“Fire Drill,” Nov. 12, 2019

Try to imagine for a moment the following horrific situation: It’s 2 a.m. You and your loved ones are sleeping soundly. Suddenly you’re awakened by sirens. And then, someone is pounding on your door.

Frightened and confused, you rush to open the door and stare into a face you’ll never forget — a sheriff’s deputy or firefighter who has come to save your life. He tells you that a wildfire is burning out of control on the ridge behind your home.

“You and your family need to get out of here,” he says. “Now!”

As he turns to go warn others, you call after him.

“Wait! How long do we have?”

“Maybe 15 minutes! Go!”

For a moment, you stand there smelling smoke and watching your neighbors frantically tossing bags in their cars.

And then … what do you do?

I’ve never had to flee from my home, and I pray I never will. But my husband and I live in an area that’s considered a high risk for wildfires.

It’s called California.

I wish you could see it.

It’s a glorious place of hills and mountains and spectacular coastlines. We love it. We’d like it even better without the threat of wildfires. But most people live with something catastrophic — hurricanes or tornadoes or blizzards or droughts or flooding or earthquakes.

Sometimes, all the above.

The best that we can do is to be as prepared as possible.

That’s what my husband and I finally decided. We had put it off for too long. So this week, we began working on a plan for “emergency preparedness.”

If you had 15 minutes to leave your home, knowing you might never see it again, what would you want to take?

We started with legal papers that we stored in a fire-proof bag: our marriage certificate, wills, trusts, social security cards and proofs of insurance for home, health and auto.

We each packed a duffel bag with three changes of clothes; a week’s supply of medications; a spare toothbrush and toiletries; and a pair of comfortable shoes. Plus a sweater, and my purse, which I always take with me, along with my phone, keys, credit and debit cards, driver’s license, passport and cash.

Then what?

I wanted to pack photos. Of our children when they were small. Of us when we were young. Of our family and our grandkids growing older.

Fortunately, most of those photos are copied on our phones or on the “cloud” we subscribe to. But to be sure, I’ve been snapping photos on my phone of old irreplaceable photos — of my parents and grandparents and children and friends — images I never want to lose.

I also made photos of paintings my youngest painted; gifts from my daughter; and stories written by my oldest.

My husband and I have a “joy box” filled with drawings and notes from our grandkids. We’d definitely want to take that. And we would both grab our laptops and their backups.

Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to gather all the keepsakes we cherish from a lifetime. That’s why it’s a good idea to start gathering in advance.

As much as this week has told me about what to take, it’s also told me a lot about what I’d have to leave behind: The table where my kids did homework; the butter mold that belonged to my grandmother; the painting of Yosemite given to us by my husband’s parents; and so many other irreplaceable treasures.

All of those things would be hard to lose. But when it’s time to go, we can only take what we can.

I want to believe that if only my family and my neighbors and I were spared, that would be enough. And I’d be so thankful.

What will you take with you?

“A God’s Eye View,” Nov. 5, 2019

I’ve had some embarrassingly bad ideas in my time. More than my share. But lately I’ve been on a roll with good ideas that just keep getting better.

Actually, I could include my marriage in that. It, too, is a good idea that keeps getting better. But this morning my husband made an ill-advised remark about my hair, and I’m in no mood to sing his praises.

Never mind what the remark was. OK, fine, I’ll tell you. He said my just-woke-up hair made me look like Rod Stewart.

For the record, I have no problem with Rod Stewart, or his hair. But it was not exactly the look I would hope for. A lesser person might’ve been tempted to tell my husband to go take a good look at his own just-woke-up hair. But far be it from me ever to stoop that low.

Anyhow. About my good ideas.

We recently moved to a new place that’s half as big as our old one. Best of all, it has no stairs, which makes my knees a lot happier. But finding room to store stuff is a challenge.

Take, for example, all the things we like to keep for our grandkids to play with when they come over: The books and puzzles and colored pencils and paper and plastic dinosaurs and stuffed animals and games and, oh my goodness, the Legos.

My husband swears Legos is an acronym for Lethally Edged Gouging Objects. If you ever have the misfortune to step on one barefoot, you’ll understand why. We would much prefer to keep all that stuff off the floor and out of sight. But where?

I brilliantly decided to buy two storage benches that fit perfectly in front of two low windows in our living room. They hold all the kids’ stuff and (bonus!) provide extra seating.

