“My Favorite Talking Tree,” June 25, 2019

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a tree. You might blame it on age. Or insanity. But I’ve always felt a kinship with Nature that is as real and as binding as anything I feel for flesh and blood.

Maybe you do, too. Maybe we are all born with a hunger to feel sun on our face and wind in our hair and dirt beneath our toes.

It’s not that we love Nature more than we love people. But we believe we’re all in this boat together, all of Creation. We’re all part of the family of God.

Sometimes I like to be with people. And sometimes I like to be alone. But once in a while, I just like to hang out with a tree.

In the Carolinas, where I grew up, there were more trees than people. Or so it seemed to me. Mountains grew thick with evergreens and were speckled with hardwoods that turned red and gold in fall. Valleys were quilted with acres of orchards that bloomed in spring to fill the air with a hailstorm of petals and a heavenly fragrance of apples and peaches and pears.

As a child, two trees were my favorites. The first was a tall hemlock that stood watch over my grandparents’ farm. Its long branches reached to the ground to form a giant umbrella under which I could hide for hours, sheltered from any storm.

My other favorite was an apple tree that grew in a cow pasture beside a railroad track next to the house where I lived with my mother, my stepfather and two brothers. It was a small house, noisy, and at times, unbearable.

Climbing that tree was like going on vacation. Not exactly Disneyland, but close. I’d perch on a branch, swaying in the wind, tossing apples at cows and waiting for a train. When the engine roared by, I’d pump my arm and the engineer would blow the whistle just for me.

But mostly what I did in those trees was just be still and listen. To the sigh of wind. The rustle of branches. The song of birds. The rumble of thunder. And, yes, the mooing of cows.

Trees like to talk. If we give them a chance, they’ll tell us things we need to know: That the world is a wondrous place waiting to be discovered and enjoyed; that there is shelter in every storm; that everything on the Earth is part of God’s family; and most of all, we are loved.

I learned those things from many sources — family and friends and life. But in some ways, I learned them by being still and listening to a tree.

My next favorite tree was a beckoning oak that wrapped its branches around the house where I raised my children. I helped the kids climb it when they were small and have since done the same for their kids. I loved that tree, and listened to it closely for almost 50 years.

Months ago, as I sat in an upstairs bedroom rubbing Flexall on my knees, I could swear I heard the oak whisper, “It’s time for you to move on.”

For one sobering moment, I thought it meant that I was dying. Imagine my relief to realize it only meant that my knees were tired of the stairs.

So we sold that house and moved to a one-level place in a nearby valley. It was hard to leave the old place and the oak. I’m hoping the new owners and their children (and maybe their grandkids someday) will love it and listen to it just as we did.

My new favorite tree is a flowering plum that welcomed us with a profusion of blooms the day we moved in. It’s a lot younger than my other favorite trees, but it likes to talk. I listen closely as the wind rattles its limbs and rustles its leaves.

It tells me things I need to remember, things I taught my children and hope to teach my grandchildren: That the world is a wondrous place waiting to be discovered and enjoyed; that there is shelter in every storm; that everything on the Earth is part of God’s family; and most of all, we are loved.

Listen. Can you hear it?

“Old (and Older) Friends,” June 18, 2019

I’m watching them across the table, two beautiful young women, deep in conversation. I wish you could see them.

Michelle and Joanna have been friends since they were born. They live miles apart now, but keep in touch with emails and texts and phone calls and occasional posts on Facebook.

When Michelle comes “home” to visit her family, she and Joanna try to meet for lunch, just the two of them. They always have a lot of “catching up” to do, and it’s easier to do alone, with no interruptions.

But this time they invited their mothers to join them. And not just because they’re hoping we’ll pick up the check.

Myra and I were friends before the girls were born. We met in church. She was a veteran mom with two young children, soon to have her third. I was a rookie, pregnant with my first.

I had a lot to learn. And Myra was born to teach. One day, I mentioned that a house on our block was for sale. Imagine my surprise when she and her husband bought that house and moved in across the street.

For the next 30 years, we were not just friends, but neighbors. The kind of neighbor who lets you borrow a cup of sugar knowing you won’t pay it back. Who brings you snickerdoodles at Christmas and a casserole when you’re sick. Who lets your kids run wild with her kids, or piles them in her station wagon and takes them to the park. Who can talk with you for hours in a circus of toddlers about hopes and dreams and faith and fears and how to stretch a pound of hamburger to feed a family of five plus four unexpected guests.

