“A Most Wonderful Christmas,” Dec. 7, 2021

Tomorrow, my husband and I hope to get a Christmas tree. We will decorate it with a flock of fake red birds, some snowflakes that my grandmother crocheted long ago, and a few tacky, but treasured, ornaments.

For me, it doesn’t take much to make Christmas wonderful. I don’t need gifts. I’d rather give them. And I surely don’t need treats. Except snickerdoodles that my husband makes.

Basically, to celebrate, I need just a few things: Family and friends. Movies (“Elf” and “Love Actually.”) Music (“O Holy Night” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”) A Christmas tree. And a candlelight service to remind me that I’m celebrating the gift of a child, who was born in a barn to save the world.

That’s about it. Today I baked cookies, but not for Christmas. They’re an everyday kind I call “The All-Time Easiest and Best Peanut Butter Cookies Ever.”

I make them often. More often than I should. My grandkids love them. Even Wiley, who’s a cookie connoisseur. Once, when I gave him one made of oatmeal, Wiley said, “Nana, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but this doesn’t look like a cookie.”

OK, I’ll give you the recipe for my peanut butter cookies. I’ve posted it before, but if I don’t do it now, I’ll get a ton of requests. (Readers like to read, but they really love to eat.) Here it is:

Combine one cup of peanut butter with one cup of sugar and an egg. No flour. Mix well. Spoon onto a greased pan to form 12 cookies. Flatten with a fork. Sprinkle with salt. Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Cool, and try not to eat them all at once.

I gave most of the ones I made today to my husband and two of his buddies who are having fun playing music in our garage.

Listen. Can you hear them? I can. They sound good. The cookies probably help.

I like those guys a lot. I especially like what they mean to my husband. They’ve been his friends and fellow musicians for years. Making music is their way to spend time together. It’s like a book club without the books.

Last week, I spoke at a luncheon for a group of women who’ve been meeting monthly for more than 30 years to talk about books and life. During the pandemic, they began meeting only online. The luncheon was their first in-person meeting in almost two years.

I wish you could’ve been there. It felt like a family reunion.

One of things I love best about Christmas is the way it brings us together with family and friends and even with strangers, who smile as we pass on the street, and we smile back and wish each other, “Merry Christmas!”

On his first Christmas album, Andy Williams sang what would become a classic, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

It was 1963, a year much like the present one, when violence and conflict threatened to tear our lives and our nation apart.

U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was escalating. That August, more than 200,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., in support of civil rights and heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. And on Nov. 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Some years, more than others, we need Christmas to be the most wonderful time of the year.

A time that’s filled with family, friends, music and laughter, and candlelight services to remind us of why we are celebrating.

A time that makes us thankful for all we have, and happy to help those who have less.

A time that brings us together, with all our many differences, in peace and hope and joy.

Here’s wishing us all the kind of Christmas we need—a most wonderful time of the year.

Yes, the cookie recipe is your gift.

“My Brother’s Dream of Speed,” Nov. 30, 2021

(NOTE: I’m taking this week off to recover from Thanksgiving. The following column, a reader favorite, was first published in 1993.)

My brother had a driving passion for cars. So to speak. Fords in particular. He was especially fond of speed.

It was enough to make my mother fear that he was crazy. But she feared that about all of us, especially about herself.

When Joe was just a little boy, he would often say to me, “Sister, when I get old enough to get my license and drive my own car, I will fly so fast the angels will run and hide their wings.”

Then he’d grin real big, picturing in his mind exactly how fine it would be.

I could have told him it would never happen. No matter how old he got, he would never get a license, never drive a car. But I didn’t tell him that.

Joe was born blind. He couldn’t see his own face in a magnifying mirror. But he could dream like nobody’s business.

I had dreams of my own, things I hoped for, knowing I might never see them come true. What were the odds I’d get to go to college? Or earn my living as a writer? Or visit strange, foreign lands like California of All Places?

I would bet more money on my blind brother’s chances of getting to drive at the Indy 500.

I didn’t want to be the one to dim Joe’s dreams. Life would do that for him, soon enough. Until then, didn’t he deserve a few happy anticipations?

Joe had trouble not just with his eyes, but with his legs. He was born premature, suffered from cerebral palsy and didn’t walk at all until he was 5.

