“Holidays with the Family,” Dec. 10, 2019

What is a family? Why does it matter? What does it teach us that we can’t learn on our own? Is a family a group of people we belong to by birth, or one that we intentionally choose?

Those are questions we might ask any time of year, but they seem especially relevant in the holiday season — Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s — when it is often our tradition to gather as families and celebrate together.

For some of us, those gatherings are joyous occasions. For others they’re more like “Home Alone,” or “Scrooged.”

My mother was one of twelve children. Ten survived childhood, one boy and nine girls. As they grew up and married and had children of their own, most of them lived near enough to gather for holidays at my grandparents’ home in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.

Christmas gifts were minimal, to say the least. I don’t recall getting much from “Santa.” Mostly what I remember is the sense of belonging, of being part of something that assured me I was loved, and not alone.

I delighted in the bedlam of laughing and playing and fighting with my crazy cousins.

Watching my granddad and my uncles sit on the porch, rain or shine, smoking and joking, arguing about politics, trying to solve the problems of the world.

Listening to my grandmother and my mother and her sisters stir pots on the stove and talk about their lives and hopes and dreams and disappointments, and gossip about any sister who failed to show up.

The food was always plentiful — country ham, sweet potatoes, green beans and biscuits and my grandmother’s banana pudding. I ate it all. It was good. But for me, it was never the highlight.

The highlight was simply being together. A family.

I must tell you, with all respect, we were not always the most pleasant of people. Some drank too much. Not visibly, but on the sly. We always knew who’d had one nip too many. It wasn’t hard to tell.

Others smoked too much or complained too much or had nothing good to say or were impossible to please, or to like.

I’m sure no one in your family is ever like that. But a few in mine were. I wonder what they’d say about me?

It’s too late to ask them. They’re all gone now. My parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles have left this world for the next. My cousins are scattered here and there.

And yet the memories linger, along with the love that we shared. You don’t have to be in the same room with someone to know they still love you.

I treasure those memories and the things they taught me:

_ That families aren’t perfect, but they prepare us to find our way in an imperfect world.

_ That they give us memories, good and bad, including some we’ll laugh at when we’re old.

_ That we may think they’re crazy, but one day we’ll realize that all families are crazy in their own peculiar ways.

My husband and I are in the process of growing a new family, while retaining, of course, the surviving members of the families we’ve come from. Our new, blended family includes our five combined children, four of their spouses and eight grandchildren, ages 9 years to 7 months. Most of us were together for Thanksgiving. Some of us will be together for Christmas.

Family is not just the people we’re born to. It’s a beautiful blend of kindness and traditions and nurture and friendships we bring to it year after year.

I hope this holiday season will fill you with lovely memories of the family that raised you, and surround you with all the people who mean “family” to you now. May it be the happiest and most blessed time you’ve ever shared.

“A White Woman Waking Up,” Dec. 3, 2019

( Dear Readers: I’m taking this week off to recover from Thanksgiving. I hope you are recovering, too. The following column is from Feb., 2004.)

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 have to slow down and stop splashing and wait for the water to clear.

In January of 2000, while in Los Angeles, to see the Rose Bowl game, I attended church at Bethel Unspeakable Joy Fellowship in Watts. The pastor, Carol Houston, preached that first Sunday of the new year about her ambitious (but not so impossible) dream to take 35 children from her church _ kids ages 8-16, who had never been outside of Watts _ on a bus trip around the country.

I felt incredibly moved by her passion. I could hear it in her voice. I could see it in her eyes. I could 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 had 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. After he died, I missed getting to know the kids and going to the games. Actually, I missed a lot of things. But I did not miss spending 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 sitting on a bus with Youth Tour 2000, waiting outside the White House, while Pastor Carol explained 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 fill several books with 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 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 hard work trying 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 just a moment _ with my head resting against the back of the seat and my mouth gaping wide open _ when I heard what sounded like the twittering of birds.

I looked up to see a half dozen young faces grinning down at me.

“What’s so funny?” I said, bolting upright.

They roared with laughter and scattered back to their seats. Then 10-year-old Tonika 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 didn’t have to get off the bus here so you could ride with us all the way back to California.”

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

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

Sometimes what you think you see, when you look at a person on the outside, can be surprisingly different from what you’d see if you could look beyond her skin.

Her eyes may be closed.

Her mouth might be drooling.

She could even be snoring louder than Pastor Carol.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s sleeping.

Maybe she is just waking up.

“Decisions, Then and Now,” Nov. 26, 2019

Why do some thoughts just seem to show up out of nowhere and keep you thinking about them for days?

Please don’t tell me that never happens to you.

