“A Simple Celebration,” Oct. 19, 2021


How many birthdays do you celebrate in your family? My husband and I share five grown children, their “others” and nine grandchildren. At our house birthday candles burn nonstop.

My daughter’s birthday is this week. Never mind how old she’ll be. Age is only a number. She grows more lovely, inside and out, with every passing year.

I wish you could know her.

Birthdays in my childhood were simple affairs. My mother baked a cake and we ate it. No gifts, no games, no parties. The cake was good and I was happy. But I told myself, when I had children, I would make their birthdays real wingdings.

That was before I had three kids, a job, a house that defied order and a dog that shed giant clumps of hair that rolled from room to room like tumbleweeds.

So my children’s birthdays became simple affairs. I’d let them invite as many guests as we could fit into our VW van. I’d drive them to the swim center, where they’d splash and laugh and try to drown each other.

When they were totally exhausted, I’d dry them off and take them to our house to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat pizza and a store-bought cake. Then they’d all fall sound asleep on the floor under a cozy blanket of dog hair tumbleweeds.

That’s how my boys celebrated most of their birthdays. They liked it. At least, they never complained. But my daughter had her own ideas about most things, including birthdays.

Two weeks before her third birthday, she handed me a note on which she had scrawled in crayon (I couldn’t read it, so she translated) her plans for “a fancy birthday tea party.” When she saw the look on my face, she patted my hand and said, “No worry, Mama. I help.”

And help she did, with every detail, flowers, tablecloth, cake decorations, teacups (from her tea set) and even what she and I would wear. Her brothers could wear what they wanted, she said, but they had to take a bath.

It was quite a wingding, the first of many to come. She did the planning. I followed orders.

In high school, she celebrated birthdays by going out with her friends. But we still celebrated as a family with dinner and cake, laughter and love.

Why does time fly when you’re having fun? She’s all grown up now, incredibly busy, teaching school and being a mom. She makes sure her little guy’s birthdays are wingdings, but she doesn’t have time (or energy) to plan a celebration for herself.

So I will plan it for her. She never forgets my birthday. And I will always remember hers. I was there the day she was born. I had kept her to myself for almost 10 months, before delivering her into the world. Then I held her in my arms, looked into her lake-blue eyes and whispered in her ear: “I’m your mama. You’re my girl. We are going to have a good time.”

And with that, the celebrations began. Not just birthdays and special occasions. But any time we’re together. Some times are more fun than others. And there’ve been a few that we would rather not repeat.

Raising children is like raking leaves in the wind. You try to move them where you want them to go. But children and leaves have minds of their own. They love to fly on the wind. One day, the wind will stop, and they will settle wherever they land. For the child, that is called growing up. For the parent, it’s called letting go. For the leaves, it’s just called mulch.

One of life’s greatest gifts is getting to share, in good times or bad, your heart and soul and very last dime with a child you adore—to see that baby, that toddler, that middle schooler, that teenager (who aged you by several decades) grow up to be a beautiful, capable, caring adult.

We’ll celebrate my daughter’s birthday with dinner and cake, laughter and love. She doesn’t want it to be a “big deal.”

But I am her mama. And she is my girl. And we are going to have a good time.

“Plans Change,” Oct. 12, 2021

Life stays interesting in one way or another. I like that about it, usually. Interesting is good. But sometimes it’s interesting in ways that tend to make me want to go hide up under the porch with the dogs.

If I had a porch. Or a dog. I’m not saying I’d actually do that. I’m just saying it’s how I feel. I suspect you know the feeling.

This morning I woke up, as usual, thinking about what I needed to do to get ready for the week ahead. First, I kissed my husband. That’s how we try to start and end each day. It makes the hours between go better.

Then I needed coffee. Two cups. Coffee helps me think. When the coffee kicked in, I recalled three major tasks: First, I had to write a column. Tomorrow was my deadline. So I needed to work on it today, tonight and maybe tomorrow morning. I’m a slow writer. It takes as long as it takes.

