?

In these days of “social distancing,” a lot of us are homesick for family and friends. Reading helps me stay connected to things I believe and to people I hold dear. To words that remind me we’re all in this together and that we are stronger than we know. To readers who make me want to keep writing. And to loved ones I long to see in the flesh but feel blessed to see their faces online.

I’ll hold them in my heart and with the sound of my voice until I can hold them in my arms.

Now, more than ever, while keeping a safe distance, we all need to hold on to each other.

“Spring’s Song,” March 17, 2020

Twenty seconds is a long time. Especially when washing your hands. I’ve noticed that lately. Maybe you’ve noticed it, too.

It might seem even longer if you were, say, in an earthquake. Or shorter, if you were running late for your own wedding. I’ve done both, and survived. It’s hard to compare them.

But time always seems to fly when we want it to slow down and crawl when we want it to hurry. Yet the clock keeps on ticking at the same speed.

Recently I flew to Wichita Falls, Texas, to speak at a fundraiser for “Hands to Hands,” an organization that funds programs in its area to help their neighbors in need.

Thankfully, there are similar programs all around the country in places where good people do their best to be good neighbors. Kindness is a mark of a caring, thriving community, a blessing to all involved, both those who give and those who receive.

It was a joy taking part in that fundraiser and meeting so many fine people. Lord, I love Texans. But with the growing concern over the coronavirus (a concern that soon spiraled) I tried to practice “social distancing” and washed my hands as often as I could for 20 seconds, or while singing “Happy Birthday” twice. (My grandson Wiley prefers to wash his hands while humming Darth Vader’s Theme.)

I flew from Monterey, Calif., to Wichita Falls, spoke the following evening and flew back the next day. It was only sixty hours, give or take, but I could almost bet I washed my hands several thousand times.

Once home, I checked my temp, showered, slept like a baby and woke the next day feeling fine, no symptoms. But I’d heard that it’s possible to become contagious with the virus before symptoms appear. Rather than take the slightest risk of passing that virus to anyone — maybe even to my grandchildren — I decided to “self-quarantine” for two weeks. Or longer, if need be.

That’s easier for me than for many of us. I work at home. My husband is retired. We’re fairly well stocked with food. And we’re fortunate to have family nearby who, if need be, could leave necessities at our door.

It’s been four days so far. No symptoms. I woke this morning to much needed rain, and sat for a while in a lovely stillness, drinking coffee and watching clouds drape like quilts over the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Every year, California’s hills transform like magic from summer’s tarnished gold to spring’s emerald green.

I wish you could see it.

Spring brings its splendor to other places, too, of course, in all sorts of spectacular ways. I’ll always remember the bloom of dogwoods and wild azaleas in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Carolinas, where I grew up.

But I feel at home now in these hills. In springtime, when they turn green, I like to imagine they’re singing a song I call, “Halleluia! Life Persists!”

Who knows? Maybe I’m not imagining it. Maybe, wherever you are, spring sings to you, too.

My self-imposed exile is allowing me to slow down and enjoy things I usually tend to do in a rush: Phoning friends and loved ones. FaceTiming with my grandkids. And reading poetry and Psalms that feed my soul.

I’ve also been making cookies that we shouldn’t eat. They taste even better than they usually do.

Mostly, I’m content to sit and listen to the hills sing their song. Every year, just when I think spring will never come again, those hills start to hum.

Sometimes they seem to be shouting at me, as if they know I need to hear it more than ever.

Never in my life have I heard them sing as loud, and as clear, as they are singing now.

Listen. Do you hear them?

Halleluia. Life persists.

Twenty seconds is a long time. And every second is a gift.

“Absolutely!” March 10, 2020

(NOTE to readers: I’m taking off this week to speak at a fundraiser in Wichita Falls, Texas. The following column originally ran in April, 2009.)
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Two stories, two different people, same advice.

I was at a big event where I knew nearly no one. I’m usually fine socializing with strangers, but I’d had enough for one night and was headed for the door when I bumped into a young man in his late 20s, younger than my youngest child.

Clearly he’d had too much of something, if only of himself.

“Look at you,” he said, grinning, “you’re gorgeous.”

