“My New Mug,” Nov. 24, 2020

My granddaughter Eleanor is 5 years old. She loves to have her photo taken. And every photo is just like her: beautiful.

Children need to feel beautiful. They also need to feel smart and good and loved. But it helps to have at least one person who makes them feel like a beauty.

When I was Elle’s age, that person was my granddad. He’d smile at me and quote Song of Solomon 6:10: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?”

I wasn’t sure about the “terrible” part, but overall, I took it as a compliment. He especially liked my waist-length hair. Then my mother had it chopped off into a Pixie and Granddad bawled like a calf.

But the worst blow to my self-esteem came in second grade, when I hit my mouth on a tile floor and broke out my brand new permanent front tooth.
We couldn’t afford a porcelain crown, so the dentist covered it with a metal cap. Boys at school called it the Silver Bullet.

For years, I hated posing for school photos. The photographer would try to get me to smile, but I kept my lips clamped tight to hide the Bullet. In every photo, I looked like my grandmother when she was dipping snuff.

Finally, when I started high school, my dad worked some extra shifts at the mill to pay for a porcelain tooth. I was glad to get rid of the Silver Bullet. But I’ve never gotten rid of my dread of having my picture taken. It doesn’t stop me from smiling. I smile plenty. I just don’t like smiling for a camera. I avoid it whenever I can.

All of that is to tell you this. The photo that appears with a column is called a mug. In my 30 years of writing a column, I’ve had a series of mugs. They all look like different women:

_ The woman who wrote about juggling the roles in her life as the wife of a coach, the mother of three young children, and a reporter covering everything from parades to earthquakes to violence in schools.

_ The woman who described her husband’s battle with cancer, her children growing up, her father taking his life, and her blind brother’s struggle to live alone after losing his wife.

_ The woman who wrote about being a widow, falling in love, getting remarried, living in Las Vegas, speaking at fundraisers to strangers who treated her like family, and having eight grandbabies in nine years.

They were all the same woman in different stages of life. And they all hated having their pictures made. In the past 10 years, I’ve kept the same column mug, despite being nagged by editors (and they know who they are) to update it with a new one.

Recently, however, I finally published a novel that I’d been working on for years, and I forced myself to get a new photo for the book’s jacket.

The differences in the old mug and the new one are simple: In the old one, I have long hair, a big smile and look more like my daughter. In the new one I have short hair, less of a smile, and look more like my mother.

I sent the new mug to all the papers that carry my column to use as a replacement for the old one. And now I’m hearing from readers who say either:

_ They love the new mug.

_ They like the old mug better.

_ Or they don’t believe the new mug is the same person as in the old one and they want to know what exactly I did with her?

Once, long ago, I was driving my 4-year-old and his buddy Eric to preschool. We passed a parked car that was covered with a tarp and Eric said, “Look at that, Josh. Grownups are so dumb. Everybody knows there’s a car under there!”

As for the column? It doesn’t really matter if the mug is old or new. Everybody who reads it knows the age of the woman who writes it. And she is never changing her mug again.

“A Different Kind of Thanksgiving,” Nov. 17, 2020

Different. That’s a word I’ve been saying a lot lately. Maybe you’ve been saying it, too. I’ve said it so often it’s starting to sound as if it doesn’t mean different, just more of the same. Here are some examples:

My husband and I have always loved going out to dinner at a favorite restaurant to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary or just the fact that we’re hungry. But in the past eight months of the pandemic lockdown (why does it feel more like eight years?) we eat most every meal at home. We cook. We eat. We clean up the mess. Then we talk about what we want to eat next.

Sometimes we get take-out so we don’t have to cook. But it’s cold when we get it home. And after we reheat it and eat it, we still have to clean up the mess.

Recently, when I saw my doctor for a routine checkup, I never really saw him at all. He wore a mask and a face shield. I could barely see his eyes. He asked all the usual questions and I tried my best to answer, mumbling through my mask.