That’s when he got his first “car,” a red Radio Flyer tricycle that he called his ’49 Ford. He couldn’t pedal it, so he would push it, one hand on the seat, the other on the handlebars, driving daylight to dark, all around the yard and often into ditches, anywhere his dreams and determination might lead.

Come bad weather, if our mother threw a fit big enough to make him stay inside, Joe would drive his other “Ford,” a green, overstuffed armchair. It had a few miles on it, he said, but it ran fine if you knew how to drive it which, of course, he did.

Growing up is a tug of war between disappointment and surprise, a reconciliation of dreams and reality. By the time Joe was 12, I think he knew he would never get a license. As with other hard facts of life, he seemed to accept it without question or bitterness, as if it were nothing more than a card drawn at random from a deck.

One hot summer day when he was 16, Joe went tapping out the driveway with his cane, tap, tap, and tapped into my stepfather’s ’49 Ford. He ran his hand along the hood, felt the heat of the metal, opened the door and climbed behind the wheel.

He looked good.

Rummaging under the seat, he discovered a six-pack of Budweiser. That beer was so hot, he would say later, it scalded the roof of his mouth. Even so, he drained all six cans.

Then he felt along the steering column, found the keys in the ignition, shouted, “Hooweeee!” and fired it up.

To my grave, I’ll regret that I wasn’t there to see it. By then, I was out of college, off in California of All Places, earning my living as a writer.

I have heard various versions of this story, depending on the teller. They all boil down to this:

The Ford’s engine roared. My mother fainted. My stepfather nearly broke his neck running out the door.

And my brother, after a moment of purest bliss, threw up on the dashboard. And the front seat. And the back.

Fortunately, for all concerned, the Ford was up on blocks. It never moved an inch.

But to this day, Joe still swears that when he found those keys and fired that old engine up, he heard the angels up in Heaven running to hide their wings.

“Dreams We Dream Together,” Nov. 23, 2021

It’s not often someone asks for my advice. Especially someone half my age. I wanted to help her. But I didn’t dare risk saying anything that might cause her to make a serious mistake.

In my experience, asking for directions can either get you where you want to go or send you down a dead end road.

But asking for advice doesn’t always mean someone wants to be told what to do. Sometimes they just want you to listen and let them untangle all the chaos in their head and their heart.

“Tell me about it,” I said.

She smiled and stared off into space, as if seeing something that made her happy.

“All my life,” she said, “I have wanted to own my own business. I’ve always worked hard for others. I won’t be young forever. I’d like to work hard for myself, while I can.”

For several years, she has stood at the counter of a small business, selling ice cream and other snacks. She loves talking with customers, especially the children. She’s good at the job and likes to believe that what she does makes people happy.

Her boss comes into the shop to help at times, but he has other businesses to oversee and mostly lets her run the place alone. He’s a good man, she said, trustworthy and fair.

Finally, she took a deep breath and cut to the chase: “He’s offering to make me a partner!”

The deal sounded simple. She would pay her boss a sum of money. It would take all of what she’s been saving for years, but she thinks it would be worth it.

In return, she said, she would be co-owner of the business. They had discussed all the details, and if she agreed, they would put it all in writing. She would still run the counter, but take her share of the income.

Best of all, she said, she hoped that in time she could earn back her investment and save enough money so that someday, when her boss retires, she could buy his half of the place and make her lifelong dream come true.

When she said that, her face lit up like a child’s at Christmas, and her eyes filled with tears.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

I smiled, too, and gave her a hug. Then, for a moment, my mind filled with memories of my own dreams that came true.

My dream of going to college came true with a scholarship.

Then I dreamed of seeing California, and my aunt and uncle, who lived near San Francisco, invited me to visit. So I flew out to spend a week, stayed with them for a year and married my uncle’s friend.

I dreamed of being a mother, though I didn’t know a lot about how to care for a child. Then I had three children—the children of my dreams—who would teach me more than I wanted to know.

Some dreams come true even if we don’t know we’re dreaming them. I never dreamed I’d get to work as a writer. But I got hired by a newspaper, though I had no experience, and ended up with a “dream job” writing a column.

For a while, after my husband died, I couldn’t bring myself to dream of a life without him. But I had family and friends and readers who dreamed it for me.

Soon, even though I grieved for my husband, I began moving forward with my life. In time, I married a man who makes me watch sunsets and does my laundry. Then I dreamed of being a nana. And in 10 years, we had nine grandchildren. Talk about a dream come true.

