“Something to Celebrate,” June 8, 2021

The last day of school is something to celebrate. My grandson, Henry, just finished third grade. For him and so many children, as well for as their parents and teachers, this school year has been like nothing we’ve ever known.

In second grade, before the pandemic changed life as we knew it, Henry loved school. He loved reading and math and science and, most of all, the wonderful feeling of learning new things. He especially loved recess, playing tetherball on the playground with his friends and eating pizza in the cafeteria.

But last fall, children in California, as in most other states, didn’t get to “go” back to school. Instead, they stayed home with their parents or other adults, and took part in “distance learning,” using computers to connect with their teachers and classmates.

In third grade, Henry missed being in class with his friends. But he still loves school. His “distance learning” teacher did her best to give him and his classmates all they need to be ready for fourth grade. But it was done with a computer. No human touch. No tetherball. No pizza in the cafeteria.

His parents kept his mind engaged with books, outings and hours of conversation, while his body stayed busy climbing trees, building forts, riding his bike or playing with cousins and friends in their “bubble.”
It was different. Not perfect. But together they made the best of it. Good schools teach lots of good lessons, nonetheleast of which is how to make the best of whatever life may bring.

Recently, Henry’s school offered two options: Parents could either send their children back to class (with masks and social distancing) or let them finish the school year at home with distance learning.

Henry’s parents decided to let him finish third grade at home. His mom teaches in a different district and needed to be in her classroom. His dad had been home for Henry’s online school hours. But his work schedule changed, so I got to fill in.

I arrived at their home at 7 a.m., when Henry’s mom had to leave for school. The boy was still sleeping. She told me to wake him by 8:30 to eat, get dressed, brush his teeth and turn on his computer by 9. Minutes after she left, he came out of his room grinning, gave me a hug and said, “Hi, Nana!”

I offered to make breakfast but he wanted to show me how he makes his special scrambled eggs. They were great. He talked nonstop and taught me a lot about the habits of seals and things to make with duct tape.

By 8:58, he was dressed, teeth brushed, hair combed, sitting at his computer. He looked good. Then his teacher came online to greet the class, and Henry’s last day of third grade began.

I sat behind him, far enough not to seem nosy, but close enough so he knew I was there. I couldn’t see the faces on his computer or hear all they said, but I heard lots of laughter and questions being asked and answered. It sounded like the classroom of a good teacher who liked her students and shared in their joy celebrating the time they’d spent together and a well-earned vacation ahead.

The class usually ended at 2 p.m., but this was a short day and they had better things to do than stare at a computer. So at noon, they all cheered and shouted their goodbyes. Henry shut his computer and lifted his arms in victory like a runner crossing the finish line. And we went out to celebrate.

Do you know a student or parent or teacher or friend who is crossing the finish line of this marathon school year? Tell them congratulations. Their hard work and perseverance is a shining example for us all.

My mother called life the school of hard knocks. Let’s hope it’s taught us that we can take whatever it may bring and make the best of it—together.

“Falling in Love with Life,” June 1, 2021

Long ago, I fell in love with Nature. I was cradled from birth by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and grew up running barefoot, climbing trees and feeling free.

What’s not to love about that? Besides bee stings, chigger bites, sunburn and poison oak? Love affairs are seldom without flaws.

I don’t often run barefoot any more. But I still love to be out in Nature climbing mountains with my eyes, hearing waves crash on a beach or eating a hotdog in a ballpark at a Little League game.

My husband feels the same way. It’s one of the reasons I married him. It’s also why we moved to this valley.
Our house is small. Especially since one of us owns enough musical instruments to start his own orchestra. But for me, these mountains are heaven on earth.

Most evenings, we sit outside watching the sun go down and the moon rise up. I find it helps to end the day with thanks. I think I was born to love Nature. I suspect you were, too. But I’m not always sure how Nature feels about me.

Last week I came home after a month away helping my son and his wife and their 2-year-old welcome a beautiful baby girl. My husband picked me up at the train station, dragged my bags in the house and motioned me to follow him outside.

“You gotta see this,” he said, as we started down the steps to the patio. Suddenly he shouted a word that always sets off an air raid siren in my head: “Snake!”

I launched myself like a pole vaulter back into the house.