Then, believe it or not, I came up with yet another good idea. We had planted in front of those windows a bunch of blooming plants that proved to be an all-you-can-eat buffet for deer. After they were eaten to the ground, I did a little research and decided we should try purple salvia, which is both beautiful, and more important, is said to be deer resistant.

Two weeks later, the salvia is still blooming and, so far, hasn’t had a nibble.

Imagine our surprise to find that hummingbirds and bees and butterflies seem to love the salvia as much as we do.

I wish you could see them.

When our grandkids come to visit, I make them turn off their iPads and video games, and lie on their bellies on the benches with their noses pressed to the window panes to watch those winged creatures up close, without getting stung.

I want them to see the colors on the throats of the hummers and the hairs on the bodies of the bees and the patterns in the wings of the butterflies. I want them to be amazed at the way they gather pollen and nectar, and how hard they work to stay alive; how they trust their wings to carry them and seem entirely content just to be what they are.

I love seeing those little people, who so completely own my heart, take such delight in the wonders of Creation.

Sometimes, as I watch them watching what’s going on outside those windows, I find myself wondering if that is how God watches us, too?

Does he hold his face just inches from ours?

Does he smile at the light he sees shining in our eyes for a hummingbird or a child?

Does he scratch his head at how we worry, and how we try to protect our loved ones, even though we tell ourselves their safety is not up to us, and that he is watching over us all?

Does he delight in seeing us delight in his good ideas?

I hope so. I hope God delights in me the way I delight in birds and bees and grandbabes.

Even if I look like Rod Stewart.

“Bragging Rights,” Oct. 29, 2019

I’ve never wanted to be the kind of person who goes around bragging that her grandchildren are the cutest, smartest, most adorable creatures God ever put on the face of this Earth.

But mine are.

It’s a fact. I take no credit for it. All credit goes to their parents, who are raising them right, and to their Creator, who for reasons I will never be able to fathom or repay, decided to let me be their nana.

I wish you could see them.

My granddad — a preacher and a joker and a notorious braggart — would say bragging is not bragging if you’ve got the truth to back it up. We didn’t agree on everything, he and I, but I like the sound of that.

Truth be known, I don’t brag all that much. And I rarely show photos, because I have so many on my phone I can never find the ones I want to show. Mostly, I just tell stories about the kids. I think one good story is worth a thousand pictures. If I don’t forget how the story ends.

I would tell you some of those stories (and often have in past columns) but my husband and I share eight grandkids (ages 9 to six months, five boys, three girls all born within eight hectic years) and even a small sample of those stories would fill more space than I’m allowed.

OK, I’ll tell you a few.

Randy is 9. When he was 3, I was toweling him off after swimming, and he got a chill.

“Nana,” he said, “I shaky.”

I held him tight until he stopped shaking. Then he whispered in my ear, “Nana, when you hold me, I feel safe.”

Charlotte is 8. She is sparkly and she likes sparkly things. She gives me flowers from her yard and draws pictures for me and lets me wear her headband with cat ears.

Henry is 8, a day younger than Charlotte. They are cousins, not twins. When Henry was 5, he told me when he grows up, he wants to own a restaurant.

“Will you hire me?” I said.

“That’s a long time away,” he said. “Will you … like, you know … still be alive?”

“What if I live to be really, really old? Will you hire me?”

“Nana, think about it. If you’re that old, what could you do?”

Wiley is 6. When he was 5, I offered him one of my infamous peanutbutter cookies.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Nana,” he said, ‘but this doesn’t really look like a cookie.”

Archer is 2, almost 3. Recently he saw a picture of a witch on a broom and wanted to try it out. He was straddling a broomstick, hopping around, when suddenly he stopped, looked at his dad and said, “Why I not flying?”

Eleanor is 4, going on 20, little but larger than life. When we say goodbye, she blows me kisses and calls, “Nana, I love you! I will miss you so much!”

Beatrix is 7 months, way cuter and a lot more fun than my first Betsy Wetsy. She takes a while to warm up to me. When she smiles, I melt into a puddle.

Finally (so far), there is Jonah. He is 6 months old, beautiful, like his mother, and big, like his daddy. I sit when I hold him, so I don’t fall down. Or we lie on the floor where he looks for stuff to put in his mouth, and I pray that I’ll be able to get up.