I didn’t tell my young friend what she should do. Instead, I listened and asked questions. It’s often better to let someone pour out their heart, than to put your own words in their mouth.

I told her I believe in her and want her to believe in herself. It’s her decision to make. And she will make the right choice.

Meanwhile, I’m praying her dream will come true, if not now, then some day soon.

I’ll be dreaming it with her.

“A Thanksgiving List,” Nov. 16, 2021

Today I am getting an early start on my Thanksgiving tradition of writing a list of things for which I’m thankful. It’s a long list. The older I get, it keeps getting longer.

I started the tradition when I was 8, at the suggestion of my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Farrar, a lovely woman I greatly admired. I hoped to be just like her someday. And I still do.

The length of the list varies depending on how much time and thought I give it. Gratitude is like a well-tended crop. It needs time and care to grow.

I’m sorry to admit this, but there were a few years when I didn’t keep the tradition. I’d get distracted somehow (I do that a lot) and forget all about the list. I meant well, but sometimes meaning well is not enough.

Then I’d remember it suddenly at the last minute—say, on Thanksgiving Day, with a houseful of hungry people, when I was taking the turkey out of the oven and trying to recall if I owned a carving knife, and if so, where exactly did I put it?

So instead of making a written list, I’d make a quick mental note to do it later, after dinner was done, the kitchen was clean and my family was snoring in a turkey coma. Then I’d fall into bed and forget all about it until the next Thanksgiving.

That’s not to say I didn’t give thanks for a year. I give thanks every day. I bet you do, too. With so much to be thankful for, how can we not? But I only do a written list at Thanksgiving—if I don’t get distracted and forget. I wish I had saved all those lists. No doubt, they included things I’m always thankful for: Family and friends, health and happiness, God’s abundant grace and peace and joy.

But they might’ve included a few more details such as, “I’m thankful I didn’t drown when I tried to swim across that lake and was too proud to yell for help.” Or “I’m thankful my brother forgave me and didn’t bleed to death when I tripped him on the barbed wire fence.” Or “I’m thankful I didn’t go to that alligator farm in Florida, and marry What’s His Name.”

Anyhow. Here’s a gift I’d like to share with you. My grandson, Wiley, in third grade, recently wrote the following essay:

“Someday I will be a professional basketball player and make 1,000 shots in a row. Someday I will be an artist and paint all my favorite things. Someday I will be the president of the U.S. and live in the White House. But today, I have to clean my room.”

Wiley’s delightful essay has inspired me to tell you this:

Someday I will be a better person, just like Mrs. Farrar. Someday I’ll own a carving knife and never forget where I put it. Someday I’ll spend more time on the people and things I love, and less time being distracted.

But today I have to stop and take time to be thankful. And put it in writing. Here goes:

I’m thankful, as always, for family and friends, health and happiness and God’s abundant grace and peace and joy.

I’m thankful my husband and I can celebrate Thanksgiving, once again, with most of our children and grandchildren and a few special friends.

I’m thankful for far more than I could ever fit in a column. For the chance to write my stories. For editors who publish them. And for readers, like you, who read them and tell me that my stories are your stories, too.

This Thanksgiving, I will set four tables: Three in my daughter’s dining room (she’s hosting, bless her.) And one “big table” in my heart for family and friends, living or long departed, who will be with us in spirit only, but never forgotten.

I’ll set a place for you at that “big table.” Maybe you’ll set one for me. Here’s wishing us all a year of true gratitude and many more Thanksgivings to come.

“Looking in the Mirror,” Nov. 9, 2021

Lately, I find myself staring at a face in the mirror and asking:

1. Who are you?

2. Why do you look like that?

3. What have you done with the woman I used to be?

Here are my usual answers:

1. I am the same person I’ve always been, just a bit older, and due to the pandemic, maybe a few pounds heavier.

2. I look this way because I have a white stripe on my head that makes me look like a skunk. At the start of the pandemic, I tried to go totally gray, but couldn’t abide the stripe. So I keep coloring. And the stripe keeps coming back.

3. I’ve done little or nothing for or with the woman I used to be, because basically, life as I once knew it stopped.

Yes, for what felt like forever, I stopped seeing most of my family and friends, stopped going to the market (we had groceries delivered) and just, more or less, stayed home like a prisoner under house arrest.