“It’s only a garter snake!” he said, trying to sound brave, “it’s not poisonous!”

In my book, a snake is a snake. Poisonous or not, if it can scare me to death, I’m just as dead.

The snake disappeared under the steps. We probably scared it to death. It might’ve been there all along without my knowing it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Jumping over the steps, I said, “What did you want me to see?”

He pointed to a patch of earth that was pockmarked like a paper target at a shooting range with holes the size of softballs.

“Gopher holes,” he said sadly. “One day I saw ‘em pull a whole flower down under the ground. I felt just like Elmer Fudd.”

He pointed to where a trap was set, ready and waiting.

“Great,” I said. “All we need is about 3,000 more traps.”

A day later, driving to town, I turned on the car’s fan to cool off and heard a bad sound.

“Oh, no,” I said, “not again!”

When I got home and told my husband, he went out to check under the car’s hood. Then he came back grim-faced and said, “You were right. It’s rats!”

We park our cars in a carport. This was the second time rats had nested in my car’s engine, and gotten caught in the fan. You’d think they would learn.

“You wanna see it?” he said.

“No!”

In a day or so, we’ll take my car once again to a mechanic who makes his living cleaning rats out of engines. We just hope he won’t find any chewed wires.

But today, we are happy to be hosting a barbecue for our family, those who live closeby, including four of our nine grandchildren and their parents. I made potato salad and overbaked a cake. My husband will grill burgers. We’ll eat on the patio because there isn’t room for all of us to eat inside.

We expected the weather to be lovely, but fog is rolling in thick as cotton from the coast. I told everyone to bundle up. We’ll make it work. We always do.

Snakes and rats and gophers and fog are minor problems with Nature, nothing like the wildfires we faced last summer and could face again. Nature is beautiful, but it can turn ugly.

Life is a lot like Nature. Some days it’s heaven on earth. Other days it can be a living hell.

I try to take them both as they come, believing they’re a gift, whatever they may bring.

That isn’t always easy. But day after day, I find myself falling in love with them all over again.

“Nana on a Mission,” May 25, 2021

It’s been quite a month, filled with forever memories. Funny, isn’t it, how we can pack so much life into so little time? Four weeks ago, I left home in Carmel Valley, waved goodbye to my husband, and boarded a train to go nearly 400 miles to be with my son and his wife for the birth of their second child.

In the past, when I visited, they treated me like a queen, forbidding me to lift a hand except to use a fork or raise a glass or hold a toddler. This time, I was no queen. I was Nana on a Mission. I came to help, and most of all, to hang out with 2-year-old Jonah.

How hard could it be? I’m no rookie with 2 year olds. I raised (and survived) three of my own. My husband and I share eight grandchildren. The oldest is 10. Six of them were once 2 year olds. Two still are. Jonah is the youngest of the litter. Or he was until recently, when his baby sister entered the world, bringing our grandbaby total to nine, or as my husband likes to say, a baseball team.

Her name is Leilani, and she is every bit as lovely as her name. Her mother gave birth to her at home, attended by a midwife, after putting Jonah to bed in the guest room upstairs with me. He slept peacefully through the labor, but woke minutes after the birth, as if somehow he knew his world had changed.

His dad sent a text to tell me, “She’s here and she’s beautiful!”

I spent a moment giving thanks for that tiny, perfect gift of life. Then I looked up and saw Jonah watching me.

“Oh, hello, Nana,” he said, in a delightful British accent he learned from his British mother, “I go see mama now?”

And so it began. Life changed for Jonah and his mama and his daddy, as it always does when another child joins a family. Leilani sleeps, yes, like a baby. Her mama nurses. Her daddy cooks. And her nana tries hard to keep her big brother happy.

If a 2 year old is not happy—say, because you won’t, for some reason, let him juggle knives—he will make his unhappiness crystal clear to you and all your neighbors by shrieking slightly louder than a car alarm.

But when he’s happy? He will light you up like Christmas with a smile that outshines the sun. He will fall down laughing at silly things you say and make you think you’re the funniest nana ever. He will cup your face in his blueberry stained fists, look deep into your eyes and whisper, “Oh, hello, Nana.”

And no matter how exhausted you may be, or how much you want to kick off your nana shoes and crawl into bed fully dressed—that 2 year old will make you reach in your heart and find the strength to fire a cannonball off the pirate ship one more time.