I laughed.

“Thanks, sonny,” I said. “Don’t try to drive tonight, OK?”

“Wait,” he said, taking my arm, “you’re also really smart, and you know a lot of stuff and I really need your help.”

“Excuse me?”

He leaned close.

“See that girl over there?” he said. “She’s after me. But I don’t know. I think she’s a little wacko or something. What do you think I should do?”

I glanced at the young woman in question — beautiful, poised, clearly a match. Then I smiled at my new best friend.

“Run,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Run for your life.”

His eyes spun like hubcaps.

“I knew it!” he said. “You can tell she’s crazy?”

“No,” I said. “I can’t tell. But you can. Trust your gut.”

Usually, I’d say, “trust your heart,” but “gut” seemed a better fit for him. He hugged me, promised not to drive and hurried off, with her in pursuit.

It was the same advice I might have given to anyone, and have, more or less, countless times.

Years ago, a young friend I’ll call “Abby” asked, “How do you know when someone is the right person to marry?”

She was in love with a guy I’ll call “Steve.” I knew they were “meant” for each other. I think she knew it, too. But somehow she needed to ponder the question a little longer, a little deeper, until she found an answer that felt all her own.

Some answers, even if we’re sure they’re right, need time to ripen, like fruit, to perfection.

“You’ll know,” I promised her. “You’ll just know.”

Six months later, they were engaged. I couldn’t wait to ask: “So how do you know someone is the right person to marry?”

“You can’t know for sure,” she said, laughing. “You just have to jump into the abyss!”

On a hill green with spring, surrounded by family, friends, God and all his angels, Abby and Steve jumped into that abyss, pledged their love and set out on a journey Tennyson called “that new world which is the old.”

My favorite moment in the ceremony was when the rabbi asked, “Will you?” and Abby said, “Absolutely!”

I elbowed my husband, and he gave me a knowing smile.

Life might be easier without its great mysteries, without all the doubts and nagging questions that keep us awake late at night raiding the freezer for ice-cream and wracking our brains for answers. But it wouldn’t taste nearly so sweet.

Some answers — the truly important ones — can’t be found in the brain. We have to search for them in our heart, and pray that we will find them there.

Friends and loved ones can offer advice, and if we’re wise, we’ll weigh their counsel. But in the end, we have to answer hard questions on our own. Though a pint of ice-cream can’t hurt.

The heart is a dark and scary place. We need courage to search it, and faith to live by what it tells us. But no answer will ever be as clear or resolute as one that’s deeply rooted in the convictions of the heart.

It’s the stuff that moves mountains. It’s the faith that walks on water. It’s the difference between “wacko, run for your life” and “absolutely, happily ever after.”

How do you know?

Ask your heart.

“A Not So Smooth Smoothie,” March 3, 2020

Some days I do my best. Other days, I do the best I can. Last week I was in Los Angeles visiting my son and his lovely wife and their 10-month-old Jonah. They treated me like royalty, wouldn’t let me lift a hand, except to pick up Jonah. And they fed me incredibly well.

My son is a firm believer in the value of good nutrition. He likes for me to eat a variety of healthy foods that, when he was growing up, I couldn’t have forced down his throat with a jack hammer.

Every morning while I was there, he made smoothies that were not only nutritious, but delicious. They were so good I vowed to start making them for my husband and me as soon as I got back home. It would be easy because I still had most of the ingredients and supplements from the last time I’d vowed to make them, and never did.

My only regret about the trip was it ended too soon. Our last visit was at Thanksgiving, four months ago. We keep in touch with phone calls and messages, but four months is a long time for a baby. And his nana.

I loved talking with my son and his wife and watching them be such wonderful parents to their little guy. But I needed more time with Jonah.

At first, he just stared at me, as if maybe he knew me, but wasn’t sure. Then he lit up the sky over the City of Angels with a smile that seemed to say, “I know you! You’re my daddy’s mama!”

There’s nothing quite like a baby’s smile to make us a little more thankful to be alive. For four days, we were buddies, Jonah and I. We danced. Read books. Pointed at birds out the window. He’d reach for me and I’d melt. I’d make faces at him and he’d laugh. He’d kiss my cheek and I’d promise to buy him a car.

