“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.

“Little Things,” Sept. 15, 2020

Little things mean a lot. Here’s a memory I’ll not soon forget: I woke in a hotel room, sunlight on my face. Where was I? Why was I there? Slowly, it started coming back to me.

I’d flown thousands of miles to speak at a fundraiser for some worthy cause that, for the life of me, I could not seem to recall. It was scheduled to take place that morning in the conference room downstairs. I’d stayed up late the night before polishing my speech. As keynote speaker, I would talk while everyone else ate, starting at 9:15 sharp.

No hurry. I like to take my time getting ready. I’d set the clock by the bed for 7 a.m. But wait. I hadn’t heard the alarm. Maybe it wasn’t 7 yet? Changing time zones always throws me. I squinted at the clock and read…9:05 a.m.!!

And so it began, a frantic comedy of errors that felt a lot like my worst nightmare. No time to shower, brush my teeth or use a curling iron.
I grabbed my suit out of the closet, then stood horrified staring at my suitcase. The only top I had packed to wear was my husband’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.

Also, I had no shoes. Not the fancy ones I’d planned to wear, or even the ugly ones I’d worn on the plane. I finally found one of the uglies, but not its mate.

If need be, I could speak in a Ninja Turtles T-shirt. With no make-up. And frizzy hair. But not half-barefoot in one shoe.

The clock said 9:15. Time to get serious. I would call the chairman of the event (Fred? Bill? What was his name?) to tell him I was running just a tiny bit late, and ask him if I could please borrow his shoes?

I never made that call. My phone was dead. I forgot to bring a charger. And the room phone by the bed kept telling me to hang up and dial 911.

Just when it seemed it could not possibly get worse, I woke up and realized I was dreaming.

Some days it’s worth waking up to be reminded, no matter how bad things seem, they could be worse. Waking up from a bad dream is a small thing. But it made me hugely happy.

It’s always the little things that seem to keep me afloat—that keep me walking on water when I feel like I’m about to drown.

A phone call from one of my kids just calling to talk. A hug from a grandkid just wanting a hug. A laugh shared with my husband laughing at ourselves. A FaceTime kiss from a toddler babbling “Nana!” A note from a reader saying she and her mother were praying for our safety, hoping our house didn’t burn. A thin patch of blue sky in a thick cloud of smoke. An act of kindness. A word of praise. An answered prayer for help. A quiet reassurance of hope.

Little things change the world.

This summer has been a living nightmare. The pandemic has caused us to live in fear of a deadly virus, profoundly changing our way of life. And more than a dozen states—especially California, the place my loved ones and I call home—have battled wildfires unlike any we’ve ever seen.

In a matter of weeks, my husband and I watched three separate blazes burn near our house. One of them forced us to evacuate for eight days. Thanks be to the grace of God and the heroic efforts of firefighters, our place was spared. But some fifty homes nearby were destroyed.

Fires continue to burn in every direction. Countless lives have been lost. And we’re all wearing masks, not only for Covid-19, but also for toxic smoke.

Years ago, after my first husband died, a friend sent me these lovely words: “Then, when it seems we will never smile again, life comes back.”

I want to believe that one day soon the pandemic and wildfires and other fears will end. We will wake up to find the nightmare is finally over. And life will come back, more beautiful, more precious, than ever before.

Until then, I’ll count on little things to keep me afloat.

“Echoes of Two Grandmothers,” Sept. 8, 2020

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week for the holiday. Also for wildfires, rolling blackouts, and 120 degree heat. The following column is from 1993. Please stay safe and cool and well! _ Sharon)

My grandmothers were about as different, one from the other, as any two women could be. One sang soprano, whistled it while she worked. The other sang alto, sultry and low. Neither of them sang especially well, but together, their voices found harmony in me.

Neta and Grace met in 1940, soon after the former’s 15-year-old daughter ran off to marry the latter’s 25-year-old son. I am told the meeting was civil, though not especially cordial. The one thing they could agree on, knowing their children as they did, was that the marriage did not have a snowball’s chance in hell.

Why do mothers always have to see a heartache coming long before it knocks on the door? They knew their children’s marriage was grief in the making. But they promised each other to pray long and hard, to do all they could to help it last.

