“A Poem for the Ages” Nov. 29, 2022

Where do random thoughts come from? What makes them pop into mind for no apparent reason? And why can I recite a poem I learned long ago, but cannot for the life of me recall where I left my phone?

It can take hours to find it. The phone, not the poem. But it took only minutes to turn up this morning under my pillow where I left it when I got out of bed.

Either that, or my husband hid it there. I’m not saying he did that. I’m just saying he might, if he thought of it. He likes to joke even if I don’t think it’s funny.

I could have found the phone sooner if I’d done like my mama taught me and made that bed the minute I crawled out of it.

Do you do that? When I wake up — if I want to function like a civilized human who actually gives a rip about making a bed or finding a cell phone — I need coffee. Two cups. With cream.

With one cup I can say “Good morning” to my husband and ask, “Did you hide my phone?”

But it takes two cups for me to put on my shoes and go see if I left it (or he hid it) in the car.

I was on my second cup this morning when I missed my phone. My husband was in the garage. I didn’t ask him about it. I just started looking for it. And that’s when I began to hear in my head a poem I recited when I was 10 years old to win first place in my school’s recitation contest. It was a small a victory, not many contestants. But it was something and I was proud.

In “The Children’s Hour,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the youngest (ages 10, 7 and 5) of his six children:

“From my study I see in the lamplight, / Descending the broad hall stair, /Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, / And Edith with golden hair.”

The gist of the poem is this: He hears his girls sneaking up. They rush in like an army of squirrels climbing a castle, overcoming him with kisses and taking him captive in their arms. Just when it seems he’s lost the battle, Longfellow says this:

“Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti, / Because you have scaled the wall, / Such an old mustache as I am / Is not a match for you all!

“I have you fast in my fortress, / And will not let you depart, / But put you down into the dungeon / In the round-tower of my heart. / And there will I keep you forever, / Yes, forever and a day, / Till the walls shall crumble to ruin, /And moulder in dust away!”

I loved how the words of that poem would roll off my tongue like snowmelt on a tin roof. It made me think of my granddad, a preacher, who knew by heart, and could recite with passion, from Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and other poetic passages of the King James.

The night I won that contest, Granddad was ill and couldn’t be there to hear me. But I wish you could’ve seen his face the next day when I recited, just for him, “The Children’s Hour.”

Years later, when he left this world to go preach to the angels, he took the love of all our family to keep us all forever and a day in the round-tower of his heart.

What put that poem in my head today? I was sipping coffee, trying to wake up, and thought of a phone call I got last night from my grandson.

Randy is 12, an artist, a writer, a musician, a skateboarder, a lifeguard and an absolute joy. He had surgery a while back for a broken arm, but thankfully, it healed and he’s good to go.

He’d been worried his arm might keep him from playing basketball. But he called last night happy to tell me he made the team. And I wish you could’ve seen my face.

When a child is born, parents and grandparents are often surprised to discover they will rejoice in that child’s happiness far more than in their own.

That poem is a bit different now when it plays in my head. Instead of Alice, Allegra and Edith, I hear all my children’s and grandchildren’s names. I picture Longfellow laughing with my granddad. And I wish you could see their faces.

“Time to Wake Up,” Nov. 22, 2022

Dear Readers: I’m taking this week off for the holiday. The following column is from 2004. Happy Thanksgiving!

They were wrong about me on the bus that day. I didn’t see it then. But looking back, I can see it so clearly it makes me laugh.

Truth is often like a reflection on a pond. It’s there right in front of you. But to see it, you need to stop splashing around and wait for the water to clear.

In January of 2000, while in Los Angeles, for the Rose Bowl game, I attended church at Bethel Unspeakable Joy Fellowship in Watts.

On that first Sunday of the new year, Pastor Carol Houston preached a sermon from her heart about her ambitious, but not impossible, dream to take 35 children from that church _ kids ages 8-16, who had never been out of Watts _ on a bus trip around the country.

I felt incredibly moved by her passion. I could hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes and feel it in my soul. I could dream that dream with her. But I was not about to get on that bus.

