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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even on her birthday.

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

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

“An Interesting Woman,” Sept. 14, 2021

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

“Songs from the Soul,” Sept. 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I found myself singing along.

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

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

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

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

“A Summer to Remember,” Aug. 31, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the rest of us?

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

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

I wish you could’ve seen it.

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

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

What will you remember best about this summer?

I hope it makes you smile.

“Keeping in Touch,” Aug. 24, 2021

You might think a garage is only meant to hold a car. But a garage is like a heart. No matter how much you store in it, there’s always room for more.

I once knew some friends with four little children, who bought a house that was so small they couldn’t put on a coat until they went outside. But it was all they could afford. So they turned the garage into a family room. This meant they had to park their cars on the street, or on the next block, if need be. It wasn’t always convenient for them or their neighbors, many of whom had also turned their garages into family rooms and had to park on the street, too. But to them, it was a matter of survival—not ideal, but the best that they could do at the time.

Two years ago, my husband and I sold a four-bedroom home in town and moved to a valley to a house half as big, surrounded by mountains. We love it. It’s like being permanent campers in a remote national park.

But when the pandemic began and we stayed home most of the time, the walls began closing in a bit, and we felt the need for a little more space. So we built a carport and turned the garage into a place where my husband can store his instruments and play music to his heart’s content. Talk about happy.

I wish you could hear him.

Maybe you can. I still hear him through the wall, practicing a song over and over. No matter how much you love somebody and his music, it can help at times to be a wall apart.

He stays connected to his music. And I stay connected to writing or phoning or playing FreeCell or whatever. A garage keeps cars cleaner. And rats might be less likely to chew wires in the engines. But we needed a place for music more than a place for cars. That is survival: Doing what works best for now. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come. Now is all we have.

What makes you feel most alive?

For me, it’s being in touch—with myself, with my God, with Nature and people I love.

I also find it helpful—OK, I’ll just say this—to bake cookies. (Here’s my favorite: Mix a cup of peanutbutter with a cup of sugar and an egg, spoon out on a baking pan, sprinkle with salt, bake at 350 for 10 minutes or so, then cool until firm so they don’t burn your mouth. Try not to eat them all at once. You can thank or curse me later.)

I need time to be alone, to hear myself think and to pray. As a child I worried that I didn’t pray enough. But my granddad, a preacher, told me prayer isn’t just asking God for things. It happens every time we smile and say “Ahh!” at something God created. I do that a lot. I’ll bet you do, too.

But I also need time to feel connected. I try to keep in touch with family and friends. I hear from readers who say my stories are their stories, too. I talk and laugh with my husband and we marvel a lot together at birds and sunsets and grandkids.

Lately I’ve been hearing lots of stories from people who, like me, long to stay connected and are finding ways to do so: Bookclubs that met for years in person, and continue to meet (and sometimes invite me to join them) online with Zoom. Children who stayed home, but went to school with distance learning and kept in touch with friends through FaceTime. Or a widow who meets every Friday with neighbors to sit in chairs 6-feet apart around their cul-de-sac talking for hours.

We survive by doing what’s best for us and those we love. By taking time to be together, and time to be alone. By knowing when to talk, when to listen, when to apologize and when to pray. By keeping connected to ourselves and to each other. By sharing stories, playing music, baking cookies and feeling alive.

What works best for you and your loved ones? How will you survive and feel most alive this day? I hope you keep in touch.

“Love that Red!” Aug. 17, 2021

There was a time in my life when I wore makeup every day. Yes, it was before the pandemic. But it began the day I turned 13. My mother didn’t let me wear makeup at that age. I complied with her wishes when possible, but like most children, I was hell-bent on doing as I pleased.

So for my thirteenth birthday, I asked my sister—who was six years older, married with a baby and a firm belief in makeup—for a tube of clear lip gloss. That is what she gave me with this advice: “Use it sparingly, Sissy. A little goes a long way.”

Thus began my devotion to makeup. Every morning, I’d apply that gloss, just so, to my lips. And that little bit of shine would miraculously transform me from plain and ordinary to almost—I’ll just say it—pretty.

That is how it made me feel. Even if I couldn’t see it in the mirror, I felt it deep inside.

Everyone—male, female, young, old, rich, poor, or ugly as sin—we should all feel pretty. That’s how God created us. God doesn’t do ugly. Even warthogs light up at each other’s looks.

In a world obsessed with beauty, it’s hard to feel pretty, inside or out, especially if we’ve been shamed by mistakes, or belittled by hurtful words.

My mother was a beautiful woman. Yet she had suffered in ways no one should ever suffer: A series of failed relationships. A child born blind and out of wedlock. And a never-ending longing to feel loved. One look in her eyes and you could feel her pain. I felt it every day.