My brain is like a mental play list set on shuffle that randomly picks an idea and says, OK, let’s see how she’ll dance to this one.

Are random thoughts really random, or are they meant to help us understand something?

Lately, I’ve been working on this two-part question that showed up in my head out of the blue: What are the most life-changing decisions you have made, and how would your life be different if you’d never made them?

It isn’t a hard question. The answers are fairly obvious. The hard part is trying to figure out why I’m even asking it.

The first big decision I made in life was what kind of person I wanted to be. To decide that, I studied people I admired: My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and parents of my friends. On the whole, they were kind, decent, hard-working and God-fearing people. Best of all, they seemed to like me. So I decided to try to be like them. It was a decision I’ve not always kept as well as I should, but I keep trying.

My second big decision was whether (and how) to go to college. I liked school. I liked feeling smart. And I basically had two choices. I could find a way to go to college. Or I could go to work in a textile mill with my mother and older sister.

I decided to go to college. But how? My family had no money. My mother dropped out of high school to get married at 15. My stepfather never learned to read. We could barely afford to eat, let alone, pay for tuition.

But here’s a thing I discovered. Making a decision to do something important doesn’t mean you have the resources or even the slightest clue of how to go about it. It just means you’re willing to follow your heart and leave the rest to God.

Thanks to my best friend’s parents, who encouraged me to take a test, I won a scholarship. College taught me a lot. Mostly how to daydream. Other decisions would follow. Some were good. Some not so much.

But my next big decision — one of the most important I’d ever make — was to marry someone I loved and admired and could enjoy being with for however long we might have.

What next? Not everyone needs to have children. But I knew beyond a doubt that I did. The doubts came later after the kids were born (three babies in five years.) But those doubts never lasted for long.

Choosing to be a mother was the best choice of my life. It made me smarter, stronger, wiser, humbler and happier than anything I’d ever done.

Choosing a career after my children were in school was a big decision, but it wasn’t really a choice. I didn’t choose to be a writer. Writing chose me. Doors opened and I wandered in. But looking back, I realize that even then, I was following my heart.

When my husband lost a four-year battle with cancer, a friend offered me this wise advice:

“The challenge for you now,” he said, “having lost your loved one, is to live a life that is honoring to his memory, while at the same time, that life moves forward so that only one person has died and not two.”

The decision to follow that advice has been one of the most difficult and rewarding I’ve ever made. It led me, years later, to marry, once again, someone I loved and admired and would enjoy being with for however long we might have.

Looking back at the decisions we’ve made in the past, both good and bad, can help us decide how to live going forward. As my old college history teacher use to say, those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.

What are the most life-changing decisions you’ve made over the years?

What are the ones you will make today?

“A Crazy Thanksgiving,” Nov. 19, 2019

It’s about to get crazy in here. That’s what my grandson Wiley used to say when the monster truck video he was watching kicked into high gear.

It’s also a good description for what will soon (Lord willing and Cosco doesn’t sell out of turkeys) take place in my life.

And probably in your life, too.

It’s called Thanksgiving, that wonderful holiday when family and friends gather for three important reasons:

(1) To give thanks for a wealth of blessings; (2) To enjoy being with those who are present and remember those who are not; and (3) To stuff themselves tighter than an over-stuffed turkey.

Not necessarily in that order.

It’s my favorite holiday, next to Christmas, because, well, Christmas is hard to beat. But favorite doesn’t mean easiest. Easiest is probably Labor Day when all we do is take a day off from work.

There was a time in my life when Thanksgiving wasn’t crazy at all, before I became the host.

As a child, Thanksgiving took place at my grandparents’ cracker box house, with their nine married daughters and more grandchildren than we could count. There were so many of us we had to eat in shifts — men first, then the kids and finally the women, who would put their feet up and eat and gossip for a while before cleaning up the mess. All I had to do was chase my cousins around the yard and watch the boys try to kill each other with sticks. I loved it.

Then I grew up, married and had babies. But I still didn’t have to host. I just drove 120 miles to my in-law’s house with my husband, three kids and a store-bought pie and sat down to eat. I loved that, too.

After my first husband died of cancer, lots of things changed in my life, including holidays. My kids, who were mostly grown, decided it was time to celebrate Thanksgiving at home.

I did most of the cooking, but nobody complained. We included longtime friends who felt like family and everyone helped. It got a bit crazy at times, with hosting and cooking and trying to figure out which end of a turkey to stuff. But I loved every crazy bit of it.

When I remarried, my new husband and I formed a blended family with our five adult children. Then things starting getting really crazy — and I don’t just mean holidays.