My late husband coached basketball for 30 years, before losing a battle with cancer two years earlier. I had spent a lot of time on buses packed with kids. I missed the kids and going to their games. Actually, I was missing a lot of things. But I did not miss sitting for hours on a bus.

That Sunday, hearing Pastor Carol talk about her dream, I thought, “That woman is crazy.” And I tried not to snicker.

Beware of what you try not to snicker about in church. Six months later, I found myself on a bus with Youth Tour 2000, waiting outside the White House while Pastor Carol made it clear what she’d do to us if we didn’t behave ourselves inside.

Round trip from L.A., the tour lasted three weeks. I signed on for six days (from D.C. to Ohio) and the experience of a lifetime.

I could tell you a lot of stories about that trip and how it felt for me _ a middle-aged widow who grew up in the ‘60s in the segregated South _ to be treated like family by a preacher from Watts and her funny little flock.

For now, I’ll just tell you this: (1) I’ve never met anyone who shined with more courage and grace than Carol Houston; (2) I’ve never known any children who were more polite or better behaved than the children on that trip; and (3) I’ve never in my life been so exhausted.

It’s not easy to behave oneself, especially to Pastor Carol’s standards. I usually try to avoid sleeping in public, but at times I found it hard to stay awake.

Late one rainy afternoon, somewhere between the “Great Blacks in Wax Museum” in Baltimore and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I closed my eyes for a moment _ with my head leaning back on the seat and my mouth gaping open _ when I heard what sounded like the twittering of birds. I looked up to see a half dozen young faces snickering down at me.

“What’s so funny!” I said, bolting upright. They roared with laughter and ran back to their seats. Then 10-year-old Tanika explained.

“We never saw a white woman sleeping before,” she said.

They were right about me in most of their comments, at least, the ones that I heard:

“You’re going to write about us in a newspaper, aren’t you?”

“You look sad sometimes. Do you miss your husband?”

“I bet you wish you could stay with us all the way back to California.”

Excellent observations, spot on. Children often see important things that adults tend to miss.

But they were wrong that day to assume that I was sleeping.

Sometimes what you think you see, looking at someone on the outside, can be a lot different from what you’d clearly see if you could look beyond her skin.

Her eyes may be closed. Her mouth could be drooling. She might even be snoring louder than Pastor Carol. But that doesn’t mean she’s sleeping.

Maybe she is just waking up.

“Lessons from a Good Wedding,” Nov. 15, 2022

Years ago, when I met Sam and his brother Joe, I had no idea what lay ahead. Do we ever know where life will lead us?

Sam was 11. Joe was 13. I was a grown woman who should’ve known better than to let them talk me into jumping off the roof of a boathouse into a lake.

I hit the water like a breached whale, torpedoed to the bottom and nearly lost my swimsuit.

They thought it was hilarious. When I finally surfaced, they were laughing, snorting water out their noses. And I thought, “Those two little toads could make life interesting.”

Five years later, I married their dad and we combined all our toads (his two, my three.) Four of the five married and gave us nine grandtoads, who make life truly interesting.

Our fifth and last to tie the knot is Sam. He recently (and wisely) married Ellen, a lovely soul who is, in all the best of ways, Sam’s perfect match. Together, their lives will be not only interesting, but happy.

Their wedding in the Rose Garden of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park included only their immediate families. We’d met the evening before at a dinner hosted by Ellen’s parents. At the ceremony, we joined hands in a circle _ two families coming together to stand with Sam and Ellen as they spoke their vows.

We laughed and cried at the truth in each vow. It was a gift to hear them profess their love and to see it shine in their eyes.

Then, in an age-old miracle that is new every time, they were married. And somehow, before our very eyes, the two became one. They kissed, we cheered and the parties began.

We planned to walk to several locations to celebrate (over tacos, wine and homemade wedding cake) with some of Sam and Ellen’s closest friends.

Have you ever walked in San Francisco? I’d bought boots for the occasion, but didn’t want to end up limping barefoot for blocks. So I wore sneakers.