But I’d need to finish it and send it off by midday tomorrow to papers that are kind enough to print it. Fine, I could do that.

The second task would also require writing. The day after tomorrow, I was scheduled to speak at a luncheon, which according to my husband, I can do in my sleep. But the last time I spoke to a crowd of people who weren’t family was more than a year ago, before the pandemic shut down lots of fun things, even speaking engagements.

I was looking forward to the event, but feeling a bit out of practice. I told myself not to worry (I tell myself that a lot) because I’d have plenty of time to work on a speech tomorrow after sending off my column.

Then I could do the really important stuff (wash my hair and change my mind five times about what to wear to the luncheon) and get a good night’s sleep before waking up and running out the door to do the third task: Giving the talk.

It was a fine plan. I was proud it. Looking back, I’m reminded of what my grandmother often said: “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Soon after I sat down to start the column, my phone lit up with a “red flag warning” from the county office of emergency services. The local forecast was calling for winds gusting to 60 mph beginning tomorrow for two days in an area that is tinderbox dry after a summer of record heat and no rain.

Californians know a lot more about wildfires than we’d like to know. Last summer my husband and I left our home three times due to fires burning nearby. One came within a mile of our place until it was stopped by firecrews working day and night.

This summer, we’ve seen a lot of smoke from distant fires, but no evacuations for us—so far. We hope and pray and try to expect the best. But we never take lightly the threat of fire. Or the risk of an evacuation. Or the possibility of power outages.

So I’ve made a few changes to my three-day plan. Chances are, we could lose power tomorrow from lines downed by wind, or from planned “safety outages.” So I’ll write this column today and send it off tonight. I hope it gets to where it needs to go and that you will like reading it.

Also today (or late tonight) I’ll write a talk for the luncheon. They’ve asked me to talk about writing. It shouldn’t be hard.

Tomorrow, who knows? If all goes well, I’ll be done with the column and the speech, and I can just sit back and watch the wind blow the chairs around the patio and knock the blooms off the pansies we just planted.

And the next day? Well, again, if all goes well, I’ll clean myself up, go to the luncheon and talk about writing and life, how they both stay interesting, if only in ways that make us want to hide under the porch with the dogs.

Stay tuned. Lord willing, I’ll let you know how it goes. Life stays interesting. It’s worth waking up just to see what happens next.

“The Best Time of Life,” Oct. 5, 2021

Do me a favor. Take a minute and look back over your years. Never mind how long you’ve lived. Think about it.When was the best time of your life?

Skip childhood. It had its moments, good and bad, but when it was over, most of us were ready to move on.

I’ll begin with 18. At my high school graduation, I gave a speech thanking parents and teachers and classmates for all they’d taught me and the many kindnesses they’d shown me. People said it was the best speech they’d ever heard, mostly because it was short.

That weekend, my friends and I drove with our chaperones (two of the most fun women ever) to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a long weekend. We spent every day lying in the sun and every night dancing at the Pavillion.

Then we drove back to reality and I spent the summer working in the office of a mill where my mother and sister worked in the plant. I also got to model clothes for the company’s catalog. I weighed 115 pounds, wore fake eyelashes and felt like Cher.

That fall, thanks to a full scholarship, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to class, did my homework and stayed up late every night talking with other 18-year-olds about Civil Rights, Vietnam, soul music and what we wanted to do in life. Eighteen was a very good year.

Two years later, I left college, flew to California, married a high school teacher/basketball coach and soon after, started a family. I had three babies in five years. Those were some of the hardest and happiest years of my life. I loved, more or less, every minute of them.

When my youngest started school, I took a job in the library of the local newspaper. I wrote some stories freelance and got promoted to a feature writer.
A few years later, I began writing a column. Pretty soon, it was syndicated, and I started hearing from people I’d never met, readers around the country, who said my stories were their stories, too. I liked those years a lot.

Then my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and began a four-year battle fighting for his life. There are gifts that come with hardship. We were blessed in countless ways. They were good years, but I would never want to relive them.

