“Things We Do for Love,” July 25, 2023

NOTE: Last week I posted the eulogy I wrote for my sister, who recently passed away. This column recalls one of my all-time favorite memories of her. It’s from 1999.

COLUMBUS, N.C. _ It’s midnight and I look bad _ in a T-shirt and cutoffs that are covered in cookie dough, my hair wet from the pool _ and I’m going to the hospital to see my sister in Intensive Care.

I shouldn’t have answered that phone. When it rings this late at night, it is never somebody calling to give me good news or money.

But it was ringing off the hook a few minutes ago when I came in from the pool, and the sound of a phone ringing off the hook is not something most of us can ignore.

I’d been floating in the pool for an hour, maybe, looking up at a pale Carolina moon and feeling pretty darn lucky. Working vacations don’t get better than this. Especially if they happen to be mine.

I left California two months ago to spend some time in the South, writing columns and visiting family and old friends. I rented a house with a pool near Columbus, where my mother and about half of all my relatives are buried, and a few miles from Landrum, S.C, where most of the other half _ my sister and two brothers, my nieces and nephews and my stepfather _ still live.

They leave me alone, usually, to let me write by day, unless they want to use the pool. But when it gets dark, they get restless. Restless and dangerously hungry.

Then we all have to decide where we want to eat, my place or theirs, or which restaurant. I’ve eaten more in the last two months than I did in my 27 months of pregnancies.

But tonight was different. My sister had to work. My brother was out of town. And I, for once, wasn’t hungry. We all agreed that going our separate ways for one night wouldn’t kill us.

So I decided, instead of the traditional Southern fare I’ve porked on lately, to try something a bit less fried _ a salad with fat-free dressing and a baked potato with cottage cheese. It wasn’t good, but it made me feel smug. Until it got dark. And I got hungry.

So I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies, ate half the dough raw and baked the rest. Then I ate half the ones that didn’t burn, left the other half to cool, stuffed myself in a swimsuit and headed for the pool. That’s when my sister called from the hospital sounding half dead, begging me to come see her in ICU, as if I had nothing better to do.

What? No, she’s not a patient. She’s a nurse. How did she know I was baking cookies?

‘’Bring me some!’’ she begged.

‘’Not a chance,’’ I said.

‘’But I’m starving,’’ she whined.

‘’Nice try,’’ I snorted.

‘’I would do it for you.’’

‘’Would not!’’

‘’Would, too!’’

‘’OK, but I’m not coming in. You have to come out to the car.’’

She meets me in the parking lot, grabs the cookies, asks about my day. Then I spot the hydrangea (my grandmother called hers a snowball bush) abloom on the hospital lawn.

‘’Would you get fired if I got caught picking some of those snowballs?’’ I said.

‘’Probably,’’ she said, ‘’and you could get snake bit in that bush.’’

She thinks a snake warning will stop me. She’s right. It does.

‘’Oh, all right,’’ she says finally, glancing around the parking lot, ‘’you wait here. I’ll go pick ‘em for you. But if I get fired for this, I’m moving in with you!’’

And suddenly, there she goes doing what she does best, being my bossy, stubborn, one of a kind big sister, sneaking up on a bush under cover of darkness, risking her job and snake bites and getting mud on her white shoes to bring me snowballs in July.

The very sight of her _all hunched over in her uniform, snapping stems and swearing at me under her breath _ fills my heart so full it aches. I wish you could see her _ the way she makes me laugh, how she always shines brighter than a Carolina moon.

And that, I swear, is the only reason (though she’ll deny it) that I turned on my headlights, lit her up like Christmas, and honked the horn really loud.

I wanted the whole world to see my big sister, in all her glory.

If she gets fired, she can come live with me.

My Sister’s Eulogy, July 21, 2023

NOTE: Many of you knew my sister, if only in my columns. After years of declining health, she recently left this world for the next. Knee surgery will prevent me from attending her memorial service. But I will be there in spirit, and in the words of this eulogy:

I am sorry I can’t be with you all today. Bobbie would not be pleased about it, but I think she’d forgive me. I just hope she’ll also forgive me for things I’m about to say.