It was not a good look. But I wasn’t alone. After a few blocks, the mother of the groom ran in a store, bought a pair of clogs and threw her fancy shoes in the trash. I like that woman a lot.

The parties (and after-parties) were great fun. I loved talking with young people who made me feel they liked talking to me, too. But I also liked not talking, just watching the celebration.

The bride and groom moved through the room, greeting each guest, introducing them to others, delighting in one and all.

Groups of friends talked and laughed as good friends like to do, happy for Sam and Ellen.

And people who had never met came out of their comfort zones to get to know one another.

Like every good wedding, Sam and Ellen’s was filled with family, friends, joy and laughter, and most of all, with love.

Weddings can teach us a lot about life. For example:

Be yourself. If you like who you are, others will usually like you, too. If you don’t like who you are, be someone else _ the kind of person you want to be.

Be happy _ as happy as you can possibly be. Smile every chance you get. You deserve it. And others need to see it.

Be committed to someone or something. Commitment changes the world. It brings out the best in us and each other.

Try to remember that not everything is about you. One reason Sam and Ellen’s wedding was such a pleasure is everyone seemed to agree that it was all about Sam and Ellen.

Surround yourself with people who will make you laugh, hold you when you cry and maybe even bake your wedding cake.

Dress for the occasion, but wear sensible shoes.

Fall in love with someone who loves you, who’ll be your perfect match and best friend forever.

Finally, remember this: Things don’t always go as you plan. Life is full of surprises. Sometimes a toad turns out to be a treasure.

(Sharon Randall is the author of “The World and Then Some.” She can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924 or www.sharonrandall.com.)

“An Every Day Thanksgiving,” Nov. 8, 2022

Thanksgiving is not just about turkey and pumpkin pie. Not that those things don’t matter.

But the point of the holiday is (1) to give thanks; (2) be with our loved ones; and (3) eat turkey and pumpkin pie.

A friend wrote recently to say, “For the first time in 49 years, we won’t have all our children and grandchildren here for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Her long-kept family tradition is being uprooted by changes in jobs and lives. It’s true for a lot of families, including my own.

My husband and I share a big “blended” family with five children, their “others” and nine grandchildren. For years (except 2020, when the pandemic kept us apart) most of us have been together for Thanksgiving.

This year, due to jobs and other commitments, we’ll still be together in spirit, but in small groups miles apart. We’ll still give thanks, connect on FaceTime and I won’t have to cook. But I will miss the hugs.

Things change. If we’re wise, we try to make the best of them.

Yesterday, I stood in a grocery store staring at a frozen turkey I wasn’t going to buy. Suddenly, I recalled getting a voicemail from Chip a few days ago. I’d forgotten to call him back.

Before I tell you about that voicemail, I should tell you this. I lost my first husband to cancer some 20 years ago. He was a high school teacher, basketball coach and father of our three children. His years of teaching and coaching brought a lot of teenagers into our lives. A few of them lived with us for a while.

Chip was just starting his senior year of high school when his dad’s job required them to relocate. Chip asked if he could live with us until he graduated. We said yes, if he didn’t mind sleeping in the attic. If he minded, he never complained.

Our kids were ages 8, 5, and 2. Chip gave them lessons in ping pong and basketball. They gave him headaches and chickenpox. Somehow we survived that year.

Then Chip left for college, got a masters in finance and landed a job that took him around the world. He’d call me and say, “Guess where I am now.”

I never guessed right. He’d visit once a year or so and often phoned, especially after the Coach became ill. He couldn’t make it to the memorial service, but came to see me soon after.

I remember the day he called to say he was getting married in Holland, and that I had to come be his “Best Man.” Which I did.

There were other memorable calls: When he and his wife learned they were with child; when his daughter was born; and when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Over the years, as MS took its toll on his health, Chip and his wife and daughter have lived and worked all over the world.

Today, when I apologized for not calling sooner, he laughed at me. He does that a lot. Then we spent a good hour catching up on each other’s life and loves.

His daughter is a senior in high school, the age Chip was when we met. They recently took a two-week trip to visit schools she might attend in various countries next year.