Finally, I bit my lip and said goodbye to him and his mama and daddy. Then I flew to San Jose to meet my husband and drive home to Carmel Valley.

That was yesterday. This morning I woke early, thinking I heard Jonah laugh. It was my husband snoring. So I went out to the kitchen to keep my vow to start making smoothies.

When we’re both home, my husband and I like to cook. But if one of us is away, the other will often eat out or make do with whatever. There wasn’t much in the fridge. A few eggs. Some wilted greens. And a piece of leftover pecan pie.

I know what you’re thinking. Who has leftover pie? We had eaten most of it the night before I went to LA, and apparently my husband forgot it was there. But I found berries and greens in the freezer, plus the protein powder and other supplements I’d bought weeks ago. So I filled the blender and fired it up.

Few sounds on earth — except for leaf blowers or car alarms or obnoxious fans at games — are more annoying than a blender.

My husband stumbled out of the bedroom, poured a cup of coffee and mumbled, “Make a list and I’ll go get groceries.”

“Wanna smoothie?”

“I’ll get dressed first,” he said, wandering back to the bedroom.

I popped open the blender and spooned out a taste. Not bad.

So I poured a glass for him, set it down and poured one for me. Then somehow, I set my glass down just a little too hard. And it exploded in a thousand little pieces of smoothie shrapnel that peppered the counter, the floor, the cabinets, the stove, my husband’s smoothie and me.

When my husband offered to help clean up, I said, “Just go get groceries.” And he left. An hour later, after I’d cleaned up all the glass and most of the smoothie, he still wasn’t back.

I was hungry. My choices were few. I could wait for him. I could scramble eggs with the greens for a fairly healthy meal. Or I could indulge my inner child with a stale piece of pecan pie.

Some days I do my best. Other days, I do the best I can.

That pie was good.

“Questions for Here and Now,” Feb. 25, 2020

Their photos sit side by side on my desk. I greet them every day. “Hey, Mama,” I say, smiling, “hey, Daddy.” My parents weren’t always happy. But they were in these photos and I’m glad to have fading images to remind me.

My dad is wearing overalls, grinning a lopsided grin, with his chin propped on his right fist and his left arm — paralyzed by a stroke — pressed to his chest.

My mother is dressed in shorts and a shirt, sitting on a blanket by a glittering lake, beaming at her grandkids playing nearby.

I love those photos. It’s odd to see them next to each other. My parents divorced when I was 2, and I have no memories of ever seeing them together. They came to my wedding, but my mother kept her distance from my dad and refused to be in the photos with him.

I was never sure why. Did she still harbor resentment after so many years? Or could she just not bring herself to face him? Was he still in love with her? Is that why he never remarried?

I wanted to ask them those questions and countless others. But I never dared, never did.

After college, I left my family in the Carolinas, to marry and raise a family in California. We kept in touch by phone and mail and occasional visits. But there was never time — or never the right time — to ask them things I longed to know.

And then, they were gone.

My dad had spent seven years in a VA hospital learning to walk again after his stroke. He swore he’d never go back. Years later, facing more treatment, he chose instead to end his life.

Suicide is hard to fathom. But every death is a mystery. And like other great mysteries — birth and love and joy and laughter — we can’t explain it. We can only live it.

In the two years my mother battled lung cancer, we shared some good visits and I spent three days by her side in the hospital before she died. But when I tried to ask questions, she would say, “I don’t want to talk about that. Just tell me stories about my grandkids.”

So I told her stories and she kept her answers to herself.

It’s been years since my parents left this world. But this morning, for some reason, I took a long look at their photos and began making a list of questions I wanted to ask them.

It’s too late for them to answer. But I plan to ask those questions of myself, from my own life, and give the answers to my children, while there’s still time for us to talk about them.