After my husband died, I woke up one morning to realize my children were grown and I was living alone in a four-bedroom house with five sets of dishes and nobody to feed.

I made a choice that day—one I’ve tried to make every day since then, for more than 20 years—to move forward with my life. To live in the present, not in the past or the future, but today.

I kept writing the column, did a lot of speaking around the country and traveled the world. I spent time with family and friends, and a lot of time alone. It was just what I needed. But after seven years as a widow, I realized I wanted more.

So I married a man with whom I share not only my life, but sunsets and laughter and a big blended family that has grown to include nine of the world’s finest grandchildren.

The past two years—with the pandemic and its horrendous loss of life and jobs and joy, its social distancing and so many things we’ve missed—have been hard for all of us. Much harder for some than for others.

I won’t forget that. But in some ways, I’ll remember it as one of the best times of my life. It has slowed me down and made me more thankful and mindful of what matters most. And it has been such a gift to see friends and loved ones and others, near and far, rise up and make the best of it.

Just when it seems we’ve seen it all, life gets harder and we discover we are stronger than we ever dreamed we could be.

Here’s to the past and all it has taught us, and to making today, come what may, the best time of our lives…until tomorrow.

“An Interesting Woman,” Sept. 15, 2021

How well do you know the people you love? What stories do you tell about them? How do you hope they’ll remember you?

Most people are interesting, if we get to know them. But to me, my grandmother was more interesting than most. I love to tell stories about her. Especially the ones she hoped I’d forget.

She and my granddad married when they were too young to know better, but their marriage and their love lasted forever. One of my favorite memories is seeing them slow dance together in the kitchen to music that played only in their hearts.

They had twelve babies, suffered the loss of two, and raised nine chatty girls and one timid boy who seldom got much chance to speak. The kids grew up, married and produced a barn full of grandkids. We were close as a family, packing like dressed-up sardines into my grandparents’ house to share Sunday dinner, sit on the porch, swap stories and swat flies.

Not all of my memories of my grandmother are happy ones. My mother married my dad when she was 15, divorced him when I was 2, and moved back home with my older sister and me to live with her parents. I recall, as a child, covering my ears at the sound of heated, hurtful arguments between the two women I loved most.

I was 4, and didn’t know why they fought. I later learned reasons, but reasons aren’t always a cause. Some people are like fire and gasoline. They can’t mix without blowing up.

Mama got a job as a waitress, and Grandmama took care of me. I loved it. I was sure I was her favorite grandchild for two reasons: One, I needed to be somebody’s favorite. And two, she told me I was hers.

My cousins claimed she said they were her favorites, too. But with them, she was being nice. With me, she really meant it. I wish you could’ve known her.

She was a preacher’s wife who seldom went to church, said she loved Jesus, but couldn’t abide sinners pretending to be saints.

She liked to play cards with Aunt Agnes against Granddad and Uncle Hugo, and loved to win, even if she had to cheat. If she gave me wink, it meant the menfolk were going down.

She wore fancy hats and lots of costume jewelry and let me try them on any time I pleased.

She was a mischievous woman who loved a good joke. For years, she had an ill-tempered chihuahua named Poochie. And for a short while, she had a pet monkey. I think the monkey was a gift from Aunt Jane and Uncle Leory, who went to Florida every summer with their seven kids, an assortment of dogs and my sister. I begged to go, too, but they said there wasn’t room in the pickup for one more.

Grandmother loved that monkey, even when it sneaked in the closet and relieved itself on Granddad’s Sunday shoes. She told Granddad she would go to church if he would preach in those shoes. He was not amused and the monkey had to go.

For me, the most interesting thing about my grandmother was how she made me feel—smart and capable and loved. When I wanted to talk, she listened. If I needed anything—a dish of peach cobbler, a shoulder to cry on or just a good laugh—I could count on her.

I counted on her most every day when I was growing. And I count on her still in memory.

I wonder what my loved ones will remember about me when I’m not around to remind them? What stories will they tell?