Let’s start with a memory. When Bobbie was 8, she decided it would be fun to scare a boy who lived nearby. So she put a sheet over her head and went at him, trying hard to look and sound like a ghost. The boy was chopping wood. He tried to kill her with an ax. All that saved her was Cousin Sandy screaming, “No! That’s not a ghost! It’s just Bobbie!”

So many times over the years, I’ve shaken my head at something my sister did or said, and thought to myself, “Well, that’s just Bobbie.”

She always seemed to know what I needed to hear. When our parents split up, she told me not to worry, we would always stick together because sisters can’t get divorced.

When our brother was born blind, she said it wouldn’t hold him back, it would only make him stronger and his blindness wouldn’t matter except to people who didn’t matter at all.

When I won a scholarship and was heading off to college, leaving her with three small children and no free babysitter, she told me to have fun and make her proud.

When I moved to California of All Places to marry a Yankee, she flew out to be matron of honor at my wedding, and brought 4-year-old Wendi to be my flower girl.

When my husband died, she put me to bed and made me rest and helped my children and me to grieve. Then she took me to Mexico and made me pose for a photo with a live chimpanzee.

Years later, when I introduced her to my former editor, she told me straight-faced, if I didn’t marry him, she would. So I married him.

I could tell you a lot of stories about my sister. No doubt, you could tell me some stories about her, too. She was always a story just waiting to be told. And she could make me laugh like nobody’s business _ even if she wasn’t trying to be funny. But what I most want to tell you today are not stories, but things I think Bobbie would want you to know. I’ve thought and prayed about it, and I keep coming back to one simple word: Love.

Bobbie loved life. She loved her parents and grandparents, sister and brothers, aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins in a big crazy family that meant the world to us. She loved her children and grandchildren, her friends and neighbors and co-workers that she treasured. She even loved the patients that she treated as a nurse over the years. Well, most of them. And yes, she loved Elvis. And Willie Nelson. And fried chicken. She loved like a house on fire.

Was her love a perfect love? No. Only God can love with a perfect love. The rest of us just try to do the best we can. Bobbie tried to do her best. She loved us. And she always will.

People leave, but love remains. In days to come, when she visits us in memories, we will feel her love. And we will shake our heads and whisper, “That’s just Bobbie.”

“A Time to Dream,” June 27, 2023

This column is from 2015.

On my way back from the post office, I drove past a school. The parking lot sat empty, the place looked abandoned, like a dry well waiting for rain.

Summer vacation. The thought made me smile. As I waited at a red light, something zipped by my window: A boy, 10 or 12, sailed along the sidewalk on a skateboard _ kick, glide, kick, glide _ with his eyes, mind and fingers locked on a cell phone, texting. When he stopped at the curb just inches shy of traffic, I whispered, “Thank you!”

He glanced up to see the light had changed, then skated across the intersection texting all the way. I watched until he was out of sight. When the car behind me honked, I moved on.

Driving home, I kept thinking about that boy. Things have changed since I was his age. Yes, I do mean in more ways than just the discovery of fire.

Summers in my childhood were spent doing … mostly nothing. We lived miles from town surrounded by cow pastures and apple orchards, with a railroad track 50 yards from our back door.

I remember sitting for hours in an apple tree, daydreaming, watching clouds, tossing apples down to the cows and listening for the rumble of a train. When I heard it in the distance and felt the tree start to tremble, I’d scramble down and hold my breath, waiting.

The cows never knew what to make of it. They’d just stand there looking puzzled. Cows like to do that. If they could scratch their heads, they would.

As the engine roared by, I’d jump up and down, scattering the cows and waving my arms at the engineer. He in turn, bless his good, kind heart, would blow the train whistle, just for me.

Talk about fun. Clouds and cows and trees and trains and apples and kindness and, best of all, time to daydream. What more could a child _ or anyone _ want from summer vacation?

My children grew up on the coast of California’s Monterey Peninsula surrounded by beaches and parks and urban forests, just a few blocks from the Little League baseball field.

“Go play,” I would say, and they would.

I made sure they (and I) had time to daydream. What else is childhood (and motherhood) for? That’s what I want for my grandchildren, and for yours: A daydreaming kind of summer.

The skateboarder on his cell phone made me wonder: What will his summer be like? Will he take time to daydream? 