Michelle is Myra’s fourth child. Joanna is my second. They were born less than a year apart and grew up together more like sisters than friends.

In some ways, Myra and I grew up together, too, sharing recipes and children and life. Over the years, our lives took different directions. I worked for a newspaper. Myra taught school. The kids all grew up and moved on with their lives.

When I lost my husband to cancer, Myra wrapped me in her arms and made me promise to call her if I needed anything, or just wanted to talk.

In the long months that followed, it helped somehow just to look out my window and see the light in her kitchen.

Years later, when I remarried and moved to Nevada, Myra and I relied on our daughters to keep us posted on each other’s news.

Last year, after my husband retired, we left Nevada and moved back to the old house. And the next day, Myra and her husband welcomed us home with a plate of snickerdoodles.

Have you ever noticed how quickly a year can pass? Myra and I had been meaning to get together to “catch up.” But a year went by and it didn’t happen. So our daughters invited us out to lunch.

Now here we sit, talking and laughing and eating, the four of us, sharing news of our families and remembering old times.

I told them my favorite Myra story. It goes like this:

We were camping, Myra and I and our seven kids. We had put the kids to bed in a tent and stayed up late talking, when a raccoon big enough to play in the NFL climbed on the picnic table and started eating our snacks. Myra gave me a look as if to say, “Watch this.” Then she banged on the table with a stick. And the raccoon gave her a look, as if to say, “Seriously?” Then he bared his teeth and hissed in her face. And she dove into the tent.

We all laughed at that story, as we often have before. Then the girls went back to talking, just the two of them. And Myra and I picked up where we’d left off.

Our daughters can talk the chicken off the bone.

I wonder where they learned to do that?

“Father’s Day,” June 11, 2019

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week. The following replacement column is from June, 2017. _ Sharon)

My dad left this world long ago but my memories of him shine clear and bright and true.

I think of him often. I picture him fishing. Smokin’ and jokin.’ Telling stories. Making me laugh. In every memory, his laugh is the same old chuckle. His eyes are as blue as the lakes he loved to fish. And the thought of him lights me up like the little girl who lay awake at night waiting for him to come home from the mill.

When I was a child, I felt sure the sun rose and set in my daddy’s eyes. My mother did not share that feeling. Maybe she did the night they ran off to get married. She was 15, he was 25. They divorced when I was 2.

I lived with my mother, but often spent weekends and holidays with my dad on his parents’ farm in the mountains of North Carolina. Most of the year, we were 40 miles apart. Yet he remained an everpresent and reassuring light in my life.

That is love. You don’t need to be together to feel it, to know it’s true. Love doesn’t end when loved ones are apart. It stays with one and follows the other over space and time and even over death, never letting go.

My dad wasn’t perfect. Neither am I. If you think you are, you might want to think again. Dad was stubborn. Hard-headed. Opinionated. And after years of changing shifts at the mill, he had a tendency to fall asleep at inconvenient times — in church or in conversations or occasionally at the wheel. He never wrecked, but came close. I’d yell, “Daddy! If you kill us, Mama will be mad!”

Then he’d quit snoring and start singing, “Hey, Good-Lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?” like he wasn’t really asleep.

He taught me to ride a horse, milk a cow, drive a car and speak my mind. He tried to teach me to fish, but saw that it was hopeless. He’d give me a dollar and say, “Don’t spend it all in one place.” He never forgot my birthday. And he sent me notes in a secret code: “Hope 2 c u b4 !” (“Hope to see you before long!”)

I remember seeing a scar on his back that he said he got from a Nazi bullet in WWII. “Mama told you not to go,” I said. “Why did you enlist?” “I loved your mama,” he said, “but I loved my country, too.”

My mother was often the talk of her mother and sisters, but my dad never spoke ill of her. I loved him a lot for that.

He bought one suit and wore it three times: To my graduations from high school and college; and to walk me down the aisle.

In his late 50s, he suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. I remember visiting him the VA hospital. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. Doctors said he’d never leave the hospital, but they didn’t know him as well I did. He worked hard learning to speak and walk again. Seven years later, when he was finally released with a bad limp, slurred speech and a paralyzed arm — he flew to California, to get to know his grandchildren.

The last time I saw him was on his porch in North Carolina. We had a good visit. He seemed happy. I fought back tears, said “I love you,” and drove away.