Did life seem to stop for you, too? I think it did for most of us. I want to believe that it’s coming back in full glory. But it’s hard to know, isn’t it? Information seems to change day to day.

So instead of relying on what I might hear, I rely on things I trust to be true and have learned to count on in all my years. Never mind how many years. For example:

I put great trust in sunsets. I’d probably trust in sunrises, too, if I ever woke up in time to see one. But I’m a late-to-bed, late-to-rise kind of person. So sunsets are my thing. My husband and I sit outside most evenings to watch the sun go down, the moon come up and the stars fill the sky.

I wish you could see it.

I hope you can. I hope you see it often, wherever you may be.

It’s easier, I think, to trust in the future when we realize that the sun seems to know things we might forget, and it keeps rising and setting, rain or shine, to celebrate life twice every day.

Also, I trust people. Real people, neighbors and friends. You should trust them, too. In the hardest of times, it’s a gift to see good people rise up—not because they have great wealth, but because they have great hearts—to help others in need.

Have you noticed lately what your friends and neighbors are doing? Look around you. It will open your eyes and your heart.

Most of all, I trust in a power that always holds, like the old song says, “the whole world in his hands.” As a child, my blind brother would quiet his fears by singing himself to sleep. That song was one of his favorites. It’s one of mine, too.

Finally, I’m learning to trust, not in what I see in the mirror, but in what I feel in my soul. I know I’m getting older. I don’t need a mirror to tell me. My knees won’t let me forget.

I spend as much time as possible with my grandkids, laughing at their jokes, watching them turn cartwheels the way I did a lifetime ago, and telling them stories from “the old days.”

I would also spend time with people my age, but they’re all busy spending time with their grandkids. Or going to see doctors. Or looking for their glasses. Or trying to remember what they dropped on the floor and what else they ought to look for while they’re down there.

I know that’s how they spend their time because it’s how I spend mine, too. When I’m not making peanutbutter cookies.

I think most of us are just hoping to survive this pandemic and pass on to our children and grandchildren a few important things we’ve learned, such as:

_ Times get hard, but they get better. We help ourselves, but at our best, we help each other.

_ Failure isn’t falling down. It’s falling down and failing to get back up and try again.

_ Mirrors might tell us how old we look, but it’s what we see in the eyes of those we love that tells us how much we mean.

Maybe I’ll stop looking in the mirror. After I color my roots.

“A Season to Celebrate,” Nov. 2, 2021

What’s your favorite time of year? I like different seasons for different reasons. But my favorite season is fall.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad and his folks on their farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

In summer, I would wade in the creek, chase lightning bugs and go fishing with my dad. I never caught any fish, but I had great fun watching him try.

In winter, I would pray for snow. When my prayers were answered, I’d spend hours sliding on a hill in the pasture and throwing snowballs at cows, then come inside to drink cocoa and thaw my feet by the fire.

In spring, my grandmother and I would go hunting for anything in bloom—trees and herbs and all sort of wildflowers. She would teach me their names and explain why God made them: Some had medicinal uses, she said, and others were like certain people, they just made the world a better place.

In fall, the weather was usually perfect, warm enough to play in the creek by day, cold enough at night to cozy up and listen while my grandmother or my dad read to me or told me stories.

But my best fall memory begins with rain. I was 6, old enough to take a bus 40 miles from the station where my mother dropped me off, to the town where my dad picked me up. We drove to the farm in a steady drizzle. Clouds hid the mountains, thick and heavy as my grandmother’s quilts.

The next day, when the clouds parted, I went out to see a sight I will never forget. I yelled and my grandmother came running.

“Look!” I shouted, pointing at what looked to me like flames, “the mountains are on fire!”

She looked. Then she laughed.

“That’s not fire, child,” she said. “That’s just fall.”

I wish you could’ve seen it.

Maybe you have seen a fall of your own, one that you will never forget. I hope so.

Those leaves left their mark on my soul. Fall became my forever favorite season. Not just for its colors, but for other things, too. Books we read. Talks we shared. Good times we spent together.

We did all those things in every season. But in fall, the days grew shorter. And longer evenings gave us more time for things that meant the most.

I remember the smell of my grandmother’s stew simmering in a cast iron pot on her wood stove. She made it with venison my dad had hunted. I swear, a bowl of that stew and a hunk of her cornbread would make your eyes roll back in your head.

That was long ago, but I recall it clearly. Some memories are gifts that stay with us forever.