Finally, Chip gave me the really big news: “Four months ago,” he said, “I started a new kind of therapy. And now I’m climbing stairs with no pain.”

Two memories flashed into my mind. In one, he was sitting in a wheelchair. In the other, he was shooting hoops in my backyard.

We said goodbye with a promise to talk soon. Then I sat for a while, celebrating an early Thanksgiving, overcome with gratitude for Chip’s good news.

Family is more than blood kin. It’s every soul that we hold dear. And Thanksgiving is more than a holiday. It’s every moment in life when we are truly thankful.

We don’t need to be in the same room with our loved ones to count our countless blessings. We just need to remember we’ll be forever in each other’s heart.

Whether you’re cooking for a crowd or celebrating alone, I wish you a true Thanksgiving.

“Getting Over It,” Nov. 1, 2022 (Note: I’m off this week. This column is from 2015.)

In every marriage, there comes a test, a battle of wills, that often ends with a question: Are we going to get over this, or not?

For some couples, the test happens so often they start to wish they lived in a state where “The fool needed killing” is justifiable homicide.

Others, however, seem to sail through thick and thin bumping heads on occasion, but always finding the grace to “get over it.”

Marriage takes a lot of getting over it. That’s something you learn, if you’re lucky, on the rocky road of life before “I do” becomes “I don’t think so.”

My husband and I consider ourselves lucky. We met at work. He was my editor. We were just friends for nine years, dated for five, and have been married almost two decades.

We’ve had our share of differences. He can be, well, a bit bull-headed. And he has a tendency to correct me, whether I am wrong or not, which I often am, but still. I’m just saying.

For the record, I am far from perfect. You might not believe that, but it’s true. I could recite a long list of my shortcomings, but, whatever, let’s move on.

I want to be clear about this: Seldom do we end up, my beloved and I, snarling at each other. Today was an exception.

Recently we decided it was time to replace his old, ugly “marshmallow” recliner with two good chairs, one for him and one for me, so I’d no longer need to prop myself up with pillows on the couch like a trauma patient in traction.

The decision, though mutual, raised considerable debate over which chairs, what color, and how much to pay for them.

The fact that we reached agreement at all says a lot, I think, about our compatibility and willingness to compromise, and maybe our aching backs.

The chairs we chose had to be ordered. Then the order was delayed because we ordered the wrong ones. Duh. Finally, the right ones arrived today and we began rearranging the living room trying to make them fit.

What is it about moving furniture that can turn civilized people into foaming-at-the mouth attack dogs?

“It won’t look right there!”

“Yes, it will!”

“Move that chair to the left!”

“It needs to move right!”

“Two inches is all I’m saying!”

“Two inches is too much!”

“Just try it!”

“OK, fine! How’s that?”

“Wait, that’s too far!”

Funny, isn’t it? When you love someone, you can’t imagine living without them. But there are days when you’d like to try.

Marriage is a constant give and take, rearranging the pieces of two distinctly separate lives and minds and hearts and souls to fit together magically as one.

I once asked a woman, who’d been happily married for 50 years, how she and her husband made it work?

“It’s simple,” she said. “Twice a week we go out for a romantic dinner at our favorite restaurant and take a long, leisurely walk in the moonlight. It’s lovely. He goes Tuesdays, I go Thursdays.”

I liked that woman a lot.

My husband and I finally got so tired of moving furniture we each gave an inch and shook hands on a compromise. It wasn’t pretty, but it was done.

Then we collapsed in our new chairs to watch an old favorite movie, Christopher Guest’s classic, “Best in Show.”

If you need a good laugh, I highly recommend it. Both the movie and the laughter. We laughed so hard we cried.

When it was over, my husband left to play music, and I stayed home to write a column.

After he left, yes, I moved the chairs. Just a little. Not a lot. I doubt he’ll notice. If he does, we’ll get over it and get on with being one, just the two of us.

Despite our differences _ and often because of them _ being one is what we do best.

“My Favorite Costume,” Oct. 25, 2022

If you could be anything for Halloween, what would you be? This is a story I’ve told before, but it’s a pretty good Halloween story, so I’m telling it again.