But I had no idea if he was smiling in approval or debating whether to confine me in an institution. For all I know, my real doctor was on a golf course, paying his out-of-work cousin to check my vitals. Not that my doctor would ever do that. I’m just saying it was…different.

Eight months ago, I had friends. We’d go out to lunch, or sit in our kitchens talking and laughing, baring our souls, sharing our hearts, solving all the problems of the world. Or at least, catching up on gossip.

Not any more. Yes, I know there’s a thing called a phone that lets you to talk without risking what my mother called “swapping spit.” And there are even things like FaceTime and Houseparty and Zoom that let you see each other while you talk. They’re fine for keeping in touch “virtually,” if you can’t be in the same room together. But I like being in the same room with people I love. Being apart from them is…different.

Fortunately, thanks to FaceTime, I still get to read to my grandchildren. Or I get to listen as they read to me. Either way, it’s something we love doing together. I used to hold them in my lap and nuzzle their necks while they turned the pages in “Goodnight Moon” and played with a lock of my hair.

Now we read together long distance on computers, not physically close, but still finding comfort in the sweet familiarity of each other’s voices.

Social distancing and wearing a mask are sacrifices I’m willing to make to keep myself and those around me safe. I have faithfully practiced both for the longest eight months of my life. But I never dreamed I’d have to practice them on my favorite holiday.

I love Christmas, but it’s complicated. Thanksgiving is simple, just family, friends and food, being thankful and being together. It’s perfect. Especially if I don’t have to cook.

Last Thanksgiving, my daughter and her husband hosted a feast for twenty of our family and friends. All I had to do was show up, eat and talk.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

This year, with the pandemic taking thousands of lives and causing so much suffering, Thanksgiving will be different. Our family will still celebrate, but not all together. We’ll have Thanksgiving dinner in our own homes in separate households.

I will set two tables: A small one in our dining room for my husband and me; and a big one in my heart for all our loved ones, living or long departed, who’ll be with us in spirit, and never forgotten.

I’ll set a place for you at the big table. Maybe you’ll set one for me. We won’t join hands, but we can join hearts to give thanks for all our many blessings and pray that soon things will be…different.

Here’s wishing us all a safe and blessed Thanksgiving.

“What’s Your Dream?” Nov. 10, 2020

“What’s Your Dream?” Nov. 10, 2020

For days now I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you something that I promised to tell you a long time ago, if it ever came to pass. Which, much to my surprise, it finally did.

All right, I’ll just say it: I finally published my novel.

Yes, that would be the novel that I’d been planning to write (off and on, though mostly off) for most of my adult life.

Occasionally, over the years, I would mention in a column that being married to a high school basketball coach with three active children and a full-time job left me little time to breathe, let alone to focus on finishing a novel I hadn’t even started.

Then I’d get a stack of mail from readers like you telling me: “Never give up!” “Follow that dream!” “Write that novel!”

Readers can be tough on a writer. If you’re one of the kind souls who sent me those notes, let me assure you, I am grateful. Encouragement is the oil that keeps the wheels of a dream turning. Some of us need it more than others. It didn’t give me more time for writing. But it gave me hope that someday, somehow that time would come.

Have you ever noticed how dreams often seem to come true at the end of a long hard road? Here’s the story of how I finally published my novel.

In 1998, my husband, the coach, lost a four-year, hard-fought battle with cancer. Our three children were in their early 20s. I was a reporter for a local newspaper and wrote a weekly syndicated column.

After he died, it took me a while to figure out who I was without him. My kids and I were close, but losing their dad drew us closer. I had also lost both of my parents, and had felt it draw me closer to my sister and brothers. I began to realize that while grief brings pain, it also brings gifts. I wanted to write about both.

Soon the story that I’d been writing in my head—about the bond between a woman and her grandchild—began writing itself in my heart, growing deeper and truer than anything I had imagined.

That fall, I rented a cabin on a mountain lake near where I was born, and spent four months writing like a house on fire. At the end of those four months, the story still wasn’t finished.