I surely hope so. We are all, I believe, contemplative creatures by nature, thoughtful and imaginative and curious. We long to examine our lives, to understand how we feel, to imagine possibilities and make great decisions for our futures.

Cows aren’t the only ones who find it hard to understand what’s going on. To do that, we need time to do “nothing;” to connect with ourselves and each other with our eyes and words and touch and hearts and souls.

My grandparents often sat on their porch on summer evenings saying little, enjoying the quiet, waving at passing cars. I loved sitting there with them.

My husband and I have a similar ritual, sitting on the patio, listening to birdsong and marveling at the sunset.

Machines and gadgets are grand inventions. Who would want to give them up? But somehow we need to learn to control how we use them, rather than allowing them to control us and our children and our lives.

It sounds simple, but it’s strangely hard to do. We need to summon the courage to shut them off once in a while _ our cell phones, TVs, computers and other diversions _ and allow ourselves the joy of being fully human, fully aware of life in ourselves and in others and in the world all around us.

Sometimes we need to do nothing. Especially in summer.

Here’s wishing you and yours a summer to dream.

“A Few Good Words,” June 19, 2023

This column is from 2022.

What are your favorite words? What’s the best thing anyone has ever said to you? What’s the best thing you say to others, and maybe need to say to yourself?

Words matter. They make a difference, good or bad, whether spoken or left unsaid.

Think of some words that have changed your life: “Yes.” “No.” “I do.” “I won’t.” “Help me.” I’m sorry.” “I love you.” “Goodbye.”

I recall countless times when saying those words marked a fork in the road that took me in a new direction. Can you recall times like that, too?

For more than 30 years, I’ve been privileged to work as a writer, and I never cease to be amazed by the power of words.

Do you ever read or hear something you wish you had written or said? I do that most every day. I come across words that are so profoundly good I want to keep them forever. So years ago, I started a file I call (drum roll, please) “A Few Good Words.”

It’s a hodge-podge collection of dozens of quotes and more than a few poems that I like to think were written just for me. Whenever I take time to read through that file, as I did just now, I find myself nodding and smiling. And for a while, my world becomes a better place. Here are a few of the words in that file that speak to me. I hope they speak to you, too:

– “Esse quam videri.” That’s the official motto, adopted in 1893, of my homestate, North Carolina. It means, “To be, rather than to seem.”

-“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” — Robert Frost, from “The Lesson for Today.”

– “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” — Audrey Hepburn.

– “I have mean dogs and they will bite you.” — Kiowa Waters, my great-niece at age 5, warning her California cousins not to mess with her. I’m tempted to post it as a sign in my driveway.

– “The time is always right to do what is right.” — Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

-“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”—Mark Twain.

– “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.” — writer Billy Wilder, in a nod to the last line of “Some Like It Hot.”

– “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” — Reba McEntire.

– “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time and it annoys the pig.”—Lazarus Long.

– Whenever I’m invited to speak at an event, I try to heed this wise advice on speaking by national security advisor Anthony Lake: “Think of yourself as the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but no one expects you to say very much.”

– Two quotes by Johnny Cash: “Trust gets you killed, love gets you hurt and being real gets you hated.” And “All your life, you will be faced with a choice. You can choose love or hate…I choose love.”

– Two quotes by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

– Two quotes from Mother Teresa: “People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered; forgive them anyway.” And “Peace begins with a smile.”

– Here’s a Bible verse I learned as a child from my granddad, who was, among many things, a Baptist preacher. This verse, like his love, has seen me through a lot of hard times: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33.

– Finally, I don’t know who said this, but it’s a strong contender for my epitaph: “Here lies a woman of whom it was said, her sins were many, but her columns were read.”

Words matter. What do you need to hear? What do you need to say? Here’s wishing you and yours a lifetime of good words.

Father’s Day, June 18, 2023

NOTE: This column is from 2021.

Who’s the first person on your list for Father’s Day cards? This year, I took a mental list of six names into a store and stared at a rack of cards, hoping to find six that would be perfect, or at least not too terribly bad.

The list did not include my dad, my stepdad, my granddads or my children’s dad, who all left this world long ago. They were good fathers. You’d have liked them. I loved them dearly. I often give thanks, not just on Father’s Day, for what they meant to me and my children.