Jonah has two pirate ships. One of them is anchored by my bed. We’ve shot its cannonball (and chased after it under the bed) several thousand times.

On the table, beside my laptop computer, is Jonah’s favorite puzzle: Stacks of wooden shapes that he can put together faster than I can say, “Whoa, where does that piece go?”

On the floor are a few of the books we’ve memorized: “Goodnight Moon,” “Owl Babies” and “What’s Up, Tiger?”

And over in the corner sits my suitcase, packed and ready to go. I’ll head home tomorrow on the train that brought me here.

I’ve been teaching Jonah the answers to two questions that I also taught his cousins and hope to teach his sister.

First, I ask, “How much do I love you?”

“All!” he shouts, arms raised.

Then I ask, “And where is your nana when you can’t see her?”

Placing his hand on his chest as if pledging allegiance, he says with a big grin, “In my heart!”

I wish you could hear him.

We all have children who need our love, whether they sleep in our arms or on our streets.

Being a nana isn’t easy for a woman who’s old enough to have grandchildren. But it’s one of life’s sweetest gifts. The hardest part is saying goodbye.

“The Baby Song,” May 17, 2021

(Note to Readers: I’m taking off this week to celebrate the birth of my newest granddaughter, who was born May 15, and is beautiful and perfect in every way. This column is from 2004, but it is still just as true.)

There’s a song we sing, the women in my family, when we celebrate the birth of a child. “The Baby Song,” I call it. It is sung, I suspect, by women in most families, when their time comes to be mothers and grandmothers and aunts.   Men have their own ways of welcoming babies, but women like to sing.

The words change, the tune varies, but it’s still the same song—a hymn of praise, an ode to joy, a prayer for strength and safekeeping, an old shape-note harmony of happy, grateful hearts.

We were a little rusty when we sang it this morning. It’s been a while since we welcomed our last baby. But once you sing that song, you never forget it. It keeps playing on a jukebox in the back room of your mind. 

The first part belonged to my sister. Grandmas always get to sing first. She crooned into the phone, “Hey, Sissy, we have a baby, she is perfect and she and her mama are fine!”

That was the opening cue. Details would follow (a girl, Logan Grace, 8 lbs., 2 oz., black hair, blue eyes, dark skin, C-section, mother’s chin, father’s brow, grandma’s teeth.) But “she is perfect, they are fine” is the best way to start. 

When my niece was 15, she left her mother in the South, and spent a year in California, living with me, my husband and our three children, who did their best to dissuade her from ever having a child of her own.   Evidence to the contrary, she insists they were not the cause of her waiting until she was nearly 40 to give birth.

She and her husband spent years wanting to have a child—wanting and waiting, hoping and dreaming—until one day they decided it was time to stop waiting and find a child who needed their love. They were in the process of becoming foster parents when my niece learned she was pregnant. Initial elation soon turned into months of testing and worrying, fearing the worst while praying for the best.

Then today, God smiled down and whispered in our ears that glorious refrain, “She is perfect, they are fine.” I kept singing it while trying to call my niece. 

“Hey, Little Mama,” I said, when she finally answered. For the next 20 minutes, my niece sang her part—the Mother’s solo —an exhausting aria filled with big fancy terms like colostrum and bilirubin and terminal sleep deprivation. 

My part was easy. I sang backup, interjecting advice: “Sha-na-na, don’t you worry, sleep when she sleeps, nurse her when she’s hungry, change her when she’s wet, pick her up when she cries, kiss her nose and hand her to her daddy.”

I also sang a special verse for the new mama is to be repeated as needed: “I’m a great mother, my baby is perfect and we’ll be fine with the help of God and my auntie’s good advice.”

My niece laughed and promised to commit that verse to memory and sing it often. 

Finally, it was time for the best part of the song. 

“OK,” I told my niece, “put her on the phone.”

I listened, holding my breath. To an untrained ear, it might’ve sounded something like a cross between a chicken and a cat. But I have sung the Baby Song enough times to recognize the voice of a newborn diva.

I wish you could’ve heard her.

She was singing a slightly different version of the same refrain the women in her family had been singing all morning: “I am perfect and my mama and I are going to be fine.”