When I was 10, my mother said if I wanted to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, I had to take my brothers. And I also had to make our costumes.

Joe was 6, Denton was 5. We lived by a cow pasture with only four neighbors. Or three, if you didn’t count the spooky house.

Why was it spooky? It was always dark, even in daylight, and I never saw a soul going in or out. It gave me the willies.

With only three houses, we’d be lucky to get a gumball. But it might be a chance for my brothers and me to have a Halloween we’d never forget.

So I rummaged around the house and found everything I needed for three costumes:

For myself, I folded a tinfoil crown to make me a princess.

For Joe, I threw a sheet over his head to make him a ghost. Joe was blind, so I didn’t need to cut eye holes. He said, “This is nice, Sister! I look good!”

Denton was easy. We called him “Monkey Boy.” If you saw him, you’d see why. I gave him a banana to complete the look.

Then I loaded the boys in a rusty wagon and we took off. Our first stop was at the home of a very nice lady whose house always smelled like mothballs.

If Joe got excited, he’d flick his hands, one against the other. I could tell he was flicking them under the sheet. “I hope she’s got candy,” he said, flick, flick, “I don’t want no sorry apple!”

When she opened the door, we shouted, “Trick-or-Treat!” She put a box of fudge in our bucket, patted Joe’s head and said, “What a cute little ghost!”

Joe crowed like a rooster, “I ain’t a ghost! I’m a mattress!”

The next two houses were dark. But at the spooky house, someone had left a light on.

Sometimes you can be scared spitless and still take a chance. This was one of those times. So I said a quick prayer, parked the boys by the steps and knocked on the door.

No answer. Joe yelled through the sheet, “Knock louder!” So I did. Then the door creaked open and an old man stared at me.

“Trick or treat,” I whispered.

“Wait,” he said. He was gone so long I thought he was dead. But he came back and said, “Who’s in the wagon?”

“They’re my brothers, sir.”

“One of them is blind?”

“Yes, sir. That’s Joe in the sheet.The one with the banana is Monkey, I mean, Denton.”

He nodded. “I’ve seen Joe pushing a tricyle in the yard.”

He called out, “Hello, boys,” and they replied, “Hello, Sir.”

Then the old man gave me three surprises: A bar of fancy soap. A dollar bill. And a smile.

Back home, Joe said the fudge smelled like mothballs. Monkey Boy ate it all and threw up. I took a bath with the soap. It smelled like roses. And the next day I bought us a whole dollar’s worth of our favorite candies.

I want to tell that story to my grandchildren. I’ll see some of them for Halloween, and the others soon, I hope. I wish you could see their costumes.

Randy is 12. He and his friends will do “group” costumes as life guards and runners and such.

Wiley, 9, will be a soldier in uniform with a hard hat.

Elle, 7, will be “Dorothy” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Henry, 11, will be “The Predator” from the movie.

Charlotte is a day older than Henry. She’ll be Blaze the Cat.

Archer, 5, will ride a dinosaur.

Beatrix, 3, will be Elsa from the movie “Frozen.”

Jonah, who’s also 3, wanted to be a stinky shoe. But his mom couldn’t find a stinky shoe costume. So he will be a lion.

Leilani, at 18 months, could don wings as a fairy, but in any costume, she will be adorable.

Me? Maybe I’ll wear a tinfoil crown. Or carry a banana. Or throw a sheet over my head like a queen-size mattress.

But I’ll still be my usual self, in my favorite everyday costume. I call it “The Happy Nana.”

“Tell Me a Story,” Oct. 18, 2022

People tell me all sorts of stuff. I’m not sure why. My kids used to swear I wore a sign on my back that said, “Confess.” If I did, it never seemed to work for them. But it sometimes worked for their friends.

Most of us have a story to tell, if we can find someone to listen. I’ve been writing this column for more than 30 years. It’s not an advice column. Or an opinion column. Actually, I’m not sure what kind of column it is.

Basically, I tell stories from my life. And in return, readers often write to tell me stories from their lives, too, on several pages, front and back, in longhand.