And so began a lifelong pact between two remarkably dissimilar women, a silent but mutual agreement of the heart to make something good out of nothing. Between them was a strength sufficient to move mountains, but it was not enough to keep my parents together.

The marriage lasted eight years. When it ended, Neta and Grace continued their pact for the two things they still had in common: My sister and me.

I was 2 years old. It took no effort on my part, none whatsoever, to become both women’s favorite granddaughter. (My sister claims she was the favorite, but trust me, I know better.) Their constant and abiding love for me was a gift, free and clear. It was also my first lesson in grace, and to this day, I count it a blessing.

From the time I learned to walk until I left for college, my favorite place on Earth to be was with either of my grandmothers. As it happened, I spend much of my childhood with one or the other. I don’t know whose house I loved more.

One lived in a small town, surrounded by people, where she could know all there was to know _ who, what, when, where and how much they paid for it.

The other lived on a mountain, surrounded by nature, where she could know all there was to know about plants and creatures, the changing of seasons, and the quiet reassurance of living close to the Earth.

But here is how they really differed.

My mother’s mother was preacher’s wife who seldom set foot in church. A mischievous woman, a steel magnolia, she wore white gloves to go shopping, played cards with abandon, and swore under her breath like a sailor. She loved her husband almost as much as she loved Jesus. But she could not abide, she said, certain members of the congregation, or any other fools who thought too highly of themselves. Being with her was pure adventure and a whole lot of fun.

My father’s mother was a farmer’s wife who seldom left the farm except to go to church every Sunday. She traveled through the pages of National Geographic, and with the turning of leaves, the migration of geese and her own vivid flights of imagination. She grew tomatoes and dahlias, hiked for miles to pick blackberries, read novels, wrote poetry and painted sunsets on stones. She made everything better, from doll clothes to biscuits to loneliness. Being with her was pure adventure and a whole lot of fun.

But growing up in the care of two such women had an odd effect on my nature. I inherited both women’s characters, not necessarily their better traits. Like two sides of the same coin, both are who I am. But you never know which side will turn up. It drives my husband and children crazy.

I’m neither alto nor soprano, can’t hit the high notes, can’t touch the lows. But sometimes, when the music gets too hard for me to follow, the notes will start to dance, rearranging themselves, until I hear myself singing with a entirely different voice, a three-part harmony all my own. And it doesn’t sound half bad.

“The Road Home,” Sept. 1, 2020

Sometimes, when the road ahead is littered with our fears, the best we can do is to keep moving, knowing the worst may be waiting around the bend, but hoping and praying for the best.

I hope you’re better at that than I am. Two weeks ago, when we saw smoke boiling over a ridge behind our house, my husband and I started packing. Wildfires move fast, and we aren’t as quick as we used to be. But we were mostly concerned about breathing the smoke.

Another fire had broken out not long ago, so close we could see the flames. But in minutes airtankers were circling it, and pretty soon, it was out. We felt sure this one would be, too. But the smoke kept getting worse.

My daughter’s family lives a few minutes from us. When I phoned to warn them, my son-in-law promised to be careful.

So my husband and I zipped up the emergency bags we keep packed with necessities for a few days. We stood for a moment by our car watching the smoke and praying for the firefighters.

Then we left our home in their beautiful hands and drove into town to my sister-in-law’s place. We took no keepsakes or other treasures. We thought we’d be back soon. We were wrong.

The following day, evacuation orders were issued for several areas, including ours. The road was closed. We couldn’t go back.

My heart ached for all the things I wished we had taken with us—things I might never see again. Then I looked down at my wedding ring and smiled. When we left home, I almost forgot to take it. But something reminded me and I ran back to grab it off the sink.

Two days later, my daughter and her family were evacuated and came into town to stay with us. It helped us to be together, poring over news reports, laughing at 8-year-old Henry’s jokes and trying to stay positive.

Meanwhile, I wrote a column about being evacuated and began to hear from readers all around the country who emailed or posted on my website or on Facebook to say that they were thinking of us, and praying for us, and wishing us well.

Never doubt the power of a few kind words and thoughts and prayers. To someone who is trying to silence her fears and hope for the best, they can mean the world and then some.

The big break came with a change in the weather. The forecast had called for more dry lightning, the kind that had set fires throughout California. But the storm missed us. And the fog rolled in from the coast and inland through the valley.