I teach him how to push a toy pig’s snout to make it oink; how to throw (sort of) a ball; how to belly laugh when I kiss his belly.

And he teaches me things with his eyes: That he and his cousins will make the world a better place; that we’ll always be close in this life and the next; and that someday I’ll buy him a car.

Someone told me recently that people who have children to care for never gossip; they only talk about the children.

We all have children to care for, whether they sleep in our arms or in homeless shelters.

There are lots of important things we need to talk about. I have no doubt about that. But honestly? It’s hard to think of anything more important than our grandchildren.

And that’s not bragging.

“Halloween, Good and Bad,” Oct. 22, 2019

I have a lover’s quarrel with Halloween. There are things I like about it and things I don’t. Which, come to think of it, is also how I feel about myself and at least half the people I know.

(Note: The above statement does not apply to you. We may never have met, you and I, but if we had the pleasure, I’m sure I’d like everything about you.)

Here are a few things I like about Halloween:

1. I like candy. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I like having an excuse to buy a monster-size sack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, presumably to hand out to trick-or-treaters, when I know perfectly well I’m going to eat half those cups myself. I’d eat them all if my husband didn’t hog the other half.

2. I like seeing the costumes people choose to wear when they can wear anything they choose. I like to see little people, like my grandkids, pretend to be big, and big people, like my husband, pretend to be little. It’s fun. And I like fun a lot.

3. I like having neighbors and friends and people I don’t know come knocking on my door with their adorable children, all happy and excited and not trying to sell me something. That doesn’t happen very often except at Halloween. I’ll even share my husband’s half of the Peanut Butter Cups with them.

Here are a few things I don’t like about Halloween:

1. I don’t like tricks. Except the ones I played on my brothers when I was too young to know better, and on my children, when I was old enough to have better sense, but couldn’t resist. Never mind what those tricks were. I don’t like the kind of tricks that hurt people or animals or property, or make somebody clean up a mess. If you’ve ever been egged, or toilet-papered or cherry-bombed, you know what I mean.

2. I don’t like being scared. Life is scary enough without making it scarier. My older sister loved to scare people, especially me. When she was 12, she put a sheet over her head and tried to scare a neighbor boy, who in turn, tried to kill her with an axe. I saw the whole thing and pulled for the neighbor boy to catch her.

3. I don’t like having to come up with a costume. We all have our gifts, and costuming is not one of mine. No matter what I plan to wear, it’s never very clever, not to mention very comfortable. My best ever idea for a costume was one I made my brother wear when I was 10 and he was 6. I put a sheet over his head (possibly the same sheet my sister nearly got killed in) but didn’t tell him he was a ghost. Joe was totally blind. He didn’t know what a ghost looked like. We went trick-or-treating and when people said to him, “You’re a cute little ghost!,” he would shout, “I’m not a ghost, I’m a mattress!” It’s hard to beat a costume like that.

Every Halloween, I think of a story I heard years ago from a friend. She said she was hiding in her kitchen, pretending not to eavesdrop on her teenage daughter, Kim, who was talking with friends in the living room.

“I never know how to talk to boys,” confessed one of the girls. “I always say the wrong thing!”

Kim offered a solution. “Maybe you’re trying too hard,” she said. “Try to relax and just be yourself!”

Then, after a moment, while everyone thought about that girl being herself, Kim added this: “And if that doesn’t work for you, just be somebody else!”

Costumes don’t change who we are or how we talk to each other. Only we can do that. I like to be who I am: A wife, a mom, a nana, a friend. It works for me. But on Halloween, just for fun, I’ll be Nana Medusa with snakes on my head.

On Halloween and every day, we should always be ourselves and allow others to be who they are, as well. Maybe it will help us, together, as one, be the kind of people we’re meant to be.

“Plans Change,” Oct. 15, 2019

My grandmother used to say, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” As a child, I couldn’t see why God would find that so funny. But that was before I was old enough to make plans.

As an adult, I often think I probably keep God in stitches. But there was nothing funny in our latest change of plans. Recently, my husband and I were looking forward to going to Los Angeles for a few days to see my son and his wife and their, oh, so adorable 6-month-old.

Those plans were put on hold when we realized we might need to stay home and pack the contents of our freezer and fridge on ice in a cooler.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 9, with weather forecasts in California calling for extreme winds and low humidity — conditions that would dramatically raise an already high risk of wildfires — Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to some 700,000 homes or businesses in more than 30 counties in Northern California.