There were only a few closing words left for me to sing: “Thank you, Lord, for the gift of this precious child. Amen!”

(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 at www.sharonrandall.com.)

“Three Simple Things,” May 11, 2021

Sometimes, when we don’t know what to say, it’s because what we want to say seems too complicated. But really, all we need is a few simple words.

I can think of at least three sentences that, nine times out of ten, will need no improvement, as long as you say them and mean them with all your heart.

First, “I’m sorry.” Everybody makes mistakes. Well, maybe you don’t, but I certainly do. If we say or do something that hurts someone, and we want to be forgiven, it doesn’t help much to say we didn’t mean to do it. (Or worse, to try explain why it’s not really our fault.) Hurt is hurt. Forgiveness begins with repentence. Saying “I’m sorry” opens the door to grace.

Second, “I love you.” I say or write those words countless times a day. I hope you do, too. Sometimes, for someone I hold most dear (like my husband and children and grandchildren and the wonderful woman who helps me clean my house) I’ll say, “I love you ALL.” Why? Because all is as much as we can possibly love. Saying it is not, of course, the same as showing it. Actions do speak louder than words. But even in a whisper, the words “I love you” speak loud and clear. The world needs all the love we can give. If we love someone, we should show and tell them often.

Third, “Thanks.” How many times a day do we say that? How many times do we mean it? We use it for most anything from “Thanks for passing the salt” to “Thanks for saving my life.” Sometimes it needs a bit more clarification. But a simple, heartfelt “thanks” is always better than no thanks at all.

I told you all of that to tell you this. I often write about my brother. Aside from being blind and suffering from cerebral palsy, Joe is probably the only human on Earth who smokes a pipe while wearing a beanie pulled down over his nose.

I am not making that up. You’d have to see it to believe it. And I truly wish you could.

Joe lives alone, wears braces on his legs and leans on a walker to get where he wants to go. His legs are getting weaker and he’s had some bad falls, but he tries not to let anything stop him.

Last week, I wrote a column to say Joe was hospitalized with Covid-19. He’d been vaccinated some time ago and his doctors said it might lessen the severity of his illness. He told me not to worry, this was another “rough patch” in his life, but he would “take it one day at a time and trust the Lord” to help him.

Watching my brother face a lifetime of rough patches has helped me face a few of my own. My hope in writing that column was that reading about him and his faith might help others, too.

Imagine how I felt this week to hear from a great many readers near and far who said they were sending Joe good wishes and praying for his healing.

Then, a few days after I wrote that he was ill, Joe was released from the hospital and instructed to stay in his apartment and not go out. When I asked him why he was released, he said, “’Cause I said I wanted to go home.”
He sounds better day by day. And I want to say three things:

First, I’m sorry. I wish I could do more to help my brother. But he doesn’t want help from me or you. He just wants our prayers.

Second, I love him ALL. For how he makes me laugh and drives me crazy. For his faith and determination to keep walking (“as long as the Lord allows it”) while pulling for the Clemson Tigers and ordering sandwiches from Jimmy John’s restaurant.

Third, finally, I want to say thanks to everyone who sent Joe good wishes and prayed for him.

Thanks for being someone who hears about a hard patch in a stranger’s life and is moved to help by sending kind thoughts or praying like a house on fire.

Thanks for being the love of God in this weary old world. You make it a better place. Not just for my brother, but for us all.

“A Rough Patch in Life,” May 4, 2021

The message from my sister was brief: “Sissy, call me.” But I knew by the sound of her voice the news wasn’t good. I wasn’t sure if it was about her or our brother. Lately, they have both had some trips to the ER and several hospital stays. Bobbie is home recovering from a stroke. And Joe, who is blind and suffers from cerebral palsy, has had a few bad falls.

They live in South Carolina, 30 miles apart, and 3,000 miles from me in California. But as the sole survivors of the family we grew up in, we try to bridge the miles with phone calls. I took a deep breath and dialed my sister’s number. No answer. Minutes later, she called back.

I was right. The news wasn’t good. Joe was in the hospital again. But this time it wasn’t because of a fall.

“He’s got Covid,” my sister said.

Bobbie is a retired ICU nurse. When Joe told her he was having trouble breathing, she insisted that he call 911.