Two days after they were evacuated, my daughter and her family and their neighbors went home. We were thrilled for them, and hoped we’d be next.

Crews were spread thin with hundreds of fires around the state burning over a million acres. But they fought hard to keep the Carmel Fire from advancing to the Village.

We checked maps online daily and watched it inch to within a mile of our place—but never closer. Our neighborhood was spared. Yet, a few miles east of us, fifty homes were destroyed.

Finally, eight days after leaving home, we were cleared to go back.

Carmel Valley Road is a two-lane country highway cradled by rolling mountains, dotted with horse farms and vineyards and fields of wildflowers. Rush hour traffic is a herd of mule deer and a flock of wild turkeys. Those of us who know it well like to slow down and enjoy the ride.

It’s especially lovely now with makeshift signs everywhere shouting “Thanks, Firefighters!” from a close-knit community that feels so blessed.

I wish you could see it.

Tough times bring out the best in us. When tragedy strikes, a God-given goodness rises up to remind us of who we are and why we care for one another.

Fear can be a hard road to travel. But when paved with grace and lovingkindness, it always leads us home.

“Fire and Fear,” Aug. 25, 2020

It seemed like a typical family gathering with the usual chatter and teasing and laughter. My daughter, her husband and their 8-year-old, Henry, were joining my husband and me for dinner.

Lucky for everyone, Nan did all the cooking, serving up her famous chicken enchiladas, a salad and, oh my, a berry pie. My job was to toss the salad. I gave it my best.

Meanwhile, the menfolk sat on the deck solving the problems of the world. And Henry (after his mom said, “That’s enough, Hen, turn it off!”) quit his video game and began quizzing me with jokes.

“So, Nana,” he said, “what do you call a cargo ship that’s loaded with snails?”

I pretended to be clueless. I’m good at it. “I give up,” I said.

“Escargot!” he shouted. And we rolled our eyes and laughed.

We were trying, all of us, to make the best of it, to just enjoy our time together. And we were doing a pretty good job.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

But you might’ve been surprised by the elephant in the room—the fact that we were all wondering if our homes would still be standing tomorrow.

All around us, California was in flames with more than 600 wildfires, most caused by dry lightning strikes. Two were burning on either side of Carmel Valley, where my husband and I have lived for the past year.

Our neighborhood was evacuated a few days ago after one of the fires grew to within a mile of our house. Our daughter and her family, who live only minutes from us, were evacuated two days later.

Fortunately, my husband’s sister and her husband offered to let us all stay at a place they own nearby. It’s been in the family for years. In fact, it’s the house where my husband lived in 1987, when he and his family were evacuated from the Pebble Beach Fire that burned every house on the block, except for the one now sheltering us.

The mood grew quieter as we sat down to dinner and joined hands to take turns saying grace. I thanked God that all our family was safe. My daughter asked that our homes would be spared. My son-in-law gave thanks for the house where we were staying and for the family that provided it. Henry, bless him, prayed for “everyone less fortunate.” And my husband said thanks for the firefighters.

That basically seemed to sum up most of what we were feeling, both then and in the days since. We’ve spent a lot of time talking and messaging with family and friends who want to be sure we’re OK. We check constantly for updates on the fires, the latest evacuations and the weather that’s forecast to bring more dry lightning, along with the threat of more fires. The air has been too smoky to spend much time outdoors, but when it clears a bit, Henry’s mom takes him to the beach.

All things considered, we feel truly blessed to be doing so well.

My husband recalls how it felt long ago to leave his home, not knowing if it would be there when he came back. But for the rest of us, and many others, it’s a new and terrifying experience.

So we try to make the best of it. We keep close to those we love and try to remember to give thanks for our blessings, rather than give in to our fears. But we can’t seem to stop checking for any breaking news.

There are times in life when we close our eyes and see only the sorrow and emptiness of some unspeakable loss. I’ve done that. So have you. But for me, it’s always been for the loss of someone I loved.

Tomorrow, I could lose my home and all it holds. If my loved ones are safe, I hope I’ll remember that things are only things; life is all that matters.

I’ll pray for the strength and courage and grace I’ve seen in others and even in myself when I’ve faced loss by letting go, giving thanks and moving on.

But today?

There’s smoke in the air and ashes in my heart. And I just want to go home.