But neither was I. I took a break from working on the book to marry my former editor and we moved to Las Vegas, where he worked for a newspaper and I wrote columns.

Meanwhile, our kids (his two and my three) started getting married and having babies. Eight babies in nine years. So my husband retired and we moved back to California, to take on full-time careers as Nana and Papa.

My life was so full and so good I almost forgot about the novel. Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Heather Lazare.

Long ago, when I was a reporter and Heather was a budding writer in sixth grade, her mother asked me to meet with her to talk about writing. So we met and talked, hugged each other and said goodbye.

Twenty-five years later, Heather emailed me to say she had grown up to be an editor at a publishing house in New York. She and her husband were starting a family and had moved back to California, where she was starting her own editing and publishing business.

So we met again to talk about writing and books and babies. And I hired her to edit my novel. Then I hired her as project manager to publish it. I wish I could hire her to run my life.

We all have a God-given ability to pull for one another, to bear each other’s burdens and rejoice in all the joys. I’m grateful to all of you who nagged me to finish my novel. Please don’t feel you need to read it. Unless, of course, you really want to.

What’s your dream? Share it with someone who will nag you to finish it. Nagging helps. But in the end, I think you will find, just as I did, it’s mostly up to you.

"The World and Then Some: A Novel" book cover.
“The World and Then Some: A Novel” by Sharon Randal is available on amazon.com

“Seeing Is Believing,” Nov. 3, 2020

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week. This column is from 2017.)

Most of us need to heal once in a while. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. Sometimes it’s all the above. For some of us, the hardest part of healing is simply to believe that it’s possible.

Years ago, I was watching my oldest (who played on a high school basketball team coached by his dad) practice free throws. The boy was good. He made a dozen shots, swishing through the net without a miss.

“How do you do that?” I said.

He grinned and kept shooting. “Before I release the ball,” he said, bouncing it twice, then holding it up and pausing to stare at the hoop, “I see it in my mind going through the net.”

He released, and swish! “I see it in my mind,” he said, “to make it happen.”

I loved those words. It struck me that they might also be said for healing. We need to believe healing can happen, picture it in our minds, to see it in reality. It’s not a guarantee. The boy missed on occasion. He wasn’t happy about that. But he made far more shots than he missed.

I, on the other hand, can shoot free throws all day, picture each one going through the net, and miss nine out of 10. But if I don’t believe I can make at least one, why would I bother to try?

Belief doesn’t assure us of the outcome we hope for. But it sets us in motion to move toward it.

My late husband, the coach who taught the boy to shoot free throws, ran a marathon before he was 50. A year later, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and given six months to live.

By the grace of God and a firm belief that healing was possible, he stretched those six months into four years. He worked hard to heal. At the same time he also learned to accept and let go.

When he could no longer coach, he sat in the stands and pulled for his players. When he could no longer run, he walked. When he could no longer walk, he lay on the sofa and welcomed a blessed stream of visitors.

It wasn’t the kind of healing that we had prayed for. And yet, I watched his spirit heal, even as his body was dying.

After he died, my children and I tried to honor all that he had taught us. We grieved our loss, treasured his memory and moved forward with our lives.

Healing begins when we let go of the past, accept the present and believe that, in the future, all things are possible.

A few years ago, I had surgery for a broken ankle and spent eight weeks in a wheelchair. At the end of those eight weeks, I expected to start walking again. That didn’t happen. My ankle didn’t hurt much, but it didn’t want to bend. And other things hurt plenty: My back, hip, knee.

So I started going to physical therapy a few times a week. It wasn’t fun. But I believed it could help, so I kept at it.

Just when it seemed I’d never again walk without a limp, guess what? I quit limping. And started dancing. In the kitchen. And the grocery store. To music that kept playing in my head.

I wish you could’ve seen me.

When hope grows dim, believing lights the way and makes all things possible.

Recently I heard from several wounded souls. One mourned the loss of her father: “I miss him so much,” she said.