I hope they’ll remember that I made them feel smart and capable and loved. That I listened, baked peach cobbler, gave them a shoulder to cry on, made them laugh, and told every one of them they are my favorite, because they are.

I want them to count on me forever. And I’d love for them to tell stories about me. But not the stories I hope they’ll forget.

“Magic Words,” Sept. 28, 2021

A few days ago, I packed a month’s worth of stuff and drove five hours to spend a week with my oldest, his wife and their two little ones. Jonah is 2 and a half. Leilani will soon be 5 months old.

I wish you could see them.

It was a long drive, but I’m a nana. When a grandchild is born, nanas sign a mental contract to do whatever we can to stay close to them. FaceTime helps. But it’s hard to nuzzle a neck through a phone.

My son and his wife welcomed me back with open arms. If you are hip-deep in diapers with a baby and a toddler, you’ll take anybody who’s willing to help.

Our last real visit was when Leilani was born. Five months is too long to be absent from a little person’s life and expect to be remembered. Leilani was not glad to see me. She stared at me as if, at any minute, I might grab her and run out the door.

I’m not good with first impressions, but I tend to grow on people. So I held her. Sang to her. Kissed her toes. Watched her catch sunbeams with her starfish hands. And we talked about everything and nothing.

Finally, she smiled. And all was right with my world.

My grandmother used to say, when a baby smiles, God and all his angels say, “Ahh!”

I believe it. If you don’t, try this: When you see a baby smile, be very still and listen with your heart. It might change your mind.

It took work, but I think I am now Leilani’s favorite playmate—after her mama, her daddy, her big brother and any stranger or dog she sees at the park. I play with her mostly while Jonah is napping. If he’s awake, he wants me to play with him.

When Leilani was born, I spent a month at their house and Jonah and I got to be buddies. Then I left and we missed each other. This week, when I finally came back into his life, he ran into my arms.

“Hello, Nana!” he shouted. I held him close and nuzzled his neck. Then he took my hand and led me outside to throw rocks into his wading pool.

We got in a little trouble for that. So we promised never to throw rocks in that pool again. Nanas keep promises when we can. It’s written in our contract. Two-year-olds try, but they tend to forget. Jonah’s mom finally drained the pool and we had to find other things to do.

We did puzzles. I’d put them together and Jonah would take them apart. I’d say “Oops!” and he’d fall down laughing.

We built with blocks. I’d stack them up and he’d knock them down. I’d say “Oops!” and he’d laugh until he was breathless.

We read books. I’d start one and he’d want a different one. I’d say “Oops!” and he’d laugh until he gagged.

I felt like the funniest nana ever. “Oops” was a magic word. But soon, we were over it. Then I remembered the magic words children never grow tired of. And this morning, when Jonah came running in to wake me, I said, “Wanna hear a story?”

His eyes grew wide. “OK!”

“Climb up,” I said, patting the bed. He crawled in and I pulled the covers up to our necks. He lay stock still, holding his breath, as I whispered the magic words: “Once upon a time….”

I wish you could’ve seen him.

I told him three stories, two I learned as a child (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “The Three Little Pigs”) and one about a boy named Jonah and his nana. Its last line was “And they lived happily ever after.”

Then I said, “The end” and Jonah’s eyes studied mine as if looking for something he knew was there. When he found it, he said these magic words: “I love you when you come back.”

The saddest part of happy times with someone we cherish is having to say goodbye. It will be hard to leave Jonah, his sister and mom and dad. But nanas keep coming back, if only on FaceTime or in memory. It’s written in our contract.

Lord willing, I’ll come back soon.

“Just a Box of Chocolates,” Sept. 21, 2021

My sister will celebrate her birthday this week, but it won’t be much of a celebration. Never mind how old she is. I’d tell you, but if she found out, I might not live to see my next birthday.

Trust me, you don’t want to mess with my sister. I learned that lesson the hard way when we were growing up.