Life took me west and I left the mountains, but the mountains never left me. I raised my children in a different world, but with the same values I learned as a child. They love fall, as I do, for mostly the same reasons.

Thirty years ago this month, my dad took his life. His health was failing and he was weary of hospitals. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it still does.

He told me once, after his father died, that dying is part of life—that it’s how old things fulfill their purpose and make room on the Earth for the new.

Those words sing a silent hymn in my heart whenever I watch leaves fall to Earth.

When seasons change, they remind us that life keeps moving. We recall good times gone by, give thanks for the present, and dare to look forward to what lies ahead.

For supper tonight, I made a stew in my grandmother’s old cast iron pot. I used beef, not venison. It wasn’t as good as her stew, but we liked it. Tomorrow we’ll have leftovers. Maybe I’ll even bake cornbread.

I wish you could join us.

Fall will always be my favorite time of year. But the best season to celebrate life is any time, any place, every chance we’re given.

“Stories Are Us,” Oct. 26, 2021

What are your favorite stories you learned as a child? Have you told them to your loved ones? What stories do you hope they will tell about you when you aren’t around to tell them?

Long ago, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Carolinas, where I grew up, storytellers were once known as “liars.” This was not to say their stories weren’t true. They were true of the human condition. But they were often embellished in colorful ways that brought a story to life, making its “truth” clearer and more memorable.

Just as novelists write fiction that is “the lie that tells a truth,” storytellers weave tales using facts from memory and details from imagination. It’s a common practice in all the great storytelling cultures, and especially in the South.

I grew up in a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, my aunts and uncles, my dozens of cousins, my blind baby brother, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs—they all told stories. All I had to do was listen. I learned to listen well. And I grew up to earn my living, more or less, writing stories.

The stories that I write about my family and my life are always true. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. When I write about things that happened years ago, I try to recall them as clearly as possible. But I can’t always be sure of every detail—the color of a dress I wore, the size of the dog that chased me or the exact words that were spoken. So I occasionally rely on imagination to fill in the gaps. But I always stick to the facts.

My grandmother’s stories changed a bit each time she told them, and I smiled at how her changes made a story better. I loved hearing her stories. And my grandchildren seem to love hearing mine. Even the ones they’ve heard before.

“Tell it again, Nana!” they say. So I do, and they start laughing before I get to the funny part. Recently, after they were done splashing each other in our hot tub, Randy, 11, Wiley, 8, and Eleanor, 6, wrapped in towels and begged to hear a Halloween story_one I’ve told them (and you) countless times. Here it is:

Once upon a time, when I was 10, my mother told me to make costumes from nothing and take my brothers treat-or-treating.

Denton was 4. He looked like a monkey. All he needed was a banana. Joe was 6, and totally blind. I threw a sheet over his head, but forgot to tell him he was a ghost. I made myself a tinfoil crown and off we went.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

Denton ate his banana, but kept the peel. Joe kept tripping on the sheet. We knocked on the first door and waited. Joe said, “I hope she’s got candy. I don’t want no sorry apple.”

Then the door flew open and we all shouted, “Trick-or-treat!” Mrs. Fisher patted Joe’s head through the sheet and said, “What a cute little ghost!”

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

True story, I swear, with only a few minor embellishments. My grandkids love it. They beg me tell it again and again.

I’ve told them lots of stories. I hope to tell them more as they, and I, grow older. I want them to know and remember me and the big, crazy family I grew up in—all those storytellers that I knew and loved—people the kids may never have met, but who are, in fact, their family, too.

Stories are the unbreakable threads that bind generations together, that show us our roots, tell us who we are, and give us hope for all that we can be.

Tell your stories. Write them or record them or set them to music. Do it now for yourself, for your children, your grandchildren and all the children you will never meet.

My grandkids have never met their “Great Uncle Joe,” but they won’t soon forget him. To them, he will always be, not a ghost, but a very lovable—if somewhat cantankerous—mattress.

“A Simple Celebration,” Oct. 19, 2021

How many birthdays do you celebrate in your family? My husband and I share five grown children, their “others” and nine grandchildren. At our house birthday candles burn nonstop.

My daughter’s birthday is this week. Never mind how old she’ll be. Age is only a number. She grows more lovely, inside and out, with every passing year.

I wish you could know her.