But sometimes, before church or going to work to wait tables, she would stare into a mirror, while I watched in awe, as she covered her lips—blotting one layer, then adding another—with Revlon’s “Love that Red.”

I wish you could’ve seen her.

Marilyn Monroe had nothing on my mother. Both women bore their share of heartaches. But a little red lipstick helped.

When my mother’s battle with lung cancer neared its end, I flew home to spend a few days by her side in the hospital. She was heavily medicated, in a great deal of pain. As the meds wore off, her face would contort in agony. I’d ring a bell for a nurse to bring relief. And as the pain subsided, the lines in her face would slowly fade away.

To me, she never looked more beautiful. Where she was going, she wouldn’t need pain meds or lipstick. But I kept a promise to be sure at her funeral her lips gleamed with “Love that Red.”

The day she was buried, I drove 30 miles to pick up my brother Joe and his wife, Tommie Jean, to take them to her service. Both were blind. They’d met as students at the blind school and swore they fell in love at first sight.

We were running late. Joe refused to wear a tie, until I told him Mama would want it. Finally, they seemed ready. Then Tommie Jean said to me, “Sister, will you do my makeup? I want to look pretty today.”

We’d be late for the service, but Mama would understand. I did Tommie Jean’s makeup, with an extra coat of “Love that Red.” She was not what many would call “pretty.” But she had never seen her face. And as Joe led their way into the church with his cane, Tommie Jean proudly lifted her chin, as if she felt pretty inside and out.

I remembered that day a few years later, when Tommie Jean lost her own battle with cancer. I stood by my brother’s side, holding his trembling hand, as we laid his beloved, beautiful woman to her final rest.

Tell me this: If we never saw our faces, but felt truly loved by family, friends and the God who created us, how pretty would we be? My mother said, “Pretty is as pretty does.” But doing comes from knowing we are loved.

Real beauty isn’t skindeep. It shines from the heart.

But it might help to add a little “Love that Red.”

“Doing the Best We Can,” August 10, 2021

It was a mistake. Not my first. Or my last. I knew I’d regret it, but did it anyway. Funny, isn’t it? The things we do for love.

Last year, when the pandemic shut down life as we knew it, we had no idea how long it would last, or what it might require of us. In some ways, we still don’t. The journey has been infinitely more painful for some than for others. The loss of lives, jobs, homes and hope is a tragedy unlike any in our lifetime.

The only real difficulty for me—and it’s nothing compared to what so many have faced—is how much I’ve missed spending time with people: Family and friends, but also with strangers I’d meet on a plane or waiting in a line, strike up a conversation and hear their life stories.

Few things in life make us feel more human than sharing our stories with each another. I’ve missed that a lot. Lately, as restrictions slowly eased, I’ve loved reconnecting—meeting a friend for lunch, having my grandkids sleep over, or saying to a lab tech who’s drawing my blood for a check-up, “So, tell me, where did you grow up?”

It’s a magic question. Try it. You could hear a great story, not so different from your own.

I’ve been asking that question and others like it all my life. The pandemic hasn’t stopped me. It just made it harder, and gave me a new appreciation for it. Sometimes, we don’t miss what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Take, for example, hair.

In our 20 years together, my husband never asked me to cut his hair. Yes, he is a very smart man. But intelligence often defers to desperation.

Several months into the pandemic, with barbershops closed, his hair began to make him look—OK, I’ll just say this—like Larry of the Three Stooges.

So he ordered an electric hair clipper, handed it to me and for some reason, I accepted it.

Yes, that is the mistake I referred to at the start.

“It’s not hard,” he said, “the clipper will do all the work.”

Suddenly I remembered my grandmother’s words the day I phoned her to say I was marrying a Californian:
“Honey,” she said, “don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Yankees don’t make good husbands. I’m just saying they’re peculiar.”

Then she added, “Marriage is hard. Just remember: Don’t start doing anything you don’t want to keep doing forever.”

Why did I agree to cut my husband’s hair? I’m not sure. Was it the look of desperation that I saw in his eyes? Or what I saw growing on his head?

We went out to the patio, turned on the clippers and as we say in the South, the fur began to fly. Come spring, birds near and far would line their nests with tufts of his hair.

I didn’t do a great job. I just did the best I could. And really, what more can we do?

After I finished, he locked himself in the bathroom. I heard the clipper and thought, hmm. But when he came out he said thanks, and never complained.

I hoped that would be the end of my haircutting career. But I’ve hoped that about a lot of things in the pandemic. The end of Covid. The end of masks. The end of feeling like a prisoner under house arrest. But things don’t end until they end.

Yesterday, after his hair had grown an inch, my husband asked me to cut it. Again.

“Barbershops are open!” I said. “I’ll pay anything it costs!”

“I want you to cut it,” he said.

So I did. It wasn’t a great job. I blamed it on the clipper. But my husband didn’t complain.