In the next few years, we spoke often by phone, but he never told me he was ill. I learned that fact from the note he left the night he took his life. He said that he had cancer, and wasn’t up for another fight. He’d had his fill of hospitals.

That memory is one I’d rather forget. But we don’t choose our memories. They choose us.

His final moment is a hard one to picture. But it’s only one of the many pieces of a beautiful puzzle that I cherish.

On Father’s Day, and every day, I remember my dad. He loved fishing. Smokin’ and jokin’. Telling stories. Making me laugh. He loved my mother. He loved his country. He loved my children. He loved me.

And he always will.

He was my father. I am his daughter. And some fine day, I “hope 2 c him again b4 _.”

“Graduation,” June 4, 2019

Every spring, as graduation season draws near, I polish up my speech and wait to be asked to share a few words of wisdom.

Sometimes it’s a long wait. I’ve spoken at quite a few high school commencements, but was never asked to speak at my kids’ ceremonies. It wasn’t that they feared I’d embarrass them. They were used to that. Maybe they just didn’t want to sit in the hot sun in a black cap and gown listening to the same old advice they’d been ignoring for years.

My high school graduation was a long time ago. Never mind how long. I don’t recall any of the speeches, not even the one I gave. People said they liked it because it was short.

I’m sure it included some sort of advice. We love to give it, and it’s cheaper than buying a gift. But what could it have been? Wisdom comes with age. At 18, my life had just begun, and I was dumb as a box of rocks.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot of the things that my grandparents and parents tried to teach me, but I had to learn them on my own.

My best teachers were my children. I earned a master’s degree in motherhood, and I’m now working on a Nana PhD.

Some years ago, in a commencement speech that I also summarized in a column, I offered the following advice that I’d collected from family and friends and readers and life:

1.When you meet people, smile, shake hands and ask about their mother, and they might say nice things about you at your funeral.

2. If you’re going to tell a lie, tell one people will believe. That way you’ll only be known as a liar and not a lying fool.

3. Take care of living things; feed your animals, tend your garden, be kind to children, old people and everyone between.

4. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People forgive ignorance but they never forget a phony.

5. Practice what you preach, or don’t preach at all. It’s better to be a heathen than a hypocrite.

6. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh.

7. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize. Always say please, thank you and I love you. And never forget to count your blessings, especially if it’s hard to remember what they are.

8. Avoid altercations in the heat of anger. Bear in mind, in some states, “the fool needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

9. If you have to swallow a frog, don’t look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; and if you have to swallow two frogs, go for the big one first.

10. Never say anything behind someone’s back that you won’t say face to face. They’re sure to hear of it, unless they’re dead. And never speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve got it coming.

11. Don’t start doing anything you don’t want to keep doing forever. And don’t bother to finish what shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

12. Never try to teach a snake not to bite; it’s a waste of time and you’ll end up getting bit.

13. Seek first to understand and last to be understood. Ask excellent questions and listen closely to the answers.

14. Show up, be on time, be prepared and follow through. Let your wealth be the gold that others see clearly in your words and your heart and your deeds.

15. Finally, lead an interesting life. You have your dad’s eyes and your mom’s smile, but your life is all your own. Do what you want. Follow your heart. Call your nana every Sunday.

That’s my graduation speech. I always end it in the same way I’ll end this column by saying this:

If you think the world is in such a mess that you can’t change it, think again. This is your time to shine. It goes fast. Don’t waste it. Make yourself proud. Shine like the sun and the moon and all the stars in heaven above.

Old folks say,”What’s this world coming to?” Tell them not to worry. It’s coming to you.

Thank you for listening. Yes, this is your gift.

“A Boy and a Bench,” May 28, 2019

There he sat, dangling his feet, my favorite grandson (they are all my favorites) on my favorite bench, taking his own sweet time to put on his shoes.

Wiley had just spent the night at our house. He had chased lizards with Papa Mark. Read books with me. And eaten more French toast than any 6-year-old ought to be able to hold. It was time to go, but he didn’t want to leave yet. He missed his mom and dad and big brother and even his bossy kid sister. Actually, he missed her a lot.

But there were more lizards to chase. More books to read. More time to enjoy having us entirely to himself. And half a bag of cookies out in the kitchen.

When I said it was time to go, he didn’t argue. He’s good that way. But as he sat on the bench and began to pull on his shoes, his smile faded and the room grew dim. Suddenly he looked at me and smiled once again.