But I no longer send them cards. Instead, I take a few moments to remember them and the things they did that made me happy. It always puts a smile on my face. I think they’d like that better than a card. And besides, they didn’t leave a forwarding address.

Why do Father’s Day cards (the few that are still left when I shop for them) often seem unbelievably bad? Don’t dads do more than fish? Or grill? Or take naps? Or tell dumb jokes? Some might do all of those things. But that’s not exactly why we love them.

My dad never touched a grill. He loved to fish, told a lot of corny jokes, and after years of changing shifts each week at the mill, he might nod off mid-sentence. But I loved him for being the kind of father I needed, who made me feel smart and capable and loved.

My late husband was well respected and remembered as a teacher and a coach. The high school gym where he coached is named in his honor. He wasn’t someone who’s easily summed up on a greeting card. No one is, really.

But more than a teacher or coach, he was the kind of father our children needed to become the people they’ve become and to raise the grandchildren he never met, but would adore.

Much like their dad, my two boys are wonderful fathers. My youngest has three children. My oldest has two little ones girl. My grandson Henry’s dad never knew his own father. But he is determined to be the best dad ever to his little boy. And my stepson has been a fantastic, full-time, stay-at-home dad to his three babes.

I wish you could see them all.

For the past 20 years or so, the first person on my Father’s Day card list has been Papa Mark. That’s what our grandkids call him. He never knew my children (except through my columns that he edited over the years) until after they were grown.

Before we were married, when he was just my editor and friend, what I liked best about him was hearing him talk about his two boys, and seeing how devoted he was to them, though they lived hours away and he saw them mostly on weekends.

That was a lifetime ago. I had no idea of the kind of grandpa he would become to the nine grandchildren we now share. The kind who reads to them. Plays music with them. Grills burgers for them. Hunts lizards with them. And brings their nana her morning coffee.

Recently, when I went shopping for my long list of Father’s Day cards, I spent an hour or more rejecting card after card. Finally, I rolled my eyes and picked one for my husband that read: “The Man, the Myth, the Legend. Happy Father’s Day to one of a kind.”

For the others, I ended up with cards that were a bit sappy, not perfect, but the best I could find. I signed them all “Happy Father’s Day! So glad you’re a dad!” Papa Mark signed them, too (except his own) and took them to the post office.

When the dads open them, we hope they will like them. And that they’ll know we think they are exactly the kind of fathers their children need.

And maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll remember this old saying: It’s not the card, but the thought _ and the love behind it _ that counts.

“Making the Best of Life,” June 6, 2023

This column is from 2022.

My dad was a simple man. He loved simple food, like the cornbread his mother baked every day. Simple people, who never tried to put on airs. And simple pleasures, like hunting and fishing and being with me.

I loved most everything about him. He could also be what my mother called “hard to figure,” but I didn’t mind. I was a little hard to figure myself.

Dad grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, hunting, fishing and farming. He married my mother when he was 25. She was 15. They moved a few miles from the farm, near the mill where he worked different shifts every week.

My sister was born two years later. For a while, they were happy. When WWII began, Dad enlisted in the army. My mother begged him not to go, but he said he felt he had no choice.

He was shot crossing the Rhine River into Germany, and spent a month recovering in a military hospital. Finally, he was discharged and returned home to his family and his mountains and his job at the mill.

I was born a few years later. My mother never forgave him for going off to the war. They divorced when I was 2, and Dad moved back to the farm. I lived with my mother, but often spent weekends with him. He’d pick me up on Friday, and on our way to the farm he’d say, “A weekend’s not forever, but we’ll make the best of it.”

And we always did. He taught me how to ride a horse, milk a cow, slop a pig, drive a tractor … and that you don’t have to live in the same house with someone to know that they love you.

He also tried to teach me to fish, until he realized I’d much rather talk than bait a hook. Like most good parents, he taught by example more than by words. He kept every promise. Showed up on time. Worked hard at the mill, harder on the farm. Tipped waitresses at the cafe for ham and grits or just a cup of coffee. If I needed him, he was only a phone call away. And he never forgot to thank his mother for her cooking.