Bobbie is a force to be reckoned with. She was, as a little girl, standing her ground against boys who were older and bigger. And she still is even now, lying in a hospital bed, weak and frail and unable to walk.

After a long, scary spell of strokes, bad falls, ambulance rides and hospitalizations, Bobbie seems to be growing weary of fighting to stay alive. I don’t blame her for that. Given the same battle, I doubt I could last half as long. But I don’t want her to give up.

That’s what I tell her when we connect on the phone. Not every day, but a few times a week. I call more often than that, but she doesn’t always answer.

Sometimes she’s sleeping or eating and doesn’t want to quit. Or she’s busy giving dirty looks to a nurse who wants to check her vitals, or a rehab specialist who dares to ask her—politely, I am sure—to flex her knee one more time, even if Bobbie says it hurts like you know what.

As a retired ICU nurse with a life of experience, my sister has little patience for anybody she thinks isn’t old enough or smart enough to tell her what to do.

I pray for those people. Bless their hearts. And I pray for Bobbie as I have since the day I learned how to bow my head.

She has always been my big sister, someone to laugh with, confide in and count on to have my back and set me straight.

When our parents divorced, she told me not to worry, we would be sisters forever.

When our brother Joe was born blind, she said it wouldn’t matter to anybody except to people who didn’t matter.

When I left for college, and she stayed home with three babies and a bad marriage, she told me to have fun and make her proud.

When my first husband died of cancer, she flew to California, put me to bed and let me sleep. Then she took me to Mexico and made me pose for a photo with her and a live chimpanzee.

I wrote a column once about how we’d argue over the “right way” to make iced tea. That column won a national award and Bobbie took full credit.

I could tell you so many stories about her. Instead, I’ll just say this: One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is simple. Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we’ll probably need to reverse roles with someone we love. It happens with couples and parents and grown children and siblings. I’ve learned it firsthand. Maybe you have, too.

I never dreamed I’d need to reverse roles with my sister. I liked being the “little sister.” I didn’t want it to change.

Long ago, after our mother died, Bobbie stepped up to take Mama’s place for our brother. For years, they have visited often and phoned each other every day. Bobbie would call me, worrying about Joe. Now Joe calls me, worrying about her.

But lately, Bobbie has spent more time in hospitals than at home. And like countless other patients under Covid-19 restrictions, she hasn’t been allowed to have visitors.

Not even on her birthday.

She doesn’t want gifts. All she wants is to get well and go home. And I can’t give her that. So I sent her a big box of chocolates. I hope it reminds her of “Forrest Gump” and how we laughed watching it together.

Meanwhile, I keep praying for my “big sister.” I don’t know what it does for her, but for me, it gives me hope. Maybe next year Bobbie and Joe and I and our whole family can celebrate her birthday together. And she can tell me, once again, the “right way” to make iced tea.