Another described the heartbreak of her mother’s Alzheimer’s: “She doesn’t know she has daughters.”

And another spoke of the struggles in her marriage, saying simply, “It is hard.”

One by one, I tried to feel their pain, to carry it for them, if only for a while. Then I pictured each of them healing. I saw it clearly.

I hope they could see it, too.

We need to believe healing is possible, for ourselves and each other—and even for our country. If we can see it in our minds and feel it in our hearts and believe it in our souls, we can let go of the past, accept the present and begin to move forward with our lives.

Look. Can you see it?

“Why Bother?” Oct. 27, 2020

If you are anything like me—and I certainly hope you are— you might like to spend a little time giving some thought to a few random questions that I have listed below.

I’ve also included my answers, as examples, but please feel free to come up with your own. I would love to read them.

For me, thought-provoking questions can act like painkillers whenever I’m facing some kind of discomfort like a root canal or a colonoscopy or having to plod through 65 pages of a voter guide trying to decide which candidates and ballot measures to vote for or against.

Bear in mind, these questions are merely distractions. They will not spare you from the actual discomfort. You’ll still need to do whatever you need to do. But they might give you something more pleasant to think about, if only for a while.

Question 1: What will your family and friends remember about you when you’re not around any more to remind them that nobody’s perfect?

Answer: I hope my family and friends will remember how much I adore them. How it always lights me up to see their faces or hear their voices or read their texts and emails. That no matter how worthless I might be about keeping in touch, they are always in my heart. I swear.

Question 2: When you reach a point on the road of life where there are more miles behind you than ahead, what are some of the memories you’ll look back on that will make you smile—or maybe laugh out loud?

Answer: Here are four of my favorite, happiest memories.

As a mother, I remember how close I felt to my children as they were growing up. Losing their dad to cancer brought us even closer. And now that they’re grown with children of their own—and have a much clearer understanding of what I went through in raising them—we are closer than ever before.

As a nana, I remember that my grandchildren are God’s gift to keep me alive and laughing at stories like this one: Last week, after I tweaked my back, I wrapped it in a thick padded brace that I disguised, I thought, under a loose fitting shirt. When my 5-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, saw me, she gasped in horror. Then she threw her arms around me and whispered, “Don’t worry, Nana, you look fat, but you’re not.”

As a wife, I always smile remembering the day my former editor (and future husband) broke into a sweat and told me he’d been carrying a torch for me for a while and thought I ought to give him a chance.

And as a woman, and an American, I remember this: Born in 1894, my grandmother, like other American women, was denied the right to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. From that year forward, she voted in every presidential election until she died in 1972.

On Election Day, I would watch her get all done up in her best dress, hat and gloves, and costume jewelry. Granddad would put on his preaching suit and a red, white and blue tie. Then they’d walk arm in arm into the courthouse to vote.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Once, I heard a neighbor lady try to tell my grandmother why she hadn’t bothered to vote.

“I figure,” said the woman, “one vote don’t matter much.”

Grandmother replied, “Well, my vote matters plenty to me.”

I became eligible to vote for the first time six months after she died. I didn’t dress up, but I carried my 10-month-old son on my hip. When we stepped into the voting booth, I felt sure my grandmother was there with us.

Since then, I’ve voted in every presidential election including, Lord willing, this year’s. And I want to assure you that my vote always matters plenty, to me and my grandmother.

Final question: How much does your vote matter to you?

“My Halloween Party,”

Halloween has never been my favorite holiday. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.

When we were growing up, my younger brothers counted on me to take them trick-or-treating. Especially Joe, who was blind. He could find his way most anywhere with his cane. But our mother refused to let him go out alone for fear he’d get hit by a car. So I had to go with him.

One Halloween, I threw a sheet over Joe’s head without bothering to tell him the nature of the costume, and off we went. At every house we visited, someone would pat his head and say, “Well, aren’t you just the cutest little ghost!”