They tell me where they were born, what their childhood was like, how they grew up to be a teacher or a doctor or funeral director and if they’re happily married or happier divorced.

They describe their families, their children, grandchildren and all the people they love, even the ones they don’t like.

Most of all, they write about their joys and sorrows, loved ones they’ve lost, heartaches they’ve endured and their hopes and dreams for the future.

I love getting mail from readers. I won’t live long enough to answer it all, but I read and appreciate every word.

Stories help us understand ourselves and each other. They tell us that we are different in some ways _ where we live, how we vote, which team we pull for _ but we tend to be very much alike in matters of the heart.

Our differences may make us interesting, but sometimes drive us apart. Our feelings make us human and pull us closer. When someone tells us what’s on their heart we need to listen. It’s a gift both to the teller and the told.

There was a time not so long ago when I could walk into a waiting room or stand in line at a grocery store or take a seat on an airplane and strike up a conversation with a stranger.

These days, it’s not quite that easy. Instead of making eye contact, people are often staring at cell phones. And wearing masks. But it can still be done.

I begin by offering a few pleasantries to make a connection, then gradually work around to the magic question: “Where are you from?”

That can be the opening of a really good story, where it all begins. I try to sense whether someone wants to talk or to be left alone. I never press. Except with family or friends.

If a story wants to be told, it’s hard to shut it up. You just open the door and get out of the way.

Once on an airport escalator, I asked an elderly man behind me what brought him to town?

He looked at me for a bit, as if weighing his answer.

“I came to say goodbye to an old friend,” he said. “She’s dying with cancer.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He nodded and took a deep breath. “She was the love of my life,” he said. “I should’ve married her 50 years ago.”

At the top of the escalator, I hugged him. He smiled and we went our separate ways. I don’t know if he needed to tell me that story. But I needed to hear it.

Looking back on that day, I often wonder, what if everyone we meet on an escalator or anywhere in the world has a story they need to tell?

Loneliness is not just having no one to talk to. We can be surrounded by people, talking nonstop. But if we never get to share what’s on our hearts and tell the stories we long to tell, we can feel completely alone.

Would you like to make the world a little better place? Here are five easy ways to start:

1. Put down your cell phone.
2. Smile into someone’s eyes.
3. Ask simple questions.
4. Listen to the answers.
5.Be willing to tell your story.

Despite what my kids claim, I never wear a sign on my back. You don’t need to wear one, either. Unless you want to.

If you did, what would it say?

“Time to Feel Special,” Oct. 12, 2022

My granddaughter Eleanor is 7 years old, full of life and ready to rule the world. If you don’t believe me, ask her brothers.

When Elle spends a night with us, she brings a backpack full of “necessities”: five changes of clothing; at least one “fancy” dress; two swimsuits; books for reading; paper for drawing; crayons for coloring; two of her favorite stuffed animals; and an interesting assortment of hats.

She doesn’t pack a toothbrush, but keeps one at our place. She doesn’t bring a coat because she never gets cold. And though she adores her brothers, she leaves them at home, because it’s HER turn to feel special, not theirs.

Her backpack is coming apart at the seams. If she had a bigger one, she’d bring more stuff. I love the things she brings that don’t need to be packed: Laughs and hugs and lots of memories.

She sits at our dining room table, coloring a picture, staying within the lines. Her long brown hair, streaked with gold, flows down her back like a waterfall. One hand brushes it off her face. The other hand keeps coloring.

I wish you could see her.

Watching her, I recall two memories. The first is my daughter (Elle’s Auntie Nan) at Elle’s age, doing her homework at that same table. Same hair, same laugh, same readiness to rule the world. If you don’t believe me, ask her brothers.

The second memory is of me at Elle’s age, same hair, same laugh, but no interest in ruling the world. If you don’t believe me, don’t ask my brother.

Some of the happiest days of my childhood were spent with my grandmothers, who were as different from each other as two old women could possibly be.

One lived alone on a farm in the mountains where she knew the names of every living thing, trees, flowers, birds, snakes or anything else I needed to know.

The other lived in a small town where she knew every soul who passed her porch, where they’d been, what they’d bought and how much they’d paid for it.