He loved her cornbread. So did I. But I’d never do what he did. At the end of a meal, he’d crumble a hunk of cornbread in a glass of buttermilk and spoon up every bite. I called it a waste of good cornbread. He called it making a good thing better.

We weren’t alike in every respect. But he was my dad, and I am _ and will always be _ his daughter, a simple woman, who loves simple food, simple people and simple pleasures.

He’s been gone for 30 years, but I remember him clearly and think of him often, in the same way I hope my children will remember and think of me.

Last night, in a rare mood, I decided to make a Boston cream pie. Never mind why. I just wanted one. As you may know, it’s actually a cake. I found a recipe online: Bake one layer of a cake, split it in half, fill it with custard, put the halves back together and cover it with chocolate sauce.

Sounds easy, huh? You also have to make the custard and chocolate sauce. I did it all in about three hours, thinking “this thing better be good.” After it chilled, I cut two slices, one each for my husband and me.

It was pretty good. Not great. My husband said he liked it, but he’s learned not to complain. The cake was dry. It looked a little like cornbread. Suddenly, I knew what to do. I cut two more slices, one for each of us. But this time, before serving, I crumbled them up a bit and drizzled them with milk. And “pretty good” got a lot better.

My dad would’ve loved it. Maybe not as much as he loved cornbread in buttermilk. But he’d be proud I remembered what he taught me.

Life is a lot like cooking. We can’t make everything the way we want it to be. But we can make the best of what we’re given.

The next time I want a Boston cream pie? I’ll buy one.

“A Time to Remember,” May 30, 2023

This column is from 2012.

Out of the blue, the boy asked me a question about a moment we shared years ago, he and I, a moment so momentous we would never be the same.

I remembered it, of course. How could I forget? I’d sooner forget my name. But that’s not what he was asking. He knew I hadn’t forgotten it. He just wondered what time it took place?

What time? As in hours and minutes?

Never mind, he said, It was just question, nothing important.

I smiled. He had no idea how important it was to me. Or how much it would haunt me, keep me awake, flipping dusty, dog-eared pages of my mind, trying to find the answer.

What kind of mother forgets the exact time her child was born?  It’s not like I wasn’t there. Yes, I had a few distractions. I didn’t check my watch. But still ….

Here’s what I do recall. I was 23 years old, married for nearly three years, living 3,000 miles from my family in a town so new and unfamiliar I could get lost going to the grocery store.

My husband had recently started teaching and coaching at a local high school. We had health insurance and a steady paycheck. We had been fortunate to buy a house for about two years’ worth of his salary. It would be our home for almost 50 years.

I was absolutely over the moon to be pregnant. All my life I had wanted to be a mother (a grandmother, too, but first things first.) I had limited hands-on experience with children, but had done a lot of reading and had no doubt I was ready for whatever lay in store.

Basically, I had no clue. It didn’t matter. What I didn’t know, the boy would teach me.

On the day he was due to be born, his father had to coach a basketball game. At half-time, I was sitting in the bleachers, like a whale riding side-saddle on a see-saw, when I felt the first contraction. At half time, I sent a note to the coach in the locker room: “In labor, might need to leave.’’

Minutes later it came back: “In foul trouble, game over soon.”

The game went into overtime. When his team finally lost, I had to bite my fist not to cheer. We went home to get my bag and a burrito for the Coach, then drove to the hospital in the same car the boy would drive 16 years later to get his driver’s license.

By 2 a.m., I was in hard labor. Or so I thought. Then it got harder. The nursing assistant was a woman whose son had been one of my husband’s students. 

“Don’t worry, child,” she told me, “I’m gonna take good care of you.” And she did _ not just for my first baby, but for my second, three years later, and my third, three years after that.

By afternoon, the second day, when I was still in “hard labor,” my husband made the mistake of asking me if I could “hurry it up a bit,” because he had another game to coach that night.

Later he would say he was joking. I was not amused. At one point, I heard him on the phone telling one of his players that he was sorry, but he needed him to fill in as coach at the game.

“I can hear you!” I said.

“Gotta go,” he whispered into the phone, “good luck!”

Things got a little fuzzy after that. Somebody told me to push, so I did, for a really long time, hours or days or years, I couldn’t say.