We do things for someone, not because we’re good at it, but because we see a look in their eyes, or on their heads, or maybe even in the mirror, and it makes us want to help.

Little acts of kindness mean a lot. Listening to a story. Smiling through a mask. Or even giving a bad haircut. We don’t need to be the best at what we do. We just need to do the best we can.

“Keeping in Touch,” Aug. 3, 2021

Five years ago, my younger brother left this world for the next. I will never forget him. I couldn’t if I tried. If you’d met him, you’d remember him, too.

His name was Denton, but we called him “Bubba.” He was well known and much respected as a builder of fine homes. But he was loved best as a husband, a father, a brother and a friend.

This week, the anniversary of his passing brought me a gift that filled me with joy.

I met Jessica when she was 2, going on 21. We’d have met sooner, but I lived in California, far from the small Southern town where she and I were born. I missed my family, but didn’t get to visit them often. My husband and I shared three growing children. Life was full and travel was costly. But I kept hearing from my brother about his beautiful, brilliant daughter. I wanted to meet her and see my Southern family again. So we flew “home” to the Carolinas. And when the hugs and tears subsided, my brother presented his daughter like a trophy.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

She looked up at me and said, in a 2-year-old Southern drawl, “You wanna see me on TV?”

Every moment of her life, from birth until we met, had been captured in videos by her dad. We watched them all. She fell asleep before they ended. I stayed awake, thanks to Bubba’s running commentary. (“You gotta see this one! A seagull poops on her head!”)

He was right about Jessica. She was beautiful and brilliant. And she still is. I saw her this week for the first time in too many years, along with her husband and children, a boy, 9, and a girl, 7, who were both adored by their grandpa.

I had to miss my brother’s memorial service five years ago because I injured my foot and couldn’t walk. Jessica and I have kept in touch through emails and Facebook, but we were long overdue for an in-person talk. So when she wrote to say she and her family were vacationing this week in California (not close enough to see us in Carmel Valley) we arranged to meet in San Francisco, for brunch.

Our husbands sat at one end of the table. The kids sat between us, eating pancakes and behaving well, if occasionally kicking each other under the table. Jessica and I sat at the other end and talked for almost two hours. We caught up on family news and shared what our lives were like during the pandemic. And we talked a lot about her dad and all the funny, wonderful things he did.

We could’ve swapped stories about him until the cows came home. How he liked to pick wildflowers for her and her mom, wrap the stems in electrical tape, and leave them in their cars to surprise them.

How, as a grown man, he hid in a bush, growled like a bear and scared our sister to tears.

How he comforted me and my children after their dad died, and even made us laugh.

But there is never enough time to tell all the stories about someone you’ve loved and lost. So we all hugged each other, said a long goodbye and agreed that the next time they come to California, they’ll come see us.

When I was a child, Sunday dinner was a weekly family ritual, a chance to talk face-to-face and eat fried chicken. These days, for many of us, it’s too expensive or too hard to get together in person. And some people won’t eat fried chicken. So we try to keep in touch long distance with phone calls, messages, videos and prayers.

I am certain my brother was with us at that table, laughing at the kids, listening to the stories, especially the stories we told about him. We couldn’t see him. (If he’d been there in person, he’d have picked up the check.) But we sensed his presence and felt his unfailing love.

People leave, but love remains. We can’t see them face to face. But we tell stories that connect us long distance in memory. And we keep forever close heart to heart.

“Saying Yes,” July 27, 2021

Two of the simplest words we know are often the hardest to say: “Yes” opens a door. “No” will close it. Yes or no, it’s up to us. But open or closed, doors can hold the power to change lives, for better or for worse.

Let’s call her Kelly. My late husband was a high school teacher and basketball coach. He phoned me from school one day to say a school counselor had told him about a 15-year-old student, who was living on the street working as a prostitute.

“Her folks kicked her out,” my husband said. “She wants to make some changes. But if she stays on the street, she’ll keep doing what she’s doing. I’m thinking maybe she could stay with us for a while? It’s up to you. What do you say?”

I looked over at my 10-month-old, grinning at me from his high chair while patting fistfuls of oatmeal onto his head.

“She’s a prostitute?” I said.

“She’s just a kid,” he said, “one who needs a little help.”

There’d been times in my life when I needed help. Nothing nearly as hard as what Kelly was facing. But help had been there for me when I needed it. I knew the difference it could make. So I said the magic word: “Yes.”

And that is how Kelly came into our lives. She was smart, funny and remarkably clever at appearing to follow rules, while doing exactly what she wanted.

Our rules were pretty simple. She had to be home in time for dinner, do her homework, get to sleep at a decent hour and get to school every day on time. If she planned to miss dinner, she needed to call to explain why.

My husband and I met her mother and father. They were late-in-life parents who loved their daughter, but found her behavior unbearable. We hoped to work together for her best.