One taught me how to crochet; the other taught me how to cheat at cards. I inherited both of their natures. Sometimes they argue in my head and I never know which side will win.

I wish you could hear them.

My grandmothers made me feel special to them. I was sure I was their favorite. My mother’s mother actually told me I was her favorite. I later learned she told other grandkids they were her favorites, too. But I knew she meant it most for me.

I have no desire to give my grandchildren my two-sided nature. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I want Elle and her brothers and their cousins to know they are all special to me. Each one of them is my favorite.

Children need to feel special. They long to be somebody’s favorite. It takes a fair amount of time to give them that. That’s why God created grandparents.

Tonight was Elle’s turn to feel special to us. She milked it for all it’s worth. For dinner, she chose the Running Iron (where cowboy boots hang from the ceiling) and ate mac’n’cheese and apple pie.

When we came home she picked a movie (she swore “Home Alone” was OK with her mom) and stayed up late to laugh at it with us. Then I put her to bed in our guest room, read a book, said prayers and kissed her goodnight.

Minutes later, she screamed, “There’s a SPIDER on the wall!”

Papa Mark, our hero, removed the spider. But Elle’s eyes still looked as big as hubcaps. So I got in bed, pulled her close and promised to stay all night.

Soon she was snoring softly, with her arm across my face. And I recalled how it felt so long ago to fall asleep in the safety of my grandmother’s arms.

Tomorrow, we’ll pack up all her stuff, load it in the car and Elle will go home. I will miss her. But I hope she’ll take a few good memories to share some fine day with her grandchildren.

Can you guess what we plan to give her for Chistmas? Yes, a brand new backpack—pink with white unicorns—that will hold only half as much stuff.

“Going Home,” Oct. 4, 2022

What do you do when it seems there’s nothing you can do?

I recently spent 10 days visiting family in the small Southern town where I grew up. We celebrated my sister’s birthday, told stories and ate a frightening lot of fried food.

It was hard to say goodbye, to leave my sister in a nursing home, and my blind brother all alone in his apartment. But saying goodbye is often the price we pay for getting to say hello _ for finally being together after too much time apart.

I tried to focus on the laughs we had shared. But I still had to keep wiping my eyes as I packed up to fly home to the place my mother, rest her soul, always called “California of All Places.”

As much as I hated to leave, I wanted to go home to be with my husband and children and grandchildren and to sleep in my own bed. I was exhausted, not from work, but from the adrenaline that had kept me going nonstop for 10 days.

The cottage at the lake where I stayed had a perfectly good bed. But I never sleep well away from home, especially if I have a lot to think about. Do we ever not have a lot to think about?

When it was time to get on the road, I loaded all my stuff in the “economy compact” rental car that I had stood in line forever to rent. (I asked the rental agent why it took so long, and he said, “We’re short-handed ‘cause we can’t get nobody to work.”)

Before leaving my hometown, I said goodbye to the lake and the mountains and the ducks and the mosquitoes and a construction crew that kept hammering away nearby.

I wish you could’ve seen it all.

Then I drove around the lake and turned north to go 90 miles to the airport in Charlotte. I could’ve taken I-85, but chose instead a more scenic route.

Halfway to the airport, I was thinking about my brother and sister, wishing I could do something to make their lives easier, and wondering when, if ever, I would see them again.

It was a question I couldn’t answer. Somehow it reminded me of the words in a card that a friend sent me years ago after my first husband died: “Then, when you think you will never smile again, life comes back.”

Those words are like magic. They always make me smile. I was still smiling when suddenly a warning light lit up on the car’s dashboard. It was yellow, not red, which I took as a good sign. What did it mean? Did the car need to be serviced? Or was the engine about to blow up?

I pulled over to check the owner’s manual, but didn’t find an answer. I tried phoning my husband for advice, but found this part of the “scenic route” had no cell phone service.

Finally, I did what I learned to do as a child when I didn’t know what to do. I prayed: “Please just get me home and let me sleep in my own bed.”