“An Interesting Woman,” Sept. 14, 2021


How well do you know the people you love? What stories do you tell about them? How do you hope they’ll remember you?
Most people are interesting, if we get to know them. But to me, my grandmother was more interesting than most. I love to tell stories about her. Especially the ones she hoped I’d forget.
She and my granddad married when they were too young to know better, but their marriage and their love lasted forever. One of my favorite memories is seeing them slow dance together in the kitchen to music that played only in their hearts.
They had twelve babies, suffered the loss of two, and raised nine chatty girls and one timid boy who seldom got much chance to speak. The kids grew up, married and produced a barn full of grandkids. We were close as a family, packing like dressed-up sardines into my grandparents’ house to share Sunday dinner, sit on the porch, swap stories and swat flies.
Not all of my memories of my grandmother are happy ones. My mother married my dad when she was 15, divorced him when I was 2, and moved back home with my older sister and me to live with her parents. I recall, as a child, covering my ears at the sound of heated, hurtful arguments between the two women I loved most.
I was 4, and didn’t know why they fought. I later learned reasons, but reasons aren’t always a cause. Some people are like fire and gasoline. They can’t mix without blowing up.
Mama got a job as a waitress, and Grandmama took care of me. I loved it. I was sure I was her favorite grandchild for two reasons: One, I needed to be somebody’s favorite. And two, she told me I was hers.
My cousins claimed she said they were her favorites, too. But with them, she was being nice. With me, she really meant it.
I wish you could’ve known her.
She was a preacher’s wife who seldom went to church, said she loved Jesus, but couldn’t abide sinners pretending to be saints.
She liked to play cards with Aunt Agnes against Granddad and Uncle Hugo, and loved to win, even if she had to cheat. If she gave me wink, it meant the menfolk were going down.
She wore fancy hats and lots of costume jewelry and let me try them on any time I pleased.
She was a mischievous woman who loved a good joke. For years, she had an ill-tempered chihuahua named Poochie. And for a short while, she had a pet monkey. I think the monkey was a gift from Aunt Jane and Uncle Leory, who went to Florida every summer with their seven kids, an assortment of dogs and my sister. I begged to go, too, but they said there wasn’t room in the pickup for one more.
Grandmother loved that monkey, even when it sneaked in the closet and relieved itself on Granddad’s Sunday shoes. She told Granddad she would go to church if he would preach in those shoes. He was not amused and the monkey had to go.
For me, the most interesting thing about my grandmother was how she made me feel—smart and capable and loved. When I wanted to talk, she listened. If I needed anything—a dish of peach cobbler, a shoulder to cry on or just a good laugh—I could count on her.
I counted on her most every day when I was growing. And I count on her still in memory.
I wonder what my loved ones will remember about me when I’m not around to remind them?
What stories will they tell?
I hope they’ll remember that I made them feel smart and capable and loved. That I listened, baked peach cobbler, gave them a shoulder to cry on, made them laugh, and told every one of them they are my favorite, because they are.
I want them to count on me forever. And I’d love for them to tell stories about me. But not the stories I hope they’ll forget.

“Songs from the Soul,” Sept. 7, 2021

On a recent Sunday morning, when we weren’t quite awake, but the coffee was hot, my husband picked a CD from his vast collection and said, “We could use a little Gospel.”

He was right. We hadn’t played it in ages. But when something finds a home in your soul, it stays with you forever.

“Steal Away – Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs,” by bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones is an instrumental collection of hope. It was released in 1995, which is likely when my husband bought it. He first played it for me 20 years ago, when we started dating. He was my friend and former editor. I knew him well. But hearing that CD made me want to know him better.

If you’re a fan of Gospel music, or even if you’re not, I’m pretty sure you’d like “Steal Away.” I know every song on the album. They’re all instrumentals, but I learned the lyrics as a child growing up in the South, where Gospel and Country played nonstop on every radio.

My husband never complains if I sing along with the CD. I like that about him. I could tell you stories about those songs, how I heard them as a child and replay them in my memory, like good medicine, as often as needed.

Here’s my favorite: The first title on the album is “It’s Me, O Lord (Standin‘ in the Need of Prayer.)” It reminds me of a time long ago when I felt I was drowning in doubt and fear.

My first husband was a high school teacher, a basketball coach, a marathon runner and the father of our three children. When he was 49, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he had six months to live. By the strength of his will and the grace of God, he stretched those six months into four great years. But when he could no longer teach or coach or climb the stairs, we knew the end was near. And I began to doubt, not his strength, but mine.

How would I do this? How could I be all that my husband and our children needed me to be? How could I make our last days be the best of our 30 years? I couldn’t think of any answers. But some good friends gave me what I didn’t know I needed. They arranged to take care of my husband for a weekend and sent me off on a “silent retreat.”

Maybe you’ve never heard of such a thing. Neither had I. The best part of it is not needing to talk. Silence can be a godsend. On arrival, I was told I could walk in the rose garden, reflect on the reflecting pool or practice not talking. Otherwise, all I had to do was eat, sleep and pray.

But there was a catch. I was asked to make a list of every person and thing I wanted to pray for, and give the list to the retreat leaders, who would pray for every concern I had listed. I was to pray for just one thing: Me.