Next thing I knew, the Coach was laughing and I was holding a little person that had big hands like a King Kong action figure, tiny but huge, and a lop-sided head like the rag doll that accidentally went through the wringer of my grandmother’s washer. And he was looking up at me as if somehow he knew exactly who I was, someone that he was really glad to finally meet face to face. And I was falling, falling, fast and hard, forever and always in love.

What time was it? I can’t believe I forgot. What I clearly recall is this: It was the right time, not a moment too late or too soon, just when he was needed by the world, his dad and most of all by me.

But according to his birth certificate (that I finally found in a box after searching half the night) it was 5:57 p.m.

“Graduation,” May 23, 2023

It’s that time of year for all sorts of graduations, from preschool through college. The following column is a speech I was delighted to present at a high school graduation ceremony in 2014.

I am honored to stand before you on this fine and historic occasion. It is really quite something to look out at your beautiful, shining faces and see so much grace and poise and dignity, especially since we all know that not so long, you were still sticking peas up your noses.

Today you graduate from high school and it is my task to tell you as quickly and painlessly as possible something fine and inspiring that will stay with you all your life or at least won’t be so boring your dad will start snoring in the bleachers.

What I want to tell you is simple, but hard to remember. You can learn it 100 times and still forget. First let me say this: You are all achievers. You’ve been working toward this day all your life. You’ve learned how to take care of business, perform under pressure, do a job and do it well. That’s good. Keep it up. Achievers change the world. And Lord knows, the world needs lots of changing.

But while you’re busy changing things, here are some things I hope you’ll remember: Don’t work too hard. Don’t worry too much. Spend time with the people you love. Hold fast to your faith, whatever it may be. And live the life of your dreams.

My late husband was an achiever. For 30 years, he taught chemistry and coached basketball at Monterey High. In 1993, the year before he was diagnosed with cancer, he ran the Big Sur Marathon in just over 4 hours; not great time, but he finished and to him finishing was always more important than winning. And he truly loved to win. Almost as much as he hated to lose.

In class and on the court he stressed two things: Hard work, a term you know (or your parents will gladly explain it) and diligence, an old-fashioned word meaning “a constant and earnest effort to accomplish that which is undertaken.”

If you were in his class or on his team, you knew what those words meant because he taught them by his example. In the four years he battled cancer, there was never a doubt that he would continue, as long as he was able, to teach and coach and live the life of his dreams.

In the end, he told me that he had only one regret: He said if he could live his life over, he wouldn’t change a thing, except he’d spend less time at school and the gym and more time with his family and friends. He was proud of the classes he taught, the games he won, the lives he helped to shape. But what mattered most to him at the end of his life were the people that he loved.

Who are those people for you? Say their names in your mind. Now say them again. You will always have their love, but you won’t have them forever. Make sure that you treat them well.

Today when you marched in here, you were not alone. You carried on your shoulders the hopes and dreams and love of a lot of people: Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, your teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends.

They’ve all had a hand in helping you reach this point of your life, and they will always be glad to help you, if they can. But one thing will change when you leave here today:

From now on, you alone will be in charge of your life. You alone will decide what to do with it. Officially, you are one of us now. Yes, God help you, you’re a grownup.

You can’t control all the things that will happen to you in the future. And you can’t change the things that happened in the past. But you can choose what you do with those things _ past, present and future _ and how you let them shape you.

Going forward, there will be only one person to credit or blame for your life: You. You have your mother’s smile and your father’s eyes, but your life is all your own.

That is your graduation gift: Your life. I hope you like it. If it doesn’t fit or it’s not the one you wanted, feel free to exchange it. Be the person you want to be _ not the one someone else thinks you ought to be. Live the life of your dreams. Starting now.

I’d like to leave you with some tips from my grandmother. She was a smart woman, self-educated, though she never finished high school. She was wise in ways that can’t be learned in books. You’d have liked her, had you known her. She’d be proud of you. Here are some of her suggestions for “how to get along in the world.”

“Things My Grandmother Always Said, or Would Have Said if She Had Thought of Them”:

1. When you meet people, shake hands and look them in the eye and they’ll probably say nice things about you at your funeral.
If you’re going to tell a lie, tell one that people will believe. That way, you’ll only be known as a liar and not a lying fool.