It wasn’t my best prayer, but it came straight from my soul.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled back on the road. Then _ and I am not making this up _ the warning light went off. And it did not come back on.

Let me be clear. I believe all prayers are answered, but not always in the way we hope for.

Seeing that light go off, and stay off, put a smile on my face that lasted all the way to the airport; while I was being patted down by security and running a mile to the gate; and even when the pilot said the fog was so thick in Monterey we might have to divert to San Jose.

When we landed in Monterey, where the fog had lifted and my husband was waiting to take me home, I said another quick prayer: “Thank you.”

Life has lots of warning lights. We all get our share. Some of us get more than others. But things don’t always go from bad to worse. Once in a while, when all seems lost, we get to go home and sleep in our own bed and wake up with a smile.

My brother and sister are going to love that story.

“Queen for a Day,” Sept. 27, 2022

Every woman, at least once in her life, ought to be Queen for a Day. My sister Bobbie waited 80 years for her turn. It came last week on her 80th birthday, when we honored Her Majesty with a royal wingding.

The celebration was shared by some thirty guests: Bobbie’s children and grandchildren, our brother Joe and more cousins than I’ve hugged since I ran off to live in California of All Places.

Every story, no matter how it’s told, has different meanings for different people. This story is about my family. But I hope it’s about your family, too.

My sister was always “the pretty one.” In her 20’s, she worked on an assembly line in a mill and modeled the mill’s line of clothing for corporate buyers.

When her children grew up, she earned a nursing degree and spent years doing three 12-hour shifts a week as an ICU nurse.

After she retired, the strokes began and life became a series of bad falls and hospital food.

Her latest fall confined her to a wheelchair and a nursing home. She keeps in touch by phone with family, especially Joe, who is blind and disabled by cerebral palsy. She calls him daily or he calls her. If she doesn’t answer, he calls me in a panic.

I had planned to do a party for Bobbie, but was thrilled when Cousin Sara and her sweet husband, the Bear Man, offered to host it at their home. They did everything. My only job was to transport the guests of honor to and from the party.

So last week I flew to Charlotte, drove to Landrum, S.C. (my hometown) and checked into a place on a lake.

Joe and Bobbie were 30 miles away in Spartanburg. For three days, I drove back and forth to visit them. Then on Saturday, I hurried down to pick them up.

I knew it wouldn’t be simple. Suffice it to say, I’ll forever be in debt to all the folks who helped get them in and out of the car.

I wanted to do Bobbie’s makeup for the party. (Before the strokes, she never left home without it.) But she did it all herself. I just blended the blush (so she looked less on fire) and put her hair up in a bun.

Staring at a mirror, she shook her head, as if to say, “I’m not young any more.” But to me, she will always be the “pretty one.”

Joe is a big fan of the Clemson Tigers. He was listening to their game on the radio, but gave it up to go to the party. When I couldn’t find the game on the car radio, he said, “It’s OK, Sister. You tried your best.”

On the 40-minute drive to the party, Joe kept saying he could hardly wait to see everybody.

Then, for three fine hours, the remnants of our family talked and laughed and ate and doted on both Bobbie and Joe.

I kept watching them for signs of fatigue. Joe heard Clemson won in double overtime, so he was grinning like a mule eating briars and happy to stay for a second helping of cake.

Bobbie was hard to read. Strokes have dimmed her dazzling smile. But her eyes told me she felt safe and loved wrapped in the arms of her family.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

Finally, it was time to go. Bobbie’s grandson Cree held her close and eased her into the front seat of the car. Bear Man helped Joe into the back. As we pulled out, all the family lined up along the driveway to wave us a royal farewell.

The drive back was quieter than the drive to the party. But at one point, Joe said, “It sure was great having our family together again.” And Bobbie whispered, “Yes, it sure was.”

I left Joe in a recliner at his apartment, and Bobbie in bed at the nursing home, kissed them both and said I’d be back the next day.
Then I drove to the lake, singing a song of thanks to Cousin Sara and her Bear Man and to God and all His angels for an unforgettable day.

Our family was together. Joe’s Tigers won. And best of all, my sister got to be Queen for a Day.