Birthdays in my childhood were simple affairs. My mother baked a cake and we ate it. No gifts, no games, no parties. The cake was good and I was happy. But I told myself, when I had children, I would make their birthdays real wingdings.

That was before I had three kids, a job, a house that defied order and a dog that shed giant clumps of hair that rolled from room to room like tumbleweeds.

So my children’s birthdays became simple affairs. I’d let them invite as many guests as we could fit into our VW van. I’d drive them to the swim center, where they’d splash and laugh and try to drown each other.

When they were totally exhausted, I’d dry them off and take them to our house to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat pizza and a store-bought cake. Then they’d all fall sound asleep on the floor under a cozy blanket of dog hair tumbleweeds.

That’s how my boys celebrated most of their birthdays. They liked it. At least, they never complained. But my daughter had her own ideas about most things, including birthdays.

Two weeks before her third birthday, she handed me a note on which she had scrawled in crayon (I couldn’t read it, so she translated) her plans for “a fancy birthday tea party.” When she saw the look on my face, she patted my hand and said, “No worry, Mama. I help.”

And help she did, with every detail, flowers, tablecloth, cake decorations, teacups (from her tea set) and even what she and I would wear. Her brothers could wear what they wanted, she said, but they had to take a bath.

It was quite a wingding, the first of many to come. She did the planning. I followed orders.

In high school, she celebrated birthdays by going out with her friends. But we still celebrated as a family with dinner and cake, laughter and love.

Why does time fly when you’re having fun? She’s all grown up now, incredibly busy, teaching school and being a mom. She makes sure her little guy’s birthdays are wingdings, but she doesn’t have time (or energy) to plan a celebration for herself.

So I will plan it for her. She never forgets my birthday. And I will always remember hers. I was there the day she was born. I had kept her to myself for almost 10 months, before delivering her into the world. Then I held her in my arms, looked into her lake-blue eyes and whispered in her ear: “I’m your mama. You’re my girl. We are going to have a good time.”

And with that, the celebrations began. Not just birthdays and special occasions. But any time we’re together. Some times are more fun than others. And there’ve been a few that we would rather not repeat.

Raising children is like raking leaves in the wind. You try to move them where you want them to go. But children and leaves have minds of their own. They love to fly on the wind. One day, the wind will stop, and they will settle wherever they land. For the child, that is called growing up. For the parent, it’s called letting go. For the leaves, it’s just called mulch.

One of life’s greatest gifts is getting to share, in good times or bad, your heart and soul and very last dime with a child you adore—to see that baby, that toddler, that middle schooler, that teenager (who aged you by several decades) grow up to be a beautiful, capable, caring adult.

We’ll celebrate my daughter’s birthday with dinner and cake, laughter and love. She doesn’t want it to be a “big deal.”

But I am her mama. And she is my girl. And we are going to have a good time.

“Plans Change,” Oct. 12, 2021

Life stays interesting in one way or another. I like that about it, usually. Interesting is good. But sometimes it’s interesting in ways that tend to make me want to go hide up under the porch with the dogs.

If I had a porch. Or a dog. I’m not saying I’d actually do that. I’m just saying it’s how I feel. I suspect you know the feeling.

This morning I woke up, as usual, thinking about what I needed to do to get ready for the week ahead. First, I kissed my husband. That’s how we try to start and end each day. It makes the hours between go better.

Then I needed coffee. Two cups. Coffee helps me think. When the coffee kicked in, I recalled three major tasks: First, I had to write a column. Tomorrow was my deadline. So I needed to work on it today, tonight and maybe tomorrow morning. I’m a slow writer. It takes as long as it takes.

But I’d need to finish it and send it off by midday tomorrow to papers that are kind enough to print it. Fine, I could do that.

The second task would also require writing. The day after tomorrow, I was scheduled to speak at a luncheon, which according to my husband, I can do in my sleep. But the last time I spoke to a crowd of people who weren’t family was more than a year ago, before the pandemic shut down lots of fun things, even speaking engagements.

I was looking forward to the event, but feeling a bit out of practice. I told myself not to worry (I tell myself that a lot) because I’d have plenty of time to work on a speech tomorrow after sending off my column.

Then I could do the really important stuff (wash my hair and change my mind five times about what to wear to the luncheon) and get a good night’s sleep before waking up and running out the door to do the third task: Giving the talk.