I call the list “Questions for Here and Now:”

1. If you could write your own obituary (as we all should do) what would it say?
2. Tell me about the time, place and family you grew up in.
3. What are your best and worst and funniest memories?
4. When you were young, what were your dreams? What did you want to do with your life?
5. When did you first (or last) fall in love? How did it feel?
6. What were the happiest and the hardest times of your life?
7. Tell me what it was like for you to go off to war, or to watch someone you loved go, knowing they might never come back.
8. What are you most proud of, and what do you regret?
9. Describe a decision that you made that changed, for better or worse, the direction of your life?
10. If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
11. Tell me a story about me, and what I mean to you.
12. Tell me a secret, something you’ve never told anyone.
13. Tell me things about you that you want me to remember.
14. What have you learned that you want your children, and all children, to know?
15. If I can tell only one story about you, what should it be?
Those are some of my “Here and Now” questions. What are yours? I hope we’ll all ask and answer them, while there’s time.

“Just Read,” Feb. 18, 2020

Do you remember the first time you held the world in the palm of your hand? One day when I was 8, my teacher took me aside and said, “You are an excellent reader.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll tell my grandmother you said so. She taught me to read.”

The teacher smiled and said, “I want you to represent our class in the school’s reading contest.”

It sounded important.

“What would I have to do?”

“Just read,” she said. “You’ll be fine. I’ll pick a book and mark pages for you to practice.”

Then she dropped the bomb: The contest would take place the following week in the school cafeteria in front of parents, teachers, administrators and the entire student body — or as my grandmother would say, in front of God and all his angels.

I didn’t sleep that week. The teacher gave me “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey, a book about a girl who goes berry picking with her mother and meets a mama bear and her cub. I read it until I knew it by heart.

The evening of the contest, my stepfather had to work at the mill. He’d never learned to read, but liked to brag, he said, that his 8-year-old stepdaughter was in a reading contest. It took me a while to realize he meant me.

My mother left my brothers with a neighbor and we drove to the school. The starch she put in my dress made my neck itch.

“Are you scared?” she said.

“No, ma’am,” I lied.

She had quit school at 15 to marry and have babies, but she placed a high value on reading.

“You’re a good reader,” she said. “Just read. You’ll be fine.”

The cafeteria was packed. Mama found a seat in back and I took my place down in front.

One by one, the readers read. They were good. I hoped they’d never stop. When my turn came, I couldn’t find my mother’s face in the crowd. But I recalled what she and my teacher had told me.

So I did what they said. I just read. When I got to the part where the bears showed up, I looked around the room and realized every eye was watching me, every ear was listening. I had the whole world, it seemed, right in the palm of my hand.

When I reached the page my teacher had marked for me to stop, I read another page. And another. Finally, I gave a quick curtsy and sat down. It was the first time I’d heard applause just for me. Except the day my blind brother clapped when I showed him how to shoot a cap pistol.

I never expected to win that contest. Imagine my surprise when they handed the trophy for First Place — to me.

I don’t know if I’ve told all my grandchildren that story. Even if I have, I’ll tell it again soon.

Last week, Henry, who is 8, was asked to read a few lines for a school assembly. So he invited me to come hear him.

“Are you scared?” I said.

“No, Nana,” he lied.

“You’re a great reader,” I said. “Just read. You’ll be fine.”

And that is what he did.

I wish you could’ve heard him.

That evening, we sat on a bench, Henry and I, watching the sunset and talking.

“How did you feel reading at the assembly today?” I asked.

He thought about it. Then he held out his hand, palm up, and said, “It was wonderful, Nana. All those people were listening to me. I felt like I had the world in the palm of my hand.”

Reading puts the world not only in our palms, but in our hearts and in our souls. It takes us on grand adventures to places we’ve never been and into the minds of people we’ll never meet. It tells us truths that are thousands of years old and lets us pick berries with bears.

Whether we read to ourselves, or to a sleepy toddler, or to a loved one who is dying, or to a roomful of strangers who will suddenly become our friends — reading puts the world in the palm of our hand.

Just read. You’ll be fine.

“The Birthday Express,” Feb. 11, 2020

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about birthdays. Why?

From the end of December to the middle of February, our big “blended” family celebrates eleven birthdays. The birthday people include my husband and me; three of our five children; three of their spouses; and three of our eight grandchildren.