Four of the five kids got married. We had so many big weddings my husband and I kept a separate closet for our wedding clothes. Then the kids started having babies. Eight babies in eight years.

This Thanksgiving will be a bit different. My husband and I moved recently to a much smaller place barely big enough for us, let alone, for 20. So my daughter and her husband, bless them, offered to host (and to do all the cooking!) at their home.

Our out-of-town kids will arrive various days and times. Some will stay with us, others will bed at a rental nearby. Everyone will help, even the little people. The older kids will chase their cousins around the yard. And the babies, Bea and Jonah, will keep us laughing.

My job will change, too. Instead of wrestling a turkey, I’ll simply be thankful for my ever-growing family and my ever-changing life. I will love it.

Two traditions, for me, will remain the same. I’ll make a list of my blessings, all the things for which I’m thankful. The list grows longer every year. And I will set two tables: A long one in my daughter’s dining room for all the friends and loved ones who are with us; and a much longer one in my heart for those who are not.

I’ll set a place at that second table for you, too, and hope that you will set one for me.

Here’s wishing you and yours your most thankful (and least crazy) Thanksgiving ever.

“Fire Drill,” Nov. 12, 2019

Try to imagine for a moment the following horrific situation: It’s 2 a.m. You and your loved ones are sleeping soundly. Suddenly you’re awakened by sirens. And then, someone is pounding on your door.

Frightened and confused, you rush to open the door and stare into a face you’ll never forget — a sheriff’s deputy or firefighter who has come to save your life. He tells you that a wildfire is burning out of control on the ridge behind your home.

“You and your family need to get out of here,” he says. “Now!”

As he turns to go warn others, you call after him.

“Wait! How long do we have?”

“Maybe 15 minutes! Go!”

For a moment, you stand there smelling smoke and watching your neighbors frantically tossing bags in their cars.

And then … what do you do?

I’ve never had to flee from my home, and I pray I never will. But my husband and I live in an area that’s considered a high risk for wildfires.

It’s called California.

I wish you could see it.

It’s a glorious place of hills and mountains and spectacular coastlines. We love it. We’d like it even better without the threat of wildfires. But most people live with something catastrophic — hurricanes or tornadoes or blizzards or droughts or flooding or earthquakes.

Sometimes, all the above.

The best that we can do is to be as prepared as possible.

That’s what my husband and I finally decided. We had put it off for too long. So this week, we began working on a plan for “emergency preparedness.”

If you had 15 minutes to leave your home, knowing you might never see it again, what would you want to take?

We started with legal papers that we stored in a fire-proof bag: our marriage certificate, wills, trusts, social security cards and proofs of insurance for home, health and auto.

We each packed a duffel bag with three changes of clothes; a week’s supply of medications; a spare toothbrush and toiletries; and a pair of comfortable shoes. Plus a sweater, and my purse, which I always take with me, along with my phone, keys, credit and debit cards, driver’s license, passport and cash.

Then what?

I wanted to pack photos. Of our children when they were small. Of us when we were young. Of our family and our grandkids growing older.

Fortunately, most of those photos are copied on our phones or on the “cloud” we subscribe to. But to be sure, I’ve been snapping photos on my phone of old irreplaceable photos — of my parents and grandparents and children and friends — images I never want to lose.

I also made photos of paintings my youngest painted; gifts from my daughter; and stories written by my oldest.

My husband and I have a “joy box” filled with drawings and notes from our grandkids. We’d definitely want to take that. And we would both grab our laptops and their backups.

Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to gather all the keepsakes we cherish from a lifetime. That’s why it’s a good idea to start gathering in advance.

As much as this week has told me about what to take, it’s also told me a lot about what I’d have to leave behind: The table where my kids did homework; the butter mold that belonged to my grandmother; the painting of Yosemite given to us by my husband’s parents; and so many other irreplaceable treasures.

All of those things would be hard to lose. But when it’s time to go, we can only take what we can.

I want to believe that if only my family and my neighbors and I were spared, that would be enough. And I’d be so thankful.

What will you take with you?

“A God’s Eye View,” Nov. 5, 2019

I’ve had some embarrassingly bad ideas in my time. More than my share. But lately I’ve been on a roll with good ideas that just keep getting better.

Actually, I could include my marriage in that. It, too, is a good idea that keeps getting better. But this morning my husband made an ill-advised remark about my hair, and I’m in no mood to sing his praises.

Never mind what the remark was. OK, fine, I’ll tell you. He said my just-woke-up hair made me look like Rod Stewart.

For the record, I have no problem with Rod Stewart, or his hair. But it was not exactly the look I would hope for. A lesser person might’ve been tempted to tell my husband to go take a good look at his own just-woke-up hair. But far be it from me ever to stoop that low.