“He’d been vaccinated,” she said, “but he got so short of breath he could barely talk. So he tested positive and was admitted to the hospital.”

Bobbie and I talked a while, trying to convince ourselves and each other Joe would be OK.

Then I phoned the hospital (I know the number by heart) and asked for Joe’s room. The line was busy. In the next hour I called back four times. Still busy. Joe never talks to anybody for an hour. I figured the phone in his room must be off the hook, and he didn’t know it, because he couldn’t see it.

Finally, I called the nurse’s desk and asked if someone would please check his phone for me. Sure enough, it was off the hook. Minutes later, I was transferred and Joe answered.

“Hey, Sister! Sorry about the phone. I try to hang it up right but sometimes I get it wrong. Anyhow, we’re talking now and I’m glad to hear from you!”

His voice was a bit ragged, but his spirits, as usual, were high. In his lifetime, Joe has faced far bigger challenges than Covid-19, always with a steadfast faith.

Our mother loved to tell this story: When he was 7, Joe spent weeks in Shriners Hospital for Children, recovering from surgery that was meant to help him walk. She said a nurse told her a lot of the children cried every night. Not Joe. He’d sing his favorite church song, “Love Lifted Me,” until he fell asleep. The nurse said his singing helped to calm the other children and the nurses, too.

He sang that song again when he had to board at the state school for the deaf and the blind, and when he lost, one by one, our mother, our stepfather, our younger brother, and the hardest loss of all to bear, his wife, the love of his life.

But Joe won’t be singing tonight. Silently, maybe, but not out loud. The congestion in his lungs won’t allow it.

“I don’t want you to worry, Sister,” he said. “They’re taking good care of me here and I know Mama’s watching over me, too.”

If all patients were as pleasant and appreciative as my brother, nurses would have fewer headaches and more fun.

On a brighter note, Joe (a huge Clemson fan) said he was happy to hear Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. “I’m proud of him!” he said.

I didn’t want to say goodbye, but Joe needed to rest.

“I’ll call tomorrow,” I said, “if your phone’s not off the hook.”

He laughed, then stopped for a bit to catch his breath.

“Listen to me, Sister,” he said, finally. “Everybody hits a rough patch once in a while. This patch might be rougher than some I’ve had, but I’m just gonna take it one day at a time and trust the good Lord to help me.”

Sometimes I find it hard to trust. Joe makes it look easy. He’s had a lifetime of practice.

I will fall asleep tonight praying that Love will lift my brother.

“Going Home,” April 27, 2021

What does “home” mean to you? Is it a person? A place? Or a feeling you can’t quite explain?

As a child, growing up in the Carolinas, home for me was all of those things. But mostly it meant being with people I loved.

The place varied: A house by a railroad track where I lived with my mother and her husband and my two little brothers. A farm in the mountains where my dad lived with his parents, and I often visited on weekends and in summer. Or my grandparents’ house on the main street of a small town, where my mother and brothers and I took refuge when things weren’t good with my stepdad.

And the feeling? All I can tell you is this: Being with people I loved—in good times or bad, safe or afraid, happy or sad—always made me feel at home.

It still does.

It also helped to have a dog, a stray I called Rin, short for the TV dog, Rin Tin Tin. It’s hard to feel homeless with a dog. Rin’s been gone for years, but just to think of him makes me smile.

Yesterday, I left the home I share with my husband in Carmel Valley, Calif., and boarded an Amtrak train to travel nearly 400 miles north to visit my son and his wife and their 2-year-old Jonah, and the baby, who is due any day.

Once on board, I settled into a “roomette” (picture an over-sized coffin) where I would spend the next 10 and a half hours (departure at 6:30 p.m., arrival at 5 a.m.) in privacy, watching the world zip by and trying (with little luck) to sleep.

Seconds before the train left the station, I saw my husband on the platform wildly waving goodbye with both arms.
Laughing, I waved back and realized, as I often do, how I always see home in his eyes.

Then the whistle blew, the train lurched forward and I was on my way. An attendant came by to take my order for dinner. A short while later she was back with a plate of braised beef with polenta, a salad and a “blondie” for dessert. I was glad to get it.