Me? I usually prayed for loved ones or, well, the whole world. I seldom found time to pray for myself. Where would I start?

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, my soul began to sing a song from my childhood: “It’s me, it’s me, oh Lord….”

And I found myself singing along.

At the end of that song, I asked God for three things: A vision for the days ahead; an assurance that I would be all my husband and children needed me to be; and an unwavering faith to give me hope and free me from fear.

The next morning I awoke from a dream I’ll never forget—a beautiful vision of what would be my husband’s final days. It assured me that he and I and our children would have all we needed—grace and peace and hope and joy—with the love and support of a great many friends. In the end, we’d all agree, “It was a fine and lovely departure.”

That dream that came true for me and my husband and our children. I wanted it for all of us. But I asked it first for myself.

It’s good to pray for others. The world needs all the prayers it can get. But sometimes, if I’m beset by doubt and fear, I find it helps to sing along with my soul, “It’s me, it’s me, oh Lord….”

“A Summer to Remember,” Aug. 31, 2021

Years from now, when you look back on this summer, what will you remember best? Will you smile at the memory, or wish it had been different?

Summers in my childhood meant freedom. I’d roam for hours through pastures and orchards, chasing cows, swatting flies and eating peaches off the trees. Best of all, I’d spend a few weeks on my grandparents’ farm in the mountains being doted on by my grandmother.

Every child should get to spend at least one summer in freedom, running and roaming and being doted on. Actually, I think we should all get to do that. What else is summer for?

When my children were small, I tried to keep their summers as free as possible, especially if it kept them out of the house. We lived in a small town on the coast of California, with no pastures or orchards, but the kids roamed on bikes on the street behind our house. Instead of cows, they chased each other through poison oak patches in a forest-like park a few blocks away. Or we piled into the van and drove a mile to the beach to hunt for shells in tidepools and get sunburned.

Our only official vacation was a week camping every August, in Yosemite National Park. Talk about freedom. The kids roamed and hiked and played all day, running through the campground, splashing in the river, smiling up at Half Dome. At night, when they fell asleep, I’d leave them in the tent with their dad and go to the river to stand on the bridge staring at stars and comets and bears.

Fortunately, the bears were more interested in foraging for food than bothering with me.

There were a few summers when we splurged and flew to the Carolinas to visit my family. The kids were thrilled to chase lightning bugs, shoot fireworks, run from thunderstorms, churn ice cream and let my mother, their “Mimi,” dote on them. If you asked them, I think they’d say most of their summer memories make them smile.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about my grandchildren. My husband and I share nine grandbabes, ages 11 years to 3 months. The youngest are too young to remember much. But what about the older ones? What will they remember about this, our second summer dealing with Covid-19 restrictions?

Their parents have worked hard to give them a summer of freedom—time to roam and explore and learn and have fun. Randy, Wiley, Elle and Henry go snorkeling in wetsuits at the beach. Charlotte, Archer and Bee swim at their Grandpa John’s ranch. Jonah, who’s 2, and Baby Leilani play at a park most every day. They’ve all had a lovely summer. My husband and I haven’t doted on them as often as we’d like. But I think, when they look back on this summer, they will smile.

What about the rest of us?

Lately, smoke from wildfires in Northern California has traveled far and wide, causing air quality to fall to unhealthy levels in many places, including at our home in Carmel Valley.

But last night, for the first time in days, the air cleared and my husband and I sat outside and enjoyed a warm, smoke-free, beautiful summer night.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

Years from now, looking back on this summer, we will surely recall all the hardships and loss that have been suffered by so many. How could we forget?

But I also want to remember every time I doted on a grandchild. Every birthday we celebrated together. Every meal, every talk, every hug I shared with someone I love. Every song that made me dance. Every joke that made me laugh. Every bird that sang through all the smoke and all the fears. And every bright and shining star I saw last night.

What will you remember best about this summer?

I hope it makes you smile.

“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.