“Are you happy my mom brought this back to you?” he said, patting the bench. It’s an old bench and a long story.

Some 30 years ago, a friend who was moving away said she wanted to give me a special gift: An antique wooden bench she had inherited from her family.

I loved that bench. I’d often admired it in her living room. It had a graceful curved back and hand turned spindles, one of which was missing, and it definitely showed its age. But somehow, just looking at it made me feel at home.

My friend was moving miles away to a smaller house with no room for it. I was stunned by her kindness. I told her I’d keep it until she wanted it back. No, she said, it was a gift, not a loan. Besides, she said, it looked like it felt at home with me.

We both cried. Over the years we lost touch, but I still think of her and pray for her, especially when I polish that bench.

It sat for two decades by the staircase in my living room. I hid the broken spindle with a pillow that was embroidered, “Home Sweet Home.”

Meanwhile, my life kept changing. I lost my husband to cancer. My children grew up and made me proud. When I remarried and moved from the coast to the desert, the bench went, too. It seemed a bit out of place in the desert, but for 12 years, it helped me feel at home.

Last year, when we moved back into the old house on the coast, I put the bench back by the stairs. As I stood there admiring it, I laughed. We’d been through a lot together, that old bench and I. Maybe we were both stronger than we looked?

Two months ago, my husband and I moved again, downsizing to a smaller house with great views and no stairs. I had to get rid of more stuff than I kept. Including the bench. I offered it to my kids. No one had room. So my daughter-in-law agreed to sell it for me. I told myself we’d give the money to some good cause.

Letting go is always hard, but it frees our hands and opens our hearts to embrace the gifts life is waiting to give us.

On Mother’s day, soon after we moved in, my son and his wife and their three children brought me a gift. My daughter-in-law had noticed a bare spot in our new home where the bench would fit and look great. So instead of selling it, she had someone carve and replace a perfectly matched spindle and repair a crack in one of the legs.

When she and my son carried it into our dining room, Wiley and his brother and sister beamed with pride. And I cried.

That’s why Wiley asked me today, “Are you happy my mom brought this back to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It made me so happy! Your mom is such a kind and thoughtful person.”

“I know,” he said, pulling on a shoe. “I love her so much.”

And, for a moment, I thought I saw that old bench smile.

“Writing in the Dark,” May 21, 2019

What do you do if the power goes off? Me? I don’t do much.

My husband was working, playing his bass in a band at a party for people we didn’t know. I stayed home to write a column. But first I washed my hair. Clean hair helps me think. So I washed and dried and de-frizzed it with a flat iron hot enough to split an atom. Why does hair always look better if it knows you’re not going out?

When I sat down to start writing, I realized it was 6 p.m., time for Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Finals with the Portland Trailblazers, a team I admire, and the Golden State Warriors, the team I love.

My husband, also a diehard Warrior fan, sets games to record if he won’t be home. Did he remember to record it? To check, I turned on the TV and tried changing channels.

Here’s a confession. I barely know how to work our TV. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I seldom watch it without my husband, and if he’s home, the remote is glued to his hand. But surely I could set it to record the game. How hard could it be?

So I started fiddling with the remote, switching channels back and forth and getting nowhere.

Then a funny thing happened. Everything quit. The TV. The remote. The Wi-Fi. Even the lamp. What did I do wrong?

Wait. The lamp? I tried some other lights. Nothing worked. Hah! The power was off! I was so relieved to think I didn’t break the TV I did a little victory dance. But why did the power shut off while I was fooling with the remote? Did I maybe, like, overload a circuit?

We had recently moved to a new place. I could barely find the bathroom, let alone the circuit breaker thingamajig. Even if I found it, could I fix it without risking electrocution or setting my hair on fire?

It was getting dark. Raining hard. My cell phone was nearly dead. The nearest neighbor wasn’t near. And we didn’t have a land line because my husband had insisted we’d never need it.

So I called him on my nearly dead phone. To my surprise, he answered. The band was on a break. I heard laughter. Folks were having a good time.

“Our power’s out,” I said, “and my phone is almost dead and I thought you ought to know in case you want to call me.”

He didn’t want to call. He just wanted to play his bass. No surprise there. I knew he was a musician when I married him.

He told me he’d gotten a text from the power company saying our power would be off until 10 p.m., about the time he’d get home. His big concern was if the TV was recording the game. He was also concerned for me, of course. He’d have said so, no doubt, if my phone hadn’t died.