And Joe would shout, “I ain’t a ghost! I’m a mattress!”

I managed to skip Halloween in my teens and early 20’s. Then I became a mother. Mothers don’t get to skip holidays, even one that pumps kids so full of sugar they act like chihuahuas dodging firecrackers.

When my oldest was 4, he came home from preschool and said, “Mom, I’m gonna be a red monster for Halloween. You need to sew me a monster suit.”

“I don’t sew,” I said.

“I know,” he said, “I’ll help.”

The red monster suit was the first in a series of seriously tacky costumes that I somehow came up with, year after year, for him and his sister and brother.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

In time, the kids grew up, we lost their dad to cancer and I spent several Halloweens cleverly disguised as a woman who didn’t mind being alone.

Years later, I remarried and moved from California, to Las Vegas of all places, with my new husband, who happens to love Halloween—the costumes, the decorations and especially the candy. He also loves playing his bass, and we were often invited to Halloween parties where he and his buddies dressed like Kiss and played music loud enough to wake the dead.

Meanwhile, our kids (his two and my three) began getting married and having babies—eight babies in nine years.

Suddenly, Halloween took on a whole new meaning. We lived hundreds of miles from our grandkids and they couldn’t trick-or-treat at our door. Their parents sent us photos of them all dressed up as monsters and bunnies and pirates and such. (One of my favorites was a six-months-old Abraham Lincoln.)

The photos were great fun, but made me miss them even more. So one Halloween, I flew to California and showed up at their door dressed as Medusa, wearing a mask and a headband full of snakes. There was no way they’d know it was their nana.

Wiley, age 5, opened the door.

“Trick or treat!” I yelled.

He didn’t blink. “Hey, Nana,” he said, and walked away.

After my husband retired we moved back to California, where we love getting to see the kids in their costumes up close.

But this Halloween—like so many other things in our lives since the pandemic began—will be different. No big parties. No trick-or-treating. No little gremlins knocking on our door. And not nearly enough candy.

Halloween is still not my favorite holiday. But you never know how much you can miss something until it’s gone.

So today, I started planning the biggest Halloween celebration of my entire life. Our children and grandchildren and countless neighbors and friends will all show up in fantastic costumes. My husband and his buddies will play music loud enough to wake the dead. And I will throw a sheet over my head and call myself Nana Mattress.

A pandemic can change all sorts of thing in our lives. But it cannot stop us from dreaming.

The party I’m planning is not, of course, for this year. It’s for next Halloween, Lord willing.

You are all invited.

And I can hardly wait.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Oct. 13, 2020

There’s a lot going on these days. A worldwide pandemic. People out of work, fearing eviction. Hurricanes. Wildfires. Protests. Riots. And a looming election that might be one of the most important in our history.

It’s enough to make you want to put on a flea collar and hide under the porch with the dogs. But some of us seem to worry about it a lot less than others.

My husband and I share eight grandchildren. Jonah is our youngest. I’ve been watching him closely since the day he was born 18 months ago. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

We live 382 miles apart, Jonah and I, so I mostly watch him in videos that his mama and daddy send me. Almost daily. Several times a day, if I’m lucky. And we FaceTime fairly often.

Jonah in video is not nearly as much fun as Jonah in the flesh, but it’s a lot better than no Jonah at all.

I wish I could’ve sent my mother daily videos of her grandkids. Maybe she’d have worried less and lived longer.

Watching Jonah has taught me a lot about how to avoid the ill effects of worry and stress. Here are some things that seem to work well for him:

_ First, he doesn’t watch TV. Except an occasional episode of “Peppa Pig.” And he doesn’t own a cell phone. He loves to grab his mom and dad’s phones, but they try to keep them out of his reach. So, unlike some of us, he isn’t glued to an electronic device. He’s far more in touch with the real world. The birds outside his window. The tickle of his dad’s beard. The smell of his mom’s hair. The temptation to try the big slide at the park or the joy of mastering a new word. (His latest favorite is “no.”)