We expected Monterey County, where we live, to be included, but the outage only extended as far south as Silicon Valley. Initially, it was thought it might last a week, but power was restored to most by Friday.

With a sigh of relief, we decided to go to LA after all. We planned to leave Saturday for the five-hour drive. But Thursday night, before bed, I saw a news report about a small wildfire burning near Sylmar, 20 miles west of my son’s home. I started to call him, but didn’t want to wake them. And I didn’t want to seem overly protective, which my kids always say I am.

The next morning I woke early to check the news. The fire had exploded overnight, moving west, closing several highways and forcing evacuations. Winds were gusting over 70 mph.

I called my son. No answer. I left a message: “Call me.”

Minutes later, when he called back, I could hear my grandson babbling in the background. My son assured me they were in no danger, and if that changed, they would leave.

I believed him. When it comes to his wife and child, the boy is even more protective than I am. We agreed it was not a good time to visit, and not just because of the fire and the smoke. Traffic in LA is always bad, but with multiple road closures and 100,000 people under mandatory evacuation orders, it would be insane.

“Keep me posted?” I said, and he promised he would.

While people in Los Angeles fled from the fire, I followed news reports online, from the comfort and safety of my home.

At the same time, 1,000 personnel from Los Angeles’ city and county fire departments, along with crews from CalFire, worked past exhaustion — many of them risking their lives — to stop an inferno and save countless lives and homes.

I’ve always been in awe of the kind of person who is willing to risk everything — to run toward danger, rather than away from it — simply for the good of others.

I wanted to thank them, and their families, personally — to hug their necks and feed them pizza and tell them that they are heroes. They probably already know that. I surely hope so.

On Saturday, the weather cooled, the winds calmed, the fire was about 40 percent contained, and the evacuation orders were lifted.

I’ve never been forced to leave my home, but I’ve known others who’ve had to flee from fires or floods or storms. It’s a sobering reminder of how precious life is, and how quickly it can change.

We will go see my son and his family soon, I hope. As my grandmother would say, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

“My Bossy Big Sister,” Oct. 8, 2019

Once a week or so I call my sister and we talk for an hour. We live 3,000 miles and three time zones apart, and don’t get to see each other often. Not nearly often enough. But we stay in touch as best we can.

If I wait too long to call, she’ll leave me a message: “Sissy, where are you? I hope you’re OK. Call me back soon.”

When I get that message, I call her as soon as possible. If I don’t, I’ll get another message within an hour: “OK, now I’m really worried. Call me, dang it.”

Why are Big Sisters so bossy? Are they born that way or do they just pick it up with age? She is five years my elder, and some of my earliest memories are of her telling me what to do, what to think, what to wear and most of all, how to do my hair.

When I was 7, the night before my first day of second grade, she put her hands on her hips and said, “You cannot go to school looking like that!”

I didn’t know what “that” meant, but I could tell by her tone it wasn’t good. I looked the same as I did every day: Short auburn hair chopped off below my ears; brown eyes that could turn green; and a hand-me-down dress that used to be hers and had seen much better days.

“What’s wrong with me?”

She rolled her eyes. “We have to do something with your hair.”

She stuck my head in the sink, washed it, rinsed it and wrapped it in a towel. Then she combed out the tangles and twisted little sections into pin curls that she fastened to my scalp with our mother’s bobby pins.

My sister’s name is Barbara, but I always call her Bobbie. I thought those hair pins were named for her. To this day, when I see one, I picture her. After she pinned the last curl, she counted them: 52, exactly.

“Can I go play now?”

“No! We have to dry it!”

She stuck my head in her prized bouffant hair dryer and made me suffer for an hour. And if that wasn’t enough, she made me sleep on those pins all night. The next morning, she pulled out the pins, one by one, and tried to comb out the curls. But each time she stretched one out, it would spring right back to my scalp.

I looked like a sheep. One that had stuck its hoof in an electrical outlet.

She felt bad, I could tell. But she still refused to sit with me on the bus. I don’t remember much about school that day. But thanks to my sister, I’m certain I made a lasting impression.

I could tell you a hundred stories about her, besides all the ones I’ve already told. She’d be glad to tell you a few about me, but she’d be making them up.