That’s a lot of cake. Not to mention, cards and presents and dinners and parties. I call it the Birthday Express. It’s quite a ride. Only two more celebrations this week, then the grand finale next week, which happens to be mine. The remaining eight family members were wisely born at other times of year. Some have a whole month to themselves.

Few things are more fun than celebrating the birth of someone you adore. My standard wish (besides “Happy birthday!”) is “I’m so glad you were born!” I started saying that to my kids when they were small and now they say it to me, too.

I love cards that have been handpicked just for me, or handmade by the grandkids with stick figure drawings that make me look skinny, and don’t crack jokes about getting old.

Aside from good wishes and a lot of hugs, I don’t need gifts. When you’ve blown out as many candles as I have over the years, your mark of a great birthday isn’t presents or parties. It’s hearing “Happy birthday!” from the people who love you and getting to take a nap.

But there’s one birthday ritual I try to keep every year. I take a little time to think about my life’s journey, places I’ve been, people I’ve known, things I’ve learned along the way. Then I ask myself this question: What do I know now that I wish I’d known when I was starting out?

Here in random order is my latest list. I wish I’d known:

_ My children would grow up healthy and strong to be people that I like as much as love. Had I known this, I’d have gotten more sleep and less gray hair.

_ We shouldn’t take things so personally. Not everything is about us. We need to give others, and ourselves, a break.

_ Actions are more important than looks. It’s better to be kind than beautiful. Unless you can manage to be both at once.

_ Things change. Count on it. The best we can do is change with them, and pray that we are changing for the better.

_ If you need help, don’t be too proud to ask for it. And if someone needs your help, try not to be too busy to offer it.

_ It’s OK if somebody doesn’t like you. Chances are, they’re not very likeable themselves.

_ Hair is like a child. It has a mind of its own. You can try to change it, try to make it do what you want it to do. But it’s better just to let it be what it is.

_ Say what’s on your heart, but only if you mean it. Some words are better left unspoken. But there are three things that ought to be said often and sincerely: “Thanks.” “I’m sorry.” And “I love you.” And to telemarketers, “Please don’t call me again.”

_ My mother was right about most of the things I was so sure she was wrong about. I wish, not only that I’d known it, but that I had told her so before she died.

_ We don’t need someone to complete us. We can be whole on our own. But if we choose to share our life with someone who is also whole, the sum can be greater than its parts. And that can be a whole lot of fun.

_ Those of us of a certain age shouldn’t fear that a birthday means the end of youth. Age is only a number. Forty (or 50 or 60 or more) is not the end of youth. Thirty was the end. The payoff for aging is getting to stay alive, and maybe, if we’re lucky, getting grandchildren.

_ Finally, the best thing about birthdays is realizing we’ve been blessed to have lived another year and had a chance to keep learning, loving and laughing.

Here’s wishing you a happy birthday whenever it may be. Yes, I’m so glad you were born.

“Asking Is the Answer,” Feb. 4, 2020

Remember the old joke about war drums in the jungle? A hunter asks a guide, “Should we be worried about those drums?”

And the guide shakes his head and says, “Not until they stop.”

The same goes for children’s questions. It’s exhausting trying to answer them, but we hope they never stop. As parents and grandparents and adults who care for them, we want them to ask whatever’s on their minds.

If they don’t get answers from us, they’ll get them somewhere else, maybe from someone who doesn’t love them as we do.

As a mother, I did not do everything right. Far from it. But I tried to answer my kids’ questions as best I could. If I didn’t know an answer, we’d try to find it together. And if the answer was not to be found (as when our dog died and they wanted to know “why?”) I’d think long and hard, then tell them what I thought.

Children will answer life’s questions for themselves as they grow up. But to do so, they need to hear what others believe, especially the people they love and trust most of all.

My daughter was the “Queen of Why?” When she was 3, she’d follow every answer I offered with yet another “Why?”

One day, I snapped. “Well,” I said, “why do you think?”

So she told me what she thought. And I realized she’d been waiting for me to say the answer she had in mind.

After that, if she asked “Why?” I’d say, “Why do you think?” And she’d tell me. Then she’d go play until she thought of a new question.