_ He gets more exercise than a team of sled dogs. Runs more than he walks. Dances on tables. Splashes in a puddle or a bath or a lake. Keeps his mom and dad laughing and on their toes.

_ He sleeps like a baby. Limp as an over-cooked noodle. Naps if he feels like it. But sometimes he will wake in the night and try to rouse his dad to play.

_ He eats a healthy diet. Lots of veggies. No sugar. Only stuff that’s good for him. His parents make sure of it. He likes most everything they offer him. If he doesn’t like it, he spits it out.

_ He spends a lot of time outdoors, playing in the yard, going to the park with his mom or taking walks with his dad. He stays engaged with people who make him happy, not sad, and with things that are beautiful, not ugly. He cuddles with his mom. Reads with his dad. Plays with his cousins. FaceTimes with his nana. And loves to help. You should see him vacuum.

_ He never hides his emotions. He yells if his mom leaves the room. Gets mad if his dad won’t let him put the iPad in the fireplace. And if he falls down the stairs and bumps his head, he screams bloody murder. But when he stops hurting, he quits screaming and climbs back on the stairs. He cries when he feels like crying. And he laughs so much more than he cries.

_ Finally, Jonah knows that he is loved. He has learned that the world isn’t perfect. It can be a painful and frustrating place. There are bees in the grass that can sting his feet. Stairs he can fall down. Cell phones and iPads and other expensive things his parents won’t let him break. But mostly he sees the world as a good place—a place not for worrying, but for learning and exploring and being happy.

Jonah doesn’t have time to worry. He’s too busy living his one, sweet, beautiful life.

As adults, we seldom get to enjoy the kind of freedom we knew as children. We have jobs and responsibilities. Families to care for. Bills to pay. Decisions to weigh. We need to be vigilant and informed and involved.

But worry gains us nothing and robs us of life. We can learn a lot from watching a toddler.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Jonah.

“The Shadows that Fly after Birds,” Oct. 6, 2020

Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Sitting on the sofa, reading another depressing news story on my computer, I closed my eyes, trying to think of things that make me smile:

Seeing the faces of people I love. Hearing the laughter of my children and grandchildren. Smelling the scent of anything my husband might cook … especially snickerdoodles.

Grinning big, I opened my eyes and looked out the window at the Garden-of-Eden beauty of the valley and the rolling mountains we call “home.” That’s when I spotted it: the biggest bird I’d ever seen. Bigger than Big Bird on “Sesame Street.” It was flying low, a soft gray shape gliding gracefully over our driveway on wings that looked six feet wide or more.

What on earth was it? Could it possibly be a condor? I had seen those magnificent creatures once in the wild, but never this close to civilization. Maybe it was fleeing the wildfires?

Then I noticed another bird flying just above the condor. This one was a buzzard. Definitely. A buzzard that was casting a big shadow that I somehow mistook for a condor.

Could you hear me laughing?

My husband likes to say that those of us who can laugh at ourselves never cease to be amused. He should know. We keep each other in stitches, he and I. Or at least, we try.

Lately, it seems—after months of enduring a pandemic and back-to-back wildfires and air too thick with smoke to breathe—we’ve had to try a bit harder to find something to make us laugh or smile. But we keep trying.

Are you trying harder, too?

Snickerdoodles help. Not just the smell or the taste, but the sound of the word. Say it five times fast. I dare you. If it doesn’t make you laugh, maybe you should go take a nap.

Poetry helps, too. Somehow, giving voice to feelings, rather than pretending they don’t exist, frees us to smile, or even laugh.

One of the poems that does that for me is “I Go Down to the Shore” by Mary Oliver. It’s short, but that’s not why I like it.

I like it because it makes me think, as well as feel. And the last line always leaves me smiling. The poet tells the sea she’s miserable and asks what should she do? And the sea answers “in its lovely voice: Excuse me, I have work to do.”

We all have work to do, if only to keep finding reasons to smile and share them with each other.