After dinner, she came back to pull the two facing seats into a fairly decent single bed. At some point, I drifted off and dreamed I was a little girl again, in the house by the railroad track.

Back then, I loved to climb up in an apple tree and wait for the train to go by. When I spotted the engineer, I’d yank my arm up and down, and he would blow the whistle, just for me. Then I’d count the passing cars and wonder how it would feel to get on board and go wherever it might take me.

Imagine my surprise to wake in the wee hours of the morning and realize I wasn’t dreaming. The whistle was real. I was on board. And the train was taking me to yet another home—one I always find in the eyes of my children and grandchildren.

When my kids were growing up, I often told them their home would always be with me. But no matter how far they roamed, I said—to college or marriage or strange, foreign places like Kathmandu or California—they would always be at home.

Why? Because home is a feeling. We carry it with us wherever we go. We see it in the eyes of our loved ones, or even in the eyes of a dog. But we see it most clearly in the mirror.

The sun wasn’t up yet when we pulled into Dunsmuir. The attendant helped me drag my bags off the train. Only a few people were waiting at the station, including one fellow who lay snoring on a bench and seemed in no hurry to leave.

Suddenly, I was wrapped in a bear hug. I’d know it anywhere. When my boys hug you, you know you’ve been hugged.

“Hey, Mama,” said my oldest, with his beautiful grin. He took my bags in one arm, me in the other, and we walked to his car.

“Jonah’s still sleeping,” he said, “but he’ll be up soon and he’ll be so excited to see you!”

So we drove to Jonah’s house.

And I was home.

“Sister Songs,” April 20, 2021

At sunset, a breeze blew in from the coast and swirled up the valley, ruffling feathers on a jay that was perched on the fence, and knocking on the door of a room in my heart where I store my favorite memories.

It’s a big room. Getting crowded. More so every day.

I heard the breeze before I felt it. It was whispering secrets in the oaks and cottonwoods that grow along the river and make this valley such a place of peace.

I closed my eyes to listen. And somehow, in my mind’s ear, the whispers became a song:

“Gonna take a sentimental journey/Gonna set my heart at ease/Gonna take a sentimental journey/To renew old memories.”

It was an old hit from the ‘40s, even older than I am. It sounded like the Andrews Sisters. My mother loved them the way I love Aretha Franklin. Who doesn’t love music that feeds your soul and makes you feel just a little more alive?
But it wasn’t the Andrews Sisters that I heard singing it.

My grandparents’ nine daughters were well and truly known as the Wilde Girls.

“Wilde is their name,” my granddad would say with a grin, “not their reputations.”

Preacher Wilde was proud of his daughters, especially when they sang in church. They started as little girls, forming a quartet they called the Cheerful Chimers (Wilde Girls seemed a bit much for church.) It featured the older sisters, with younger ones included at times.

But as the girls grew older, their interests began to stray, as their mother liked to say, “from h-y-m-n-s to h-i-m-s.”
Pretty soon, they quit singing for church, and began singing “sister songs” on the radio.

Preacher Wilde missed their singing in church. But he always said they were as good as, if not better than, the Andrews or McGuire or Lennon Sisters.

It was just a local station, only one song a week. But still, it was something. They were bound for stardom. Everybody said so. However, the radio station was so small it held only four girls. They began to argue over who would sing, what to sing and even what to wear, which made no sense, as it was only radio.

Finally, they quit singing for the radio and sang only for themselves and for the people they loved. I felt blessed to be one of those people. In winter they sang in the kitchen fixing supper or doing dishes. In summer they sang on the porch, slapping mosquitoes and tapping their toes, with moonlight in their eyes. When they sang, they never argued or gossiped or wished to be somewhere else. Their voices became one and so did they.

I wish you could’ve heard them.

They’re all gone now, my mother and her sisters. Most of them left this world more than twenty years ago. They lie buried with my grandparents in a family plot on hill with a lovely view of the BI-LO parking lot.

I think of them often and hear them singing at times, when the wind comes up the valley and whispers secrets in my ear. Some days, if I’m alone, I like to sing along with them. I sing a harmony that’s all my own, but it blends pretty well with theirs. We sing mostly sister songs, like “Sentimental Journey.” I know every verse of it by heart. But I’ll gladly sing anything the Wilde Girls want to sing, from “Amazing Grace” to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Sometimes they let me do a little Aretha Franklin. And they do a knock-out job on backup.