Suddenly, my survival instinct kicked in. I found candles, but no matches. A big sweater and fuzzy socks. And a flashlight that worked, hallelujah, so I could maybe find the bathroom.

What would I eat? We had half a loaf of banana bread. And a stick of butter. I wouldn’t starve.

And what exactly would I do for four hours in the dark? I looked at my laptop. The battery was charged, good to go. So I decided to write this column. But first, I took a few moments to sit alone in a dark house, listening to rain and watching a neon sunset light up the clouds.

I thought about my sister, who lost power for five days in a blizzard and didn’t miss heat as much as she missed her TV.

And about my brother, who is blind and has lived his life in the dark, bearing every burden by turning his face to the light.

Somehow I didn’t feel alone any more. And I began to write.

Our power finally came back on. My husband got home early. The TV recorded the game and we watched it. The Warriors won. My hair was clean. And the column was almost finished.

When life seems hard, it helps to count our blessings, knowing it could always be harder, and that for some, it’s never easy.

“An Unlikely Reminder,” May 14, 2019

Someone sent me an email about a gas station in South Africa, where the owner posts daily “inspirational” quotes on a chalkboard in plain view of customers and passing drivers.

The email included some of the quotes, such as:

_ “It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd that’s going in the wrong direction.”

_ “When you forgive, you heal. When you let go, you grow.”

_ “I am a woman. What’s your superpower?”

_ “If you had to choose between drinking wine every day and being skinny, what would you choose? Red or white?”

_ “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Most of the quotes were thought provoking, even the funny ones. OK, especially the funny ones. But one quote was, for me, an entirely new thought: “Be who you needed when you were young.”

What does that mean? Is it suggesting we should be the kind of person we needed when we were young — for ourselves? Or that we should do it for our children and grandchildren and other young people we meet?

Maybe we should do it for all of us, young and old alike?

Here’s another question. Do you think it’s possible that the kind of person we needed when we were young is also the kind of person we’re meant to be?

Perhaps you’re wondering, with all the problems in the world, why would I choose to give so much thought to a quote from a gas station chalkboard?

I wonder that, too. But it’s not really a choice. Sometimes when my train of thought leaves the station, I just have to jump on board and see where it takes me. I’ve been riding this train for days, thinking about a person I needed when I was young.

My mother worked shifts at a mill, had four children, eight sisters, a demanding mother and little time for friends. But one day when I was 12, I came home from school and found her on the porch sipping sweet iced tea with the prettiest lady I had ever seen.

“Hello, child!” said the woman, cupping my face in her hands as my mother introduced us. I was hopelessly smitten.

Her name was May, a perfect name for someone as lovely and warm as the finest day of spring. Short dark hair, curled just so. Red lipstick. Brown eyes that lit up like fireworks when she smiled. And she smiled a lot, it seemed, especially at me.

She was my mother’s friend, but she became what I needed: A role model, a confidante and a grownup friend whose wise counsel I could always trust.

In the next few years, I spent as much time as I possibly could with May, sometimes overnight at her home, talking, laughing, crying, whatever, just being together. I told her everything, all the things I feared, all the things I hoped for and especially all the things I didn’t know.

I watched her the way a cat watches a butterfly. How she listened and encouraged and never spoke ill of anyone, even if they had it coming. How she was always compassionate and kind, not just to me, but to everyone, even strangers.

She was a woman of faith and grace and integrity, with a quick wit and a grand sense of humor.

I wanted to be just like her.

After I left home for college, May moved away and I never heard from her again. Years later, when I tried to reconnect, I was shocked to learn that she had died. I had been so sure that she would live forever. I don’t know if I told her how much she meant to me. I hope so.

How many souls do you think leave this world never knowing what they meant to someone?

Sometimes the best reminders come from unlikely places. Thanks to a quote from a gas station chalkboard, I thought of my friend May, someone I needed when I was young and still hope to be just like.

We don’t always mirror people we admire. But remembering them reminds us to keep trying.

“My One and Only Mama,” May 7, 2019

Recently I heard a joke that seems fitting for Mother’s Day. I would gladly cite the source, but I don’t recall where I heard it, just as I often don’t recall where I left the glasses that are sitting on my head. Here’s the joke:

During an exam to become a police officer, a young recruit was asked how he would respond if, in the line of duty, it became necessary for him to arrest his own mother.

The young man fell silent trying to imagine something so utterly unimaginable. Finally, he nodded and replied.