These days, when I call, she doesn’t ask about my hair. We compare aches and pains and medications and the weather and what we ate for supper.

We talk about our blind brother, who lives near her, how he’s feeling, what he’s up to. She asks about my family and I ask about hers. Not much changes in a week, so we repeat a lot. But we’re forgetful, so it seems new.

I listen to what she says, and to what she doesn’t say, and I pay close attention to her tone. Sometimes the way we say something speaks more clearly than the words we use.

I try to make her laugh at least once before we hang up. She does that for me without even trying.

She often asks, “When are you coming home for a visit?”

My answer is usually, “Soon as I can, but not real soon.”

Every call ends the same way. We both say, “Love you, Sissy.”

We come from a long line of storytellers, so our calls often include stories like the pin curl tale. Or how she lost her wig in the bumper cars. Or the time she tried to shoot me because I poured a Pepsi down her pants.

I haven’t reminded her of the pin curl tale in ages. Maybe I’ll call while she’s asleep and leave a message: “Remember when you put 52 pin curls in my hair? It’s still frizzy. Call me, dang it.”

“An Unbelievable Day,” Oct. 1, 2019

Some days are almost too much to believe. You’ve had days like that, right? Let me tell you about mine.

It started out like any other. I woke up, got out of bed and stumbled out to the kitchen to push a button to start the coffee. Luckily, I’d remembered the night before to fill the coffee maker with coffee and water. I forget sometimes, but not this day. I took it as a good sign.

While the coffee was brewing, I sat in the living room and stared out at the mountains.

Six months ago, we sold a house I’d loved for almost 50 years, after I found I no longer loved climbing the stairs. We moved 20 miles out of town into a green valley, to a house half as big as the old one, with a nonstop view of the mountains and no stairs.

I miss the old place, but I like the new one a lot. Here’s a little trick I’ve learned. Maybe it will work for you, too. When life throws me a curve, I try to hit it out of the park.

Sorry, I’ve been watching too much baseball. What I meant to say was this: When a change comes along, as it always does, I try to look for things I like about it, rather than for things I don’t. And I usually find plenty to like.

That hasn’t always been the case, but it has been here. Take, for example, the view. I may tire of it someday, but not in the foreseeable future.

From my seat on the sofa, I look west, up the valley toward the coast. I see no houses, only mountains and trees. Also hawks and buzzards and jays and dragonflies and — on closer examination — lizards and beetles the size of your fist. Twice, we have spotted up close (close enough to give us serious pause) a mountain lion.

But that didn’t happen this day. This day was just the usual, bright sun, blue sky, rolling hills and a small patch of fog sneaking in from the coast.

Then my husband handed me a cup of coffee. If I time it right (and I usually do) he gets to the coffee pot before I do. Somehow it tastes better when he pours it.

Have you ever noticed how the first sip of coffee in the morning can you make you just a little gladder to be alive? I remember, as a child, thinking coffee was nasty. I got over that. Of course I also got over eating mudpies and sticking peas up my nose.

That afternoon, I drove to the village for groceries, dodging on the road the valley’s “rush hour traffic”: A flock of wild turkeys and a herd of mule deer.

It was a warm day, too hot to cook, so I grabbed a ripe avocado, a pint of potato salad, two chunks of grilled salmon and a whole pecan pie.

I love that market, not just for its food, but for the people who work there and the people who shop there, too. They all look happy. No hurries, no worries, no dirty looks for being one item over in the 10 items or less line.

The clerk remembered me and said he liked my new haircut. I plan to shop there more often.

I went home and my husband and I ate dinner on the patio. It was good. Especially the pie.

After dinner, we sat in the glider, gliding to and fro, talking about everything and nothing. The sun set in the west, the moon rose in the east, and the stars filled the heavens like pinpricks on a velvet curtain.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

Then we came inside to watch the baseball game my husband had recorded. We are Giants fans, and this has not been their best year. But they won that game, and a win is a win.

Believe it or not, all those things happened. I’m not making them up. I might have missed them, had I not been paying attention.

I’ve seen days, good and bad. So have you. They aren’t all as pleasant as that one. But it’s worth waking up every morning and taking a look around just to see what will happen next.

“True Colors,” Sept. 24, 2019

Fall has long been my favorite time of year. The air cools. The leaves show their true colors. And I crave comfort food.