I wish you could hear us

No matter what we sing, it always feeds my soul and makes me feel just a little more alive.

You might think it’s all in my head, and in some ways, you’d be right.

But honestly? It’s not in my head. It’s all stored in a room in my heart.

“Monterey Herald Story by Lisa Crawford Watson,” April 19, 2021

The book started without her even realizing it, more than 20 years ago, when she was writing for The Monterey Herald. Columnist Sharon Randall had written a short story for the paper, a Christmas tale that had come to her in moments much more clear than a dream. It was about an aging mountain woman who realized, with her husband long dead, and her children gone, some grown and others lost to war, this winter just might be her last.

As the woman absently scattered seeds for the birds, she told God, if He planned to keep her around, she’d appreciate knowing why. Just then, she heard a car grinding up the gravel drive, heard a car door slam, heard the car spin round and leave. All she saw was a cloud of dust until it cleared, revealing a little girl, kicking her toe into the dirt. The woman not only recognized God’s response; she recognized the child.

Sharon Randall still has no idea where the start of that story came from or why she understood, so clearly, how it played out. She saw it as a gift just as it was but felt fairly certain it was destined to become much more than a holiday story destined to die with the day’s news.

Sharon Randall

But she was busy. She had three children growing up in Pacific Grove, and extra teens gathering around the dinner table. Her husband was coaching basketball, and she was teaching Sunday school. Plus, she had columns to write, for which her readers kept an eye on the calendar.

And then, in 1998, her husband died. Her kids grew up, her column went into syndication, and she started looking for her own signs about where her life would go. The answer came from the arrival of characters in the story. Not all at once, and not in stalking sort of way, but with subtle messages about her story and theirs. The little girl came first, becoming a fairly constant companion. Then her grandmother showed up, followed by others, all of whom had ideas. Some of them, she liked.

Randall ultimately paid attention to the characters and wrote the book as a novel, something her readers have been hoping for, anticipating, for decades. So, has she. She titled it “The World and Then Some,” based on a southern phrase she grew up with, which means as much now as it did, then.

Becoming a book

“When I was a child, my grandmother would look at me and say, ‘I love you as much as the world and then some.’ It stayed with me,” said  Randall from her Carmel Valley home. “It’s a phrase that speaks to me about the importance of children. This book is about the power of a child to change a life. When a child comes into our lives, this changes everything. They bring with them the world and then some, and mean more to us than the world and then some.”

This is the message in the story she set out to write, developing the heart of it during a three-month escape to her childhood home by a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North and South Carolina. Once her time was up, she returned home to California, resumed the responsibilities of her life, and fell into a pattern of picking up and setting down her manuscript, every time another character, scene, or circumstance would show up in her mind. Sometimes she didn’t agree with her characters, but they persisted, and she followed their paths.

And then one day, during the pandemic, the book felt finished.

“Putting it all together and giving it purpose and focus was very hard work,” she said. “And it took a lot of time. Completing my book felt like having a baby. I finally had gotten through it, but then I had to let go of it and share it with the world. For those of us who have children, that’s kind of the hardest part, letting them go into the world, letting the world see them for who they are, and realizing they’re not just ours anymore.”

In October 2020, Randall published her novel — a 288-page story of love and loss, and the risk inherent in each — through the support of New York editors and Hummingbird Books of Carmel Valley.

“Due to the pandemic,” she said, “there’s been no book tour, no public signings, no appearance. And yet, the reviews on Amazon have been fantastic. I read them on slow days and sad days. There is a yearning in writers to know, when someone reads our work, it means something. Writing isn’t complete until it is read. We put our heart and soul into print for another person’s taking. It’s all so gratifying.”

Opportunity and obligation

Randall grew up in a poverty of resources and a wealth of people who loved and believed in her, like hope. She remembers the first time she ever set foot in a library, probably in third grade, when she came upon all those books with people’s names on the binding. She pondered how amazing it might feel to write a book someday that ended up on a shelf, with her name on it. She never actually dreamed it would happen. Not then.