“If I had to arrest my mother,” he said, “the first thing I’d do is call for back-up.”

If you’re laughing, chances are you were blessed, as I was, to be raised by a formidable woman. The New Oxford American Dictionary on my laptop defines “formidable” as: “Inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable.”

The qualities in that definition fit my mother like an iron glove. She was not large physically, but to me, she was larger than life. She was also powerful, intense and extremely capable, not to mention insufferably stubborn.

She surely inspired fear and respect. I personally never dared to disrespect her, but my sister did. Once. She promptly learned never to do it again.

Having told you that, I will tell you this. Years ago for Mother’s Day, I wrote a column about all the women in my life who had been like a mother to me. I included my grandmothers, my aunts, a few teachers and Sunday school teachers, my mother-in-law and several mothers of my friends.

I called it “Mamas I Have Known and Loved.” My intentions were good. I meant no disrespect to my mother, and didn’t expect it to be a problem. The column was syndicated, but not in my hometown. I told myself there was no way she’d ever read a word of it.

That was not the first time I underestimated her, or made the mistake of doing something thinking I’d not get caught.

As fate would have it, someone was kind enough to mail that column to one of the mamas I had mentioned in it; who was kind enough to share it with my mother; who was kind enough, barely, not to kill me.

Imagine my surprise when I phoned, totally unsuspecting, to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Instead of “Hello,” she said, “I read what you wrote and all I can say is you need a few more mamas who aren’t me!”

Then she slammed the phone.

As with other disappointments in life, she took time to get over it. But she did. She always did. Forgiveness ranks high among all the skills needed for being a mother. It might be number 1. We never spoke of it again.

Years later, at the end of her battle with lung cancer, I spent three days at her bedside in the hospital. I sang to her hymns we had sung in church and songs she had sung with her sisters on the porch. I read passages to her from the Bible and told her stories that would have made her laugh, if not for the pain meds that made her sleep.

On the third day — the last day of her life — when my sister insisted I had to leave the hospital long enough to take a shower, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to go. But something made me look back.

She was sleeping peacefully. I went over to her bedside, leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Mama?” I said. “You’re my one and only mama. The only one I’ll ever have or want.”

Her eyes fluttered open and she gave me a look as if I had said something that made no sense, like peaches don’t have fuzz. It was a look I’d often seen from her over the years, but would never see again this side of Forever.

“That’s right,” she said, pointing her finger at my nose, “I’m your one and only mama. And don’t you forget it.”

I have never forgotten it. And I never will.

Especially — but not only — on Mother’s Day.

“The Nana Song,” April 30, 2019

Nothing has made me feel quite as close to God as holding a newborn fresh from heaven. I’ve felt it with every newborn I’ve ever held — with my nieces and nephews and the offspring of friends — but especially with my own three, and now, with my grandchildren.

There is something about an infant — all that helplessness and innocence and holiness — that calls upon the better angels of our nature to make us, at once, gentler and fiercer than we ever dreamed we could be.

As a child, I decided I would never intentionally harm any living being (with the exception of snakes, mosquitos and a certain rooster I abhorred), not even to spare my own life.

That changed in a heartbeat the moment I held my firstborn and smoothed his furrowed brow. I realized I’d do anything to protect him — kill with my bare hands, if need be. I was his mother. I would be fierce.

And I was not alone. I’ve known countless peace-loving women and men who’ve felt that fierceness in their souls at the birth or adoption or any sense of responsibility for any child.

It doesn’t dim with age. An old woman might let you give her your seat on a bus. But if you threaten a child, God help you. It’s why old people carry canes.

In our big, blended family, my husband and I share nine adult children (his two, my three, plus four of their spouses) and eight grandchildren, ages 8 to zero.

Jonah is our newest, barely two weeks old, the firstborn of my firstborn and his wife. I couldn’t wait to meet him. So I flew to Los Angeles, and was met at the airport by Jonah’s proud dad, who was grinning ear to ear. We hugged until I stopped crying. Then we drove to their home to meet Jonah.

First, I scrubbed my hands free of germs. Then I hugged Jonah’s mom. Finally I sat down and held my breath as she placed the boy in my arms.

I wish you could see him.

He looks a lot like his dad — big hands, furrowed brow and an ironclad grip on my thumb. He also has his mama’s almond eyes and heart-shaped face. But mostly he looks like Jonah.