Children, of course, are a great source of amusement, especially if you aren’t directly responsible for their care and feeding. My husband and I share eight grandchildren, ages 10 years to 18 months. Just the thought of any one of them is enough to light me up like Christmas.

Here’s an example. Randy is 10. He knows I like birds. All birds. Even buzzards. And their shadows. But I’m especially fond of hummingbirds.
So Randy made me a gift: The smallest bird I’ve ever seen. A perfect origami hummer crafted from cardinal red paper that he painstakingly folded just for me.

“Oh!” I said. “I absolutely love it! Where should we hang it?”

I wanted to put it where I’d see it often, so we tried a few places in the kitchen. But we both liked how it looked hanging in the willow branches I keep in a vase on a table in the dining room.

I wish you could see it.

At certain times of day, when the light is just right, Randy’s hummer casts a shadow that looks like a heart. It brings to mind memories of good times in the past, and fills me with hope of more to come. And it never fails to make me smile.

The best memories are like the shadows that fly after birds. They remind us of something beautiful that has passed our way, and give us hope that one fine day, we might see it again.

Things aren’t always what they seem to be. But sometimes, that’s exactly what they are.

Keep smiling.

“Tomatoes, Then and Now,” Sept. 29, 2020

No perfection is quite as perfect as a good homegrown tomato. With a sprinkle of salt.

As a child, I loved following my grandmother around her garden, watching her weed and prune and pick her way through a bounty she cared for almost as tenderly as she cared for me.

Choosing the ripest tomato, she would hold it up to the sun, marvel at its color, clean it with a quick wipe of her apron and present it like a treasure to me.

Back then—before I learned how to wield a salt shaker—I was not as fond of tomatoes as I am now. Not even close. But the look on my grandmother’s face—the pride she showed in having grown that tomato and the pleasure she took in sharing it—were impossible to resist.

I’d take a bite and hand it back to her, feeling the juice dribble down my chin. Then she’d laugh, take a bite and say, “Nothin’ finer than a good tomato from God’s garden.”

Revisiting that memory never fails to make me smile.

What’s your favorite food? Why do you love it? I mean, besides the fact that it tastes good? Is there a memory it recalls that makes you happy? Tastes are often sweetened by the memories they evoke.

Here’s a bad thing about tomatoes. I seldom find one I like in a grocery store. The ones that make me smile usually come from somebody’s garden.

Not my garden, of course. I don’t have one. I inherited my grandmother’s love for fresh vegetables, not her willingness to commit to the back-breaking effort it takes to grow them.

For the record, I raised three children. I can work hard. I just don’t like to raise stuff that has to be replanted every spring and often gets eaten by deer.

Lucky for me, I married well. My husband’s sister, Lynn, is a master gardener. Not only does she garden. She shares.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t live next door. But when she visits, she brings us tomatoes from her garden. Like her, they’re divine. I suspect it’s because of all the love that she puts into them.

This morning, my husband fried bacon (I told you I married well) and we made BLT’s with one of Lynn’s lovely tomatoes.

I wish you could’ve tasted it.

Here’s the recipe: Fry bacon. Skip the lettuce (it just wilts.) Slice a good tomato and sprinkle it with salt. Slather mayo on bread. Make a sandwich and eat it. You can thank me later.

Our backup, if Lynn’s too busy pulling weeds to visit, is a box of organic, locally grown produce we’ve had delivered to our door every week since the start of the pandemic. The contents of the box varies, but lately it’s had a whole lot of cherry tomatoes.

Here’s Lynn’s recipe for a whole lot of cherry tomatoes: Wash, dry, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and spread them in a single layer in a baking dish with four or five cloves of garlic. Roast at 350 degrees for an hour or so until they collapse and turn into what I call “tomato jam.” It’s delicious heaped on anything from eggs to pasta to cardboard.

If need be, you can make it with store-bought tomatoes, not the same, but still good. Even store-bought produce is planted and tended and harvested with back-breaking effort, and hopefully with love, by somebody, somewhere.