“But people held that dream for me. I remember,” she said, “when I published my first book, a collection of my columns, called ‘Birdbaths and Paper Cranes.’ I went back to my hometown of Landrum, gave it to family members, and signed one to my stepfather. He said, ‘You know I can’t read a word of it, but I will sure treasure it.’ To have grown up in a family where not everyone could read, and put my book in the Landrum library went way beyond dreaming.”

Randall’s new book shows up most, she says, in places where her column is carried — where, during the past decade, she’s done a lot of speaking at fundraisers and events on behalf of worthy causes — neighbors trying to help neighbors.

“Right before COVID came across the country,” she said, “I went to Wichita Falls. To walk onto a stage and look out across 800 people who are looking at me like I’m family means the world and then some. People who want to know how my children are doing. It’s like going to a family reunion without the fistfights.”

During decades of writing columns and features, short stories, and now, her novel, Sharon Randall is motivated by what she considers a universal obligation to share the stories that tell us who we are. It affirms something about ourselves, she says, when we share what we have in common. Whether it is a woman on the mountain, taking in a child, or how we care for and connect with others in our lives, we all go through different versions of the same thing.

“We bond,” she said, “through the stories of things that bring us to our knees or cause us to raise our hands in adulation. Without revealing how I ended the book, I will say it speaks to a universal experience.”

“Better Days Ahead,” April 13, 2021

It’s been so long since I’ve traveled anywhere, I’ve almost forgotten how to pack. Thirty years ago, on April 23, 1991, my first column was published in a newspaper where I worked as a reporter.

In future columns, I planned to write about “Life,” and all the things, good or bad, that come along in it. I never dreamed of all the places it would take me. Speaking requests soon followed from local women’s clubs and Rotarys and other groups always on the lookout for a free speaker who would (1) show up on time; (2) answer questions; and (3) above all, never talk longer than allotted.

I aimed to please on all three. Especially number 3. It made up for my lack of material. Usually, I knew, and was known by, most of the audience. I wasn’t famous. I was one of them. The town was not as small as the railroad crossing where I grew up but it was small enough that most folks knew most of their neighbors. Especially if the neighbor wrote for the local paper and was married to a local high school basketball coach.

I remember getting dressed for my first speaking gig. I tried on a few going-to-church outfits and finally decided on what seemed the most fitting, so to speak: Black pants suit, black shirt and black flats. As I hurried out the door, I saw my 12 year old shooting baskets in the back yard.

“How do I look?” I said, turning in a circle.

“You look great, Mom!” he said, grinning. “Just like that singer—Johnny Cash!”

It was not the look I hoped for, but I knew the boy meant well, and I try to take compliments wherever I can get them.

Then the column was syndicated and, to my great surprise, I began being invited to speak in places I’d never been. This meant packing, flying for hours and staying a day or so to speak for an hour or less.

I absolutely loved it, going to a town that carried my column to meet a roomful of strangers who had read my columns and would treat me like long lost kin.

My opening line was (and still is) “I’m so happy to be here! It feels just like a family reunion—without the fist fights!”

For 30 years, it’s been my pleasure and honor to speak to people, near and far, who actually listened to what I said. My children can hardly believe it. I don’t blame them. I can hardly believe it myself.

My last speaking event was in March of last year, in Wichita Falls, Texas, at a fundraiser for Hands to Hands Community Fund, a wonderful group of “neighbors helping neighbors” in times of need. Nearly 800 smiling Texans showed up.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

I think a good time was had by all, most especially by me.

I flew home the next day just in time for life, as we knew it, to shut down for the pandemic quarantine. That was the last time I boarded an airplane.

It has been, for so many, a long, hard year. But lately, instead of dread and despair, we’re beginning to sense an old familiar feeling called hope.

Last week, for the first time since my last trip to Texas, I got my hair done. Hallelujah! And my daughter said, “You look great, Mom, just like one of those Country singers!”

I hope she meant Dolly Parton, not Johnny Cash.

I am praying for the day (please, Lord, soon) when the quarantine will be no longer a way of life, but a memory that taught us to cherish our loved ones and our freedoms and the friends we’ve yet to meet.

Soon I hope to pack a bag and board a plane to go speak to people I’ve never met (except maybe once or twice) who will treat me like long lost kin.

I won’t dress in black. Or care which Country singer I look like. And it will feel just like a family reunion.

Without the face masks.