Soon after she moved in with us, they began inviting her home for dinner. Kelly would call after school to see what each of us was cooking. Then she’d pick what sounded better, her mother’s cooking or mine.
Her mother usually won. After dinner, her dad would drop her at our place. She seemed close to moving back in with them.

One evening, while Kelly had dinner with her folks, and my husband was at basketball practice, I picked my baby up off the floor, pulled a tuft of dog hair out of his mouth, and answered a knock at the door.

And there stood someone I’d not met, but knew well from my talks with Kelly: A nice-looking, well-dressed, soft-spoken man, who had taken her in and turned her out as a prostitute.

“Hello, ma’am,” he said, smiling. “May I speak to Kelly?”

“She isn’t here,” I said, holding my baby a little tighter.

He nodded. “That’s a mighty cute boy you got there. Mind if I have a word with you?”

I grew up in the South, where if a stranger comes to your door, you invite him in for iced tea. I offered him a seat on the sofa but somehow forgot the tea.

He didn’t stay long. He just said he wanted us to know he cared about Kelly and that he was grateful to us for our help. Then he shook my hand, patted my baby’s head, and left.

A week later, Kelly went back to live with her parents. They were planning to move away and she wanted to go with them. I never heard from her again. Years later I saw her name in a list of college graduates. Was it the same Kelly? I hope so.

I don’t know what our time together meant to her. It was far from perfect. I wish I’d been kinder, wiser, more loving—or at least a better cook. But Kelly didn’t need me to be perfect. She just needed me to say “yes.”

When we open our heart to someone in need, God uses our imperfections in perfect ways.

I think of Kelly sometimes and pray for her best. I like to think she’s doing the same for me.

She needed a safe place to stay a while. And I needed to know what she taught me: We don’t have to be perfect to say “yes.”

“The Love of Books and Reading,” July 20, 2021

Long before they learn to read, children need to be taught to love reading and books. They need to hold them in their chubby hands. Turn the pages one by one. Point to each word as it’s read aloud. Marvel at every illustration. And maybe chew a bit on the cover.

What else are books for, if not to be “devoured” by readers of every age, young and old alike?

My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother worked long hours as a waitress, leaving her little money or time to spend on “luxuries” like books.

Lucky for me, I was doted on by two of the best grandmothers who ever dipped snuff.

Make no mistake. Doting is different from spoiling. Spoiling spoils. Doting heals. My grandmothers taught me all sorts of things, but mostly they showed me how to be a good, doting grandmother, the kind I hope that I’ve become.

My mother’s mother taught me how to tell a story that makes people want to sit up and listen; feed a houseful of family without going broke; and cheat at cards without getting caught.

My dad’s mother taught me how to love mountains and songbirds and autumn leaves and a big hunk of buttered cornbread; how to wade across a swollen creek without falling in; how to love books and reading and best of all, how to read on my own, before I started school.

I wish you could’ve seen my teacher’s eyes the first day of first grade (we didn’t have kindergarten back then) when she realized I could read almost as well as she could teach.

Children need to feel good at something. I came from people who worked hard, but had little. I wore secondhand shoes, often had no money to buy lunch, and never felt pretty. But thanks to my grandmother, I could read like a house on fire.

In third grade, my teacher asked me to represent our class in the school’s reading contest. She gave me a book to practice for the competition. It was “Blueberries for Sal,” by Robert McCloskey, a story about a little girl who goes berry picking with her mama and meets a mama bear and her cub.

I learned it by heart. The night of the contest, I took a deep breath and looked out on a great assembly of parents, teachers and total strangers. Then I read, “One day, Little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill….”

I won that contest. But more important, I discovered how it felt to reach out with words and hold a roomful of people in the palm of my hand.

My grandson, Wiley, is 7 years old. He takes turns with his siblings and cousins sleeping over at our house. Every time it’s his turn, he always asks me to read “Blueberries for Sal.” Hearing him laugh his sweet laugh in all the right places is even better than reading to a whole roomful of people.

I wish you could hear him.

The last time he was here, he asked to take “Blueberries for Sal” home with him. He has tons of books at his house. I wanted this one to be special. So I said, “I think I’d like to keep it here for us to read together.”

He seemed to understand. But after he left, I thought about it some more. Since the pandemic, my husband has read most every day over the phone to his granddaughter, who lives too far away to visit often. Reading has created a bond between them that they’ll never forget—not what they read, but the time they’ve spent reading together.

“Blueberries for Sal” will always be special to Wiley and me for the memories it holds for us, no matter whose bookshelf it sits on. So I bought a copy for Wiley’s house, and will keep one here for when he visits.

Children need books to treasure, to read on their own and with someone they love, as a way to understand themselves, each other and the world.

Few gifts mean more to a child than a good book and a doting grandparent who’ll gladly take the time to read it together.