2. Look after living things: Feed your animals, tend your garden, be kind to children and old people and everybody else.

3. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People can forgive ignorance, but they never forget a phony.
Be true to your faith and practice what you preach; in the eyes of God, the only thing worse than a heathen is a hypocrite.

4. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh. (It’s a lot like “don’t spit into the wind” but it’s more about the kind of company you keep than the kinds of things that you do.

5. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize at once. Say it like you mean it: “I apologize for my rudeness.” The only thing worse than rude is tacky and God forbid that you ever be tacky.

6. Avoid confrontation in the heat of anger, especially with members of your immediate family; remember that in some states, “the fool needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

7. If you have to swallow a frog, don’t look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; if you have to swallow two frogs, go for the big one first; and if you have to swallow three frogs, you might want to ask yourself what you’re doing in that pond.

8. Never say anything behind people’s backs that you don’t want to say to their faces. They’re sure to hear about it unless they’re dead and you should never, ever speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve really got it coming.

9. Don’t start doing anything that you don’t plan to do keep doing forever. (This applies mainly to marriage and children, but also to PTA, Rotary and church committees.) And never try to finish what shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

10. Finally, try to lead an interesting life, whatever kind of life that might be for you. To settle for anything less would be way worse than tacky.

It may seem that the world is in such a mess that you and your generation can’t do much to change it. Don’t believe that. Not for a moment. This is your turn to shine, and shine you will.

When you hear people say, “What’s this world coming to?” tell them that it is coming to you.

Thank you for listening. I am proud of you.

“Home,” May 16, 2023

NOTE: This column was written in 2018.

A lifetime ago, I grew up in these old blue mountains on the border between the Carolinas. After college, I moved to California of All Places (that’s what my mother called it) to raise a family and live the life of my dreams.

I’ve often come “home” for visits. Too often, for funerals. But this trip, if partly for work, was mostly for pleasure.

It began with a speaking engagement in Winston Salem, where my column has been carried for years. People I’d never met asked to see photos of my grandkids. It felt (I say with a wink) like a family reunion … without the fistfights.

After the talk, a few autographs, and a whole lot of hugs, I drove 150 miles south to a cabin on a lake in Landrum, S.C., the town where I grew up. My sister wanted me to stay at her house but I said I had to work. When I stay with her, not much work gets done.

For the past four days, I’ve spent a little time working and a lot of time with family and friends. And with beavers and ducks, geese and squirrels, and with so many reflections that tap dance on the surface of the lake and in the back corners of my mind.

My dad loved to fish. He wanted me to love it, too. I never did. But I learned to love the peace that’s found sitting beside still water.

Some of us, maybe all, feel a physical connection to nature –especially to the land where we grew up — that is as real and as binding as anything we’ll ever feel for flesh and blood.

That doesn’t mean we like mountains more than people. It just means that, to feel whole, we need to spend time with both.

I wanted time with family and friends. But I also wanted time alone with these mountains, with red dirt and still water and a dazzling Carolina moon. Lucky for me, I did all of those things and more.

The day after I arrived, my sister and I drove to Spartanburg to pick up our brother and go to dinner at his favorite restaurant. Joe is blind, but he knows the menu at Wade’s by heart.

“I’ll have meatloaf, mac ‘n’ cheese, macaroni salad and cole slaw,” he told the server, “and sweet iced tea, please.”

When the food came, Joe said grace. “Heavenly Father, thank you that I can be with both of my sisters today. Bless this food to our bodies and us to your service. In Jesus name, amen.”

We ate and talked and told stories, old and new. Then we took Joe to his apartment and drove back to my sister’s place to spend the evening with her son, his wife and their children: Kiowa, who trains horses for a living, and Cree, a high school senior, showed me videos of their rodeo competitions and talked about their love for riding and roping and, on occasion, getting thrown to the ground.

Yesterday, with a chill in the air, I stayed in the cabin most of the day, watching shadows of clouds and flocks of geese, while gusts of wind ruffled the surface of the lake. That evening my sister and I had dinner with some friends we’ve known forever and reminisced about others who are no longer with us. After dinner, back at the lake, I bundled up in a blanket and sat alone on the dock in the dark, counting stars on the water and blessings in my life.