Growing up in the Carolinas left its mark on me in many ways. I’ve spent most of my life on the coast of California, but I’ve never lost my love for fall.

One of my earliest memories is of an autumn day when I was 4 or 5, visiting my grandparents on their farm in the mountains of North Carolina. It was raining when I arrived. Clouds filled the valley like smoke from a fire.

My grandmother assured me the rain would stop soon and we could go for a walk and pick flowers. I loved doing both of those things with her. So I sat in the porch swing, gliding to and fro, waiting for the rain to stop.

Just when I thought it would rain forever, the clouds parted, the sun broke through and the mountains lit up like Christmas.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Suddenly, I noticed something strange. In the distance, near the tops of the ridges, trees had turned a fiery red. I ran inside and told my grandmother, “Come quick! The mountains are on fire!”

She hurried after me to take a look. Then she laughed.

“That’s not fire,” she said. “That’s just God painting the leaves for fall.”

I asked for further clarification.

Basically, she said, in the fall, as days grow shorter and cooler, leaves start to lose their chlorophyll — the stuff that makes them green — and we begin to see their true colors, red and orange and yellow.

“So,” I said, “you mean God doesn’t really paint them?”

“It’s a manner of speaking,” she said. “When God paints, he doesn’t always use a brush.”

We took a long walk, telling stories and jumping puddles. On the way back, we picked flowers from her garden — dahlias as big and golden as a baby’s head and gardenias that smelled better than anything on Earth.

Then we went inside, where she started supper on her old wood stove — cornbread and beans and, yes, peach cobbler — while I arranged the dahlias and gardenias in a jar.

It doesn’t take much to make a child feel special. I doubt I’ve ever felt more special than I did with my grandmother.

Today, I decided to write a column about fall. I had no idea where it would take me. I just knew I wanted to write about it. So I began. And it took me to a place that I left long ago, the mountains where I was born.

Some of us feel a connection to the land where we grew up — to mountains and rivers and lakes and plains — that is as real and as binding as anything we’ll ever feel for flesh and blood.

I found myself missing my grandmother and her kitchen and her dahlias and gardenias. Not to mention, her cornbread and beans and peach cobbler.

Just then, I heard a knock at the door. I thought my husband had locked himself out. He does that sometimes.

Imagine my surprise to open the door to my 7-year-old grandson and his mama. Henry wanted to show me the doorbell they’d bought for Halloween, a skeleton’s face with a sticking-out tongue.

“Push the button, Nana,” he said, grinning. So I did, and the skeleton licked my finger. But the main reason they stopped by was to bring me a gift.

“When I saw these,” said my daughter, “I thought of you and wanted you to have them.”

Dahlias and gardenias. I arranged them in a jar and set them on the table.

I wish you could smell them.

It doesn’t take much to make me feel special. My daughter knows me well.

The best gifts are like the best memories: They remind us that we are known and we are loved. They show us our true colors.

Maybe I’ll make cornbread and beans for supper. And top it off with peach cobbler.

“Ask, Listen, Care,” Sept. 17, 2019

It happened years ago, a chance encounter on an airport escalator that lasted for only a few moments. But I’ve never forgotten it. I hope I never will.

My husband and I had cleared security and were on our way to the gate, leaving Las Vegas, our home at the time, to fly to California to visit family.

He’d gotten ahead of me, as he often does when in a rush, and I was wondering exactly how long it would take him to miss me. Finally, at the top of the escalator, he looked down and saw I was just getting on it.

I waved and called “Meet you at the gate!” Then I turned to smile at a man behind me. He looked like a visitor, not a local.

“Did you have fun in Vegas?” I asked. I like to ask questions of strangers on escalators. The answers are always interesting. But this one broke my heart.

The man looked in my eyes, as if weighing how much to tell me. Then he poured out this story.

He had come to Vegas to visit an old friend he’d not seen since they broke up, just before he left to be a pilot in World War II.

“I’d told her not to wait for me. So she married someone else. I went to see her this week because she’s dying. I should have married her 50 years ago.”

I’m not sure what I said to him. I hugged him, which wasn’t easy on an escalator. Then we went our separate ways.

My husband was watching. I told him the story. He said, “He told you that on an escalator?”

“I think he needed to tell someone,” I said. “And I asked.”