I checked him out head to toe, smoothed the furrows from his brow and watched him grow still as he studied my face.

He seemed to like me.

So I went to work whispering in his ear things I’ve taught his cousins. For example:

1. How much does your nana love you? All. (That’s as much as anyone can possibly love.)

2. What do you do if you want something your parents won’t get for you? Call your nana.

3. Where is your nana when you can’t see her? In your heart.

I told him, of all the babies in Heaven and all the parents on Earth, God chose him and his mom and dad as the perfect match, along with their families, to be one big family together, to stand by him and keep him safe and watch him grow up to be the fine man he’s meant to be.

Then I sang for him a lullaby I once sang for his dad: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word….” It put him right to sleep.

It put me to sleep, too. For four days (if he wasn’t nursing, which he usually was) I held Jonah, and he held my heart.

Finally, I did the hardest thing to do with those we love: I said goodbye until next time, weeks away. He’s growing so fast he might be shaving by then. But it helped to know I was leaving him in the best possible hands.

Flying home, I nodded off until I heard someone snoring. I looked around. It was me. Here is the song it brought to mind:

I am Nana. Hear me snore. I hold the babies of my babies and teach them stuff they need to know. I sing them lullabies off-key, smooth their furrowed brows and pray for their very best. I’m not as young as I once was, but I am still fierce. And I plan to live forever in their hearts.

“A Smile Is Good Medicine,” April 23, 2019

It was a quick stop at the market at 5 p.m. — yes, the worst time of day to shop — to pick up a few essentials: Cream for coffee, eggs for breakfast and Advil for my splitting headache.

I’d been rushing all day, running errands, checking things off a lengthy to-do list. I did not want to play Demolition Derby with throngs of other weary shoppers. But I told myself it was my last stop before going home to put my feet up and watch my husband make dinner. Maybe I’d buy some pesto. The man is half Italian. He loves pesto pasta.

So I scored a parking place in a green zone, grabbed a bag from the trunk and found a cart that was left on the curb. Then I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and dove into the fray.

It wasn’t quite as crowded as I expected. I stopped briefly to rummage through a bucket of sunflowers and picked out the least wilted bunch. I can’t prove it, but something about sunflowers always seems to lower my blood pressure.

Next I grabbed a package of linguini and some pesto at the deli and moved on to the dairy aisle for eggs and cream.

That’s when I saw her. She was sitting in the seat of a shopping cart, padded all around with a blanket. She looked to be maybe 9 months old. Short blond curls. Blue eyes as big as hubcaps. Wearing a white lace dress with tights and shiny black shoes.

I would describe her mother, but I barely saw the young woman. I couldn’t take my eyes off the child. We stared at each other, she with her baby blues and I with my bloodshot browns. Then I did what I always do with children: I gave her my best smile. It looks a bit goofy, but it comes from my heart.

That’s a habit I formed long ago when I became a mother. Maybe I did it as a child, but I remember it best as a mom.

It started with my firstborn, in that unforgettable, life-changing moment when he was laid upon my chest and I watched him turn his tiny face up to find mine. I could not stop smiling at him. I still can’t.

At times, over the years, my smile would fade to a look of fear or worry or furious anger. But it never left my face for long. It always came back, even through tears.

It happened that same way with his sister and brother. Just to look at them lit me up like Christmas. It still does. And now, after all these years, I can’t stop smiling at their children.

But here is what I’ve learned: All children, young and old, need someone to smile at them. Not just their parents and grandparents, but their teachers and coaches, family and friends. And, yes, even strangers at the market in a rush to get home.

The toddler in the cart took her time deciding just what to make of my smile. But finally, she lit up like Christmas.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

I laughed and waved goodbye. And she blew me a kiss.

That put a lingering smile on my face that got a smile in return from every shopper I passed, even from a guy at the check out stand who got a call from his wife telling him not to get fish (it was already bagged) because she wanted to go out to eat.

I was still smiling when I got home and realized I’d forgotten to get Advil. Luckily, I didn’t need it. My headache was gone.

I don’t do everything right. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you. But I smile at children. And old people. And everyone between.

Almost always they smile back. And somehow, in that simple, magical, exchange of human pleasantry, this weary old world becomes a slightly better place.

Want to change the world? Try smiling. At children, young and old. At yourself in the mirror. At people you don’t like and strangers on the street.

Someone will smile back at you. I guarantee it.

If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll even blow you a kiss and make your headache go away.