I often try to picture, and give thanks for, all the unseen hands that keep me and my loved ones well fed—for farmers and field workers, pickers and packers, ranchers, dairy workers, drivers, grocers and countless others who work so hard to put veggies on my plate, cream in my coffee and bacon in my BLT’s.

My life is different in infinite ways from how my grandmother raised her family. But what we eat is still a gift from the great abundance of God’s garden.

No matter where it’s grown, I’m grateful for the hands that make it all possible. Especially for a good homegrown tomato.

“Stories, True or Not,” Sept. 22, 2020

Birthdays should be celebrated with somebody who loves you. Even if the “somebody” refuses to spend five hours on a plane breathing through a mask just to come sing “Happy Birthday.”

I adore my sister. We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but isn’t that how it is with family? You love being together, talking, laughing, telling stories, trying hard to avoid a fist fight.

My sister and I are like peas in a pod. Except when we’re like peas shot from peashooters aimed at each other’s eyes.

It started the day I was born. Bobbie was almost 6 years old, the apple of everyone’s eye. Then I showed up, a new bud on the family tree. Was it my fault I was adorable? Of course not.

She swears she was happy to share the spotlight. But she swears to lots of things that are not exactly true. For example:

The Christmas I was 4 and she was 10, I wanted a bride doll and she wanted a BB gun. Instead, she got the doll and I got a plastic tea set. She swears she gave that doll to me. No. She gave it to our cousin Sandy, who then helped her wrestle a BB gun away from our cousin Larry.

When I was 17, and Bobbie was 23, we spent a weekend at the beach, where I accidentally splashed her in the pool. She looked like a drowned rat. Vowing to get even, she put her hair in pincurls, covered it with a wig, and challenged me to a dual in the bumper car arena.

Somehow, my bumper car accidentally rammed into hers. And her wig flew off and landed like a dead squirrel on the floor. When they stopped the cars to retrieve it for her, everybody laughed and hooted. Bobbie swore I bumped her on purpose. No, I said, accidents happen.

Thirty years later, when I lost my first husband to cancer, Bobbie stayed by my side, cheered up my kids and let me rest. Then she took me to Mexico and made me pose for a photo with a live chimpanzee. She doesn’t deny any of that. She’s proud of it. So am I.

Here’s my favorite story about my sister. Every word is true.

After seven years as a widow, I finally took my former editor to the Carolinas, to meet my family. Everybody liked him.

“If you don’t marry him,” Bobbie said, “I will.”

So I married him. A year later, when we visited her again, Bobbie offered to let us use her car. We were leaving her house to run an errand when suddenly I recalled what she kept in the glove box.

“Wait here,” I told my husband. I ran inside where my sister was watching TV.

“Sissy,” I said, “your gun is still in the glove box!”

“Well, bring it in,” she said.

“I’m not touching it!”

“Fine!” she said. She followed me out to the car muttering words I won’t repeat.

My husband was sitting in the driver’s seat listening to a game on the radio. Bobbie opened the passenger door. Reaching for the glove box, she glanced back at me and hissed, “Wimp!”

What happened next was not my fault. As she leaned into the car, a gap between her back and her elastic waistband parted like the Red Sea.

And I poured a Diet Pepsi down her pants.

Little did I know she already had the gun in her hand. When she whirled around and fired, my poor husband couldn’t see that she had missed me. Let me assure you, her pants were not the only ones that were wet.

Bobbie claims, if she had killed me, she’d have been set free due to a justifiable defense called “the fool needed killing.”

The stories we tell about our loved ones reveal not only who they are, but why we love them.

My sister has a birthday soon. We’ll celebrate apart, but near at heart. I’ll phone to sing “Happy Birthday,” and say “so glad you were born,” and remind her of stories she swears aren’t true.

I’ll promise to come see her again someday, in this world or the next. And she might promise not to shoot me. But I doubt it.