She now has her own highly inquisitive 8 year old, plus a classroom of third graders, who constantly bombard her with “why?” And I’m pretty sure she often says, “Why do you think?”

My grandchildren ask questions nonstop. If I don’t know an answer, I tell them to go ask Papa Mark, my husband, a retired editor, who will either (a) know the answer; (b) Google it; or (c) make something up.

But sometimes the questions, simple as they seem, catch me unaware and slip inside closely guarded places in my heart.

“Who is your mom?” asked my granddaughter. Eleanor is 5, trying to make sense of the world. The recent passing of the grandmother of a friend has raised a flurry of questions.

“My mom’s name was Betty,” I said. “She would’ve adored you.”

“Did she die?”

“Yes,” I said. “She was old.”

“My dad’s dad died.”

“I know,” I said. “He was my husband. He got very sick. He would’ve adored you, too.”

She nodded. “And then you married Papa Mark?”

“Yes. And now he adores you. So many people adore you!”

“Your dad died, too? And your grandma and grandpa? Do you miss all of them?” she asked.

I took a moment to breathe.

“Well,” I said, brushing her hair with my fingers, “I miss seeing them. But even if you can’t see someone, you can still love them and know they love you. I keep them in my heart. That’s where I keep you. Where am I when you can’t see me?”

She pointed to her chest and recited the answer I’ve drilled into her and her brothers and cousins since they were born.

“In my heart!”

“That’s right,” I said. “And that’s where I will always be, even if you can’t see me. I want you to remember that, OK?”

“OK,” she said. “Can we get some ice cream?”

Children aren’t the only ones who need to ask questions. Adults need to do it, too. Asking questions keeps us young — in spirit, if not in body. When we stop asking questions, when we think we know all the answers and try to force them on others, we get really old really fast.

I hope to stay young (in spirit, at least) til the cows come home and the creek don’t rise and the dish runs away with the spoon.

Why? I want to hear every question my grandbabes will ask, and shake my head in wonder at their answers.

“Two Kinds of Busy,” Jan. 28, 2020

Long ago — when I should’ve known better, but didn’t realize it would come back to haunt me — I laughed at old people who complained about being busy.

How could they possibly be busy? They were retired. Their kids were grown. Their houses never seemed to get dirty. They hardly even ate anything.

I, on the other hand, was the mother of three children; the wife of a coach; a reporter for a newspaper; and the caretaker for my kids, the house, the laundry, the cooking, the dog, the hamster and the iguana.

In my spare time (ha!) I taught Sunday school, kept score for Little League and hosted weekly potlucks for our church youth group. My kids all played sports. Between their games and their dad’s, I spent more hours sitting on bleachers than sleeping in a bed. I must’ve bathed once in a while, but don’t recall doing so.

Some people move mountains. Not me. I birthed them. Nursed them. Walked the floor with them when they were ill. I watched them grow into human Himalayas and become the most gorgeous mountains I’d ever seen. In those years, I wasn’t just busy. I was insane. And I loved most every minute of it.

That was then. This is now. I don’t laugh at old people any more. Except myself. And my husband. He’s retired. I’m not, but it often looks like I am.

We spend as much time as we can with our grown kids and eight grandkids. When we’re not with them, we read texts and watch videos they send us. My husband plays his bass. I work on my writing. Our house is often a mess. If we had a dog, it would have fleas. And we eat basically all the time.

Some days, we feel busier than ever. Or maybe we’re just slower and everything takes longer.

This weekend, my husband’s son and his wife and their three little ones came to spend a few days with us in our new home, which is half as big as our old one. Downsizing is great for two people, not so much for guests.

But we manage fine. It’s what families do. My grandparents’ house was tiny, and they often hosted their 10 married kids and too many grandkids. My cousin Linda and I slept in the bathtub and the boy cousins would sneak in and turn on the water.

Nobody sleeps in the tub at our house, but our guest room is wall-to-wall-mattresses.

January and February are big birthday months in our family. Yesterday we gathered for a party for 5-year-old Eleanor Rose. It was held at a park where my kids used to play.

I’d not been to that park in years, but it looked much the same. Same swings. Same slides. Same seemingly safe ways for a kid to get hurt.