Sometimes one question is all it takes to get a friend or a loved one or a total stranger to open up and tell you what they long to tell someone who will care. Often, “How are you?” is enough. For someone you don’t know, try, “Where are you from and what brings you here?”

Show you’re interested, then leave it up to them. If they want to talk, they probably will.

Why should you bother? Well, you shouldn’t, really, unless you care. If you care, that’s reason enough.

We all have different gifts. My husband, for example, is a great editor, a gifted musician and a really good grandpa. Me? I’m pretty good at getting people to talk. My kids claim I wear a sign on my back that says, “Confess.” I love hearing people’s stories. Maybe you do, too?

Here’s another story I hope I’ll never forget. I was 21, newly married to a rookie teacher, on our way to a faculty party, where I would know no one but him. I’d spent hours getting ready, doing my hair and makeup, changing my mind on what to wear a dozen times, only to look (I realized going out the door) no better than I ever did.

I would be meeting people who were smarter, richer and better educated than I was. I wanted to make a good impression. I kept asking myself, what on Earth will they think of me?

The answer came moments before I walked into the party. I heard a voice. I think it was God, but it sounded a lot like my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Camp. She often sounded like God.

“You are whole,” it said. “You have all you need. You don’t need to impress. Just be who you are. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. And care.”

Since then, that voice has whispered that same message to me countless times. I tend to forget it, but it always comes back to remind me. The words may vary, but the meaning remains the same:

To be heard, we need first to listen; to be understood, we need first to understand; to be human, we need always to care.

I still talk a lot. Too much sometimes. And I still wonder what people will think of me. But I try to remember that I am whole, and all I need to do is ask and listen and care. If I forget, the voice reminds me.

So. How are you?

“Remembering 9/11,” Sept. 10, 2019

Eighteen years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked and crashed four U.S. passenger planes, killing all on board and nearly 3,000 on the ground. Two flights hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. The third hit the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers and crew tried to stop the hijackers.

Most of us who are old enough to remember that day have a personal story to tell about it. This is mine.

Early that morning, my husband’s father awoke at his home in Stockton, Calif., turned on CNN, and immediately phoned us. While my husband stared in horror at the TV, I tried to call my son in New York.

Josh was living in Manhattan, appearing in a TV series called “Ed.” I had visited him often enough to know his apartment was near the World Trade Center. He drove by those towers every day on his way to the set. I needed to hear his voice and know he was OK.

Phone lines were swamped. I couldn’t get through. There was nothing to do but wait and pray.

At noon, when he finally was able to get a call through to me, he was standing on the balcony of his apartment watching smoke billow up from the World Trade Center. He told me he had watched a firetruck pull out of a station that morning.

“It was loaded with big guys like me,” he said, “hanging on the side of that truck, going to risk their lives to save others.”

He later learned that all 15 of the firemen who were on that truck lost their lives that day.

After we said goodbye, I broke down and cried. I was thankful my son was safe. But my heart was broken for the thousands of lives that had been stolen, and for countless others who were grieving for them.

The news became even more personal that evening as I tried to comfort a neighbor who had just received confirmation that her daughter had died in the plane crash at the Pentagon.

Eighteen years is a long time to remember so much grief and pain. But there are things about that day I hope never to forget.

First, I want to remember the victims and those who mourn for them. They are my neighbors and loved ones and friends.

I want to remember, not the terrorists, but the heroes, those who ran toward danger, not from it; the firefighters and police officers and others who risked and lost their lives so that others might live; and the soldiers who have served and continue to serve to ensure it never happens again.

I want to remember how it felt to hear my son’s voice and know that he was safe. I want to feel that kind of gratitude every day.

I want to remember, not the horror of that day, but the grace that came with it — all the good that rose up in the face of such evil. We may never have been stronger as a nation, or better as people, than we were in the wake of 9/11. I want to believe we hold the power to be that strong and that good always.

I want to remember to pray for our country and our world — and for our enemies, because my faith commands it. I don’t know if prayer changes those we pray for, but I’ve seen it change those who pray, including me.

I want to remember that life is short and precious and fragile.

I want to remember the vow I made seeing people on TV jump from a burning building to their death: “I will live every day,” I said, “as if it were my last.”

I don’t always keep that vow, but to honor the victims of 9/11, I want to remember to try.

Most of all I want to remember to be alive. To make decisions based on love, not fear. To live life freely to its fullest.

I want to remember that the opposite of terror is freedom.