It was a fine plan. I was proud it. Looking back, I’m reminded of what my grandmother often said: “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Soon after I sat down to start the column, my phone lit up with a “red flag warning” from the county office of emergency services. The local forecast was calling for winds gusting to 60 mph beginning tomorrow for two days in an area that is tinderbox dry after a summer of record heat and no rain.

Californians know a lot more about wildfires than we’d like to know. Last summer my husband and I left our home three times due to fires burning nearby. One came within a mile of our place until it was stopped by firecrews working day and night.

This summer, we’ve seen a lot of smoke from distant fires, but no evacuations for us—so far. We hope and pray and try to expect the best. But we never take lightly the threat of fire. Or the risk of an evacuation. Or the possibility of power outages.

So I’ve made a few changes to my three-day plan. Chances are, we could lose power tomorrow from lines downed by wind, or from planned “safety outages.” So I’ll write this column today and send it off tonight. I hope it gets to where it needs to go and that you will like reading it.

Also today (or late tonight) I’ll write a talk for the luncheon. They’ve asked me to talk about writing. It shouldn’t be hard.

Tomorrow, who knows? If all goes well, I’ll be done with the column and the speech, and I can just sit back and watch the wind blow the chairs around the patio and knock the blooms off the pansies we just planted.

And the next day? Well, again, if all goes well, I’ll clean myself up, go to the luncheon and talk about writing and life, how they both stay interesting, if only in ways that make us want to hide under the porch with the dogs.

Stay tuned. Lord willing, I’ll let you know how it goes. Life stays interesting. It’s worth waking up just to see what happens next.

“The Best Time of Life,” Oct. 5, 2021

Do me a favor. Take a minute and look back over your years. Never mind how long you’ve lived. Think about it.When was the best time of your life?

Skip childhood. It had its moments, good and bad, but when it was over, most of us were ready to move on.

I’ll begin with 18. At my high school graduation, I gave a speech thanking parents and teachers and classmates for all they’d taught me and the many kindnesses they’d shown me. People said it was the best speech they’d ever heard, mostly because it was short.

That weekend, my friends and I drove with our chaperones (two of the most fun women ever) to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a long weekend. We spent every day lying in the sun and every night dancing at the Pavillion.

Then we drove back to reality and I spent the summer working in the office of a mill where my mother and sister worked in the plant. I also got to model clothes for the company’s catalog. I weighed 115 pounds, wore fake eyelashes and felt like Cher.

That fall, thanks to a full scholarship, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to class, did my homework and stayed up late every night talking with other 18-year-olds about Civil Rights, Vietnam, soul music and what we wanted to do in life. Eighteen was a very good year.

Two years later, I left college, flew to California, married a high school teacher/basketball coach and soon after, started a family. I had three babies in five years. Those were some of the hardest and happiest years of my life. I loved, more or less, every minute of them.

When my youngest started school, I took a job in the library of the local newspaper. I wrote some stories freelance and got promoted to a feature writer.
A few years later, I began writing a column. Pretty soon, it was syndicated, and I started hearing from people I’d never met, readers around the country, who said my stories were their stories, too. I liked those years a lot.

Then my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and began a four-year battle fighting for his life. There are gifts that come with hardship. We were blessed in countless ways. They were good years, but I would never want to relive them.

After my husband died, I woke up one morning to realize my children were grown and I was living alone in a four-bedroom house with five sets of dishes and nobody to feed.

I made a choice that day—one I’ve tried to make every day since then, for more than 20 years—to move forward with my life. To live in the present, not in the past or the future, but today.

I kept writing the column, did a lot of speaking around the country and traveled the world. I spent time with family and friends, and a lot of time alone. It was just what I needed. But after seven years as a widow, I realized I wanted more.

So I married a man with whom I share not only my life, but sunsets and laughter and a big blended family that has grown to include nine of the world’s finest grandchildren.

The past two years—with the pandemic and its horrendous loss of life and jobs and joy, its social distancing and so many things we’ve missed—have been hard for all of us. Much harder for some than for others.

I won’t forget that. But in some ways, I’ll remember it as one of the best times of my life. It has slowed me down and made me more thankful and mindful of what matters most. And it has been such a gift to see friends and loved ones and others, near and far, rise up and make the best of it.

Just when it seems we’ve seen it all, life gets harder and we discover we are stronger than we ever dreamed we could be.

Here’s to the past and all it has taught us, and to making today, come what may, the best time of our lives…until tomorrow.