The biggest change was me. Sitting there watching my grandkids, I recalled seeing my children do all those things. Eleanor’s hair flew like a flag in the wind the way my daughter’s once did. My grandsons ran wild, chasing each other, just like my boys used to do. I still felt the same as I did 30 years ago. Until I tried to stand up.

There are moments in life that fill us with gratitude just to be alive. That was one of mine.

My life isn’t half as busy as it once was, but it’s still full. And I still love most every minute of it.

Everybody seems busy these days. But here’s what I’ve learned: We can be busy with good things or bad — with joyful celebrations or devastating heartaches. Both can be exhausting and stressful. But one lifts us up. The other brings us to our knees. I’ve done both. No doubt, so have you.

Sometimes I complain about being busy when I really ought to be thankful that I’ve got nothing to complain about.

This weekend, I was blessed to be busy with good things.

I hope you were, too.

“My Big Date,” Jan. 21, 2020

Most days, my getting-ready- to-go-out routine takes two minutes tops. And that includes finding my keys.

There was a time in my life when I never went out without ironing an outfit and spending hours on my make-up and hair.

It began in my early teens, when I hoped, at least, to turn a few heads. It ended promptly at the age of 23, after my first child was born, and my only real hope was to survive another day.

These days, I feel like the Invisible Woman. I could stand half-naked on a street corner juggling live chickens and I doubt anybody would notice.

Not that I need to worry about being seen. We live out in the country and rarely get uninvited guests. Except buzzards.

One day, while my husband and I were sitting on the patio, I noticed a squadron of turkey vultures circling overhead.

“Maybe I should go put on some makeup,” I said.

My husband didn’t laugh.

“That was a joke,” I snapped.

He just snickered.

Today was no joking matter. I had a lunch date with someone I definitely wanted to impress. Someone who would study me the way a cat studies a gopher. Someone who’d take notice of all the details of how I looked, what I wore, how I smelled and every last word I said.

I was determined to give it my best shot. So I started with a quick shower and a double dose of hair conditioner. My hair has been long most of my life, but recently I felt like a change and whacked it all off.

(Here’s a little tip: When you feel like making a change, give it a few days before you act.)

The upside of my new haircut is it takes half as long to dry. The downside is it makes me look like my mother in her later years, wearing a football helmet.

Not that she’d ever do that. I’m just saying. It’s how I look. So I worked hard with a curling iron to make my hair look a little less football helmety.

The problem with the curling iron is it has a tendency to get slightly hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell. So it not only curls, it singes, and makes my hair smell like fried chicken.

To offset the chicken smell, I used a half can of hairspray and a bottle, give or take, of cologne. My favorite cologne, not that you should care, is called “Amazing Grace.” I like its scent, but mostly I love its name. I need all the grace I can get.

Next, I chose something to wear. I didn’t need to iron it because I realized long ago, if you don’t like to iron, don’t buy things that need ironing. I generally stick to neutrals, shades of gray and black. But today I chose a royal blue blouse. It wouldn’t turn heads, but my lunch date would like it.

Next, I selected jewelry. I’m usually good to go with just my wedding ring (without which I feel strangely naked.) But today I added silver hoops, a long sparkly necklace and the absolute necessity, a Christmas gift from my lunch date: A silver bangle engraved, “Love you all.”

“All” is as much as anybody can possibly love someone. It’s also how much I love her.

Finally, I did my makeup. I’ve been doing makeup so long I could do it in my sleep. And sometimes it looks like I did. But today I took great care to blend everything just so — foundation, blush, eyeshadow, eyeliner, the works.

Just as I applied a last coat of lipstick, my husband walked by, grinned at me and said, “No buzzards circling you today.”

I’ve had worse compliments.

But the best one came when I picked up my lunch date — my granddaughter, Eleanor Rose, who is turning 5, and was truly resplendent in a pink fairy dress and unicorn headband.

“Nana!” she shouted, tackling me in a choke hold. She checked me out head to toe, then said the magic words: “You look pretty, Nana! And you smell good, too!”

My mother would’ve worn a football helmet to hear that.