And then, this morning, around 4 a.m., I awoke in bed to thunder and lightning and an old familiar sound: Rain falling on a tin roof.

Have you ever heard that sound? I hope so. I drifted back to sleep for a while, dreaming dreams I can’t recall. Finally, I got up to make coffee and watch the mist rise off the lake. It’s been raining all day. I’ve been writing. Writing and rain make good company.

Tonight I’ll have one last supper with my sister. We’ll say a long, hard goodbye. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I’ll go back to my other home, to my husband, children, grandchildren and friends, to the life and the land I love on the coast of California of All Places.

But I will take with me the precious gift of time that I have spent here with family and friends, with a good lake for fishing (even if I don’t fish) cradled in the arms of these old blue mountains.

Home isn’t a person or place that you visit and then leave behind. It’s a feeling that you carry with you forever in your heart.

“A Letter to Elle,” May 8, 2023

This column was written in 2015, for my then newborn granddaughter, who is now 8, going on 21.

Dear Eleanor Rose,

It’s late. You are in your crib, bundled up like a pink burrito, in a room next to your mom and dad, who fell into bed a bit ago, limp as overcooked noodles. Your dogs are in their crate. Your cats are in their beds. Your brothers are in their bunks. All is right with the world. Everyone is sleeping, except me. I’m awake thinking of you.

There are things I want to tell you, things you need to know. Isn’t that what nanas do? The problem is, I’m not sure what those things might be. I keep thinking of catchy wisdoms to help you in years to come. But they’re mostly things you’ll figure out on your own. And they aren’t so catchy or wise. Anyhow. Bear with me. I’m your nana. Listen up.

First, I want to tell you about your family, all of us, your mom’s and your dad’s. We’re an interesting bunch. Not so different from most families, but unique in our own ways. Families are like babies. On the surface, they might look alike, but look closer and you’ll see no two are quite the same. We may take some getting used to, but you’ll manage. The main thing to know about us is this: We flat-out adore you.

I wish you could see us, how our faces light up at the mention of your name; how our voices soften when we speak of you; how our eyes shine and hearts melt when we hold you. You should read all the notes and hear all the messages from those who couldn’t be here to welcome you in person, but sent their love, just the same.

Have you noticed all those flashing lights? Those are iPhones snapping your photo with some proud relative. You’re our trophy. Our treasure. Our hope. Our promise, despite all the misery in the world, that life is good and it goes on.

We will be your family forever in body or in spirit, watching over you and cheering you on. Not just those of us you’ll meet. There are countless others who left this Earth before you were born. They, too, will watch over you and cheer you on from afar.

That’s the thing about love, Eleanor. There isn’t any barrier, any distance it can’t cross. And here’s one more thing about your family. We can be a lot of fun to hang out with. You’ll see.

Next, I’d like to offer a little advice. Take it or leave it, but remember, in the game of life, you’re a rookie. I’m a pro. These are things the game of life has taught me.

1. Take care of yourself. If you don’t, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
2. Tell the truth. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Let your wealth be the gold others see shining in your words and your eyes and your deeds.
3. Treasure the men in your life and cherish the women, who’ll laugh with you in good times, weep with you in sorrow and tell you, “Honey, you’re not crazy.”
4. Pay attention. Be present. Count your blessings. Look for beauty and grace in everything and believe that you will find it.
5. Call your nana at least once a week. You can use other forms of communication, as well, but she’ll always need to hear your voice. If you visit her, she’ll spoil you rotten.

In closing, here’s a little secret: You are my favorite grandchild. Seriously. OK, it’s not a secret. You can tell your brothers and cousins. They’ll just laugh and say, “She tells us all we’re her favorites!” Which I do, of course. You are all my favorites. It’s not a competition. You each have your own place in my heart.

The older nanas get, our hearts keep getting bigger. My heart is pretty big. Take all the space you want.

I’m going to bed now. I need to take care of myself because I want so much, tomorrow and always, to help take care of you and your brothers and cousins.

Sleep well, sweet girl. Nana will watch over you. With her eyes closed. Possibly snoring. If you need anything, wake your dad.