Anyhow. About my good ideas.

We recently moved to a new place that’s half as big as our old one. Best of all, it has no stairs, which makes my knees a lot happier. But finding room to store stuff is a challenge.

Take, for example, all the things we like to keep for our grandkids to play with when they come over: The books and puzzles and colored pencils and paper and plastic dinosaurs and stuffed animals and games and, oh my goodness, the Legos.

My husband swears Legos is an acronym for Lethally Edged Gouging Objects. If you ever have the misfortune to step on one barefoot, you’ll understand why. We would much prefer to keep all that stuff off the floor and out of sight. But where?

I brilliantly decided to buy two storage benches that fit perfectly in front of two low windows in our living room. They hold all the kids’ stuff and (bonus!) provide extra seating.

Then, believe it or not, I came up with yet another good idea. We had planted in front of those windows a bunch of blooming plants that proved to be an all-you-can-eat buffet for deer. After they were eaten to the ground, I did a little research and decided we should try purple salvia, which is both beautiful, and more important, is said to be deer resistant.

Two weeks later, the salvia is still blooming and, so far, hasn’t had a nibble.

Imagine our surprise to find that hummingbirds and bees and butterflies seem to love the salvia as much as we do.

I wish you could see them.

When our grandkids come to visit, I make them turn off their iPads and video games, and lie on their bellies on the benches with their noses pressed to the window panes to watch those winged creatures up close, without getting stung.

I want them to see the colors on the throats of the hummers and the hairs on the bodies of the bees and the patterns in the wings of the butterflies. I want them to be amazed at the way they gather pollen and nectar, and how hard they work to stay alive; how they trust their wings to carry them and seem entirely content just to be what they are.

I love seeing those little people, who so completely own my heart, take such delight in the wonders of Creation.

Sometimes, as I watch them watching what’s going on outside those windows, I find myself wondering if that is how God watches us, too?

Does he hold his face just inches from ours?

Does he smile at the light he sees shining in our eyes for a hummingbird or a child?

Does he scratch his head at how we worry, and how we try to protect our loved ones, even though we tell ourselves their safety is not up to us, and that he is watching over us all?

Does he delight in seeing us delight in his good ideas?

I hope so. I hope God delights in me the way I delight in birds and bees and grandbabes.

Even if I look like Rod Stewart.

“Bragging Rights,” Oct. 29, 2019

I’ve never wanted to be the kind of person who goes around bragging that her grandchildren are the cutest, smartest, most adorable creatures God ever put on the face of this Earth.

But mine are.

It’s a fact. I take no credit for it. All credit goes to their parents, who are raising them right, and to their Creator, who for reasons I will never be able to fathom or repay, decided to let me be their nana.

I wish you could see them.

My granddad — a preacher and a joker and a notorious braggart — would say bragging is not bragging if you’ve got the truth to back it up. We didn’t agree on everything, he and I, but I like the sound of that.

Truth be known, I don’t brag all that much. And I rarely show photos, because I have so many on my phone I can never find the ones I want to show. Mostly, I just tell stories about the kids. I think one good story is worth a thousand pictures. If I don’t forget how the story ends.

I would tell you some of those stories (and often have in past columns) but my husband and I share eight grandkids (ages 9 to six months, five boys, three girls all born within eight hectic years) and even a small sample of those stories would fill more space than I’m allowed.

OK, I’ll tell you a few.

Randy is 9. When he was 3, I was toweling him off after swimming, and he got a chill.

“Nana,” he said, “I shaky.”

I held him tight until he stopped shaking. Then he whispered in my ear, “Nana, when you hold me, I feel safe.”

Charlotte is 8. She is sparkly and she likes sparkly things. She gives me flowers from her yard and draws pictures for me and lets me wear her headband with cat ears.

Henry is 8, a day younger than Charlotte. They are cousins, not twins. When Henry was 5, he told me when he grows up, he wants to own a restaurant.

“Will you hire me?” I said.

“That’s a long time away,” he said. “Will you … like, you know … still be alive?”

“What if I live to be really, really old? Will you hire me?”

“Nana, think about it. If you’re that old, what could you do?”

Wiley is 6. When he was 5, I offered him one of my infamous peanutbutter cookies.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Nana,” he said, ‘but this doesn’t really look like a cookie.”

Archer is 2, almost 3. Recently he saw a picture of a witch on a broom and wanted to try it out. He was straddling a broomstick, hopping around, when suddenly he stopped, looked at his dad and said, “Why I not flying?”

Eleanor is 4, going on 20, little but larger than life. When we say goodbye, she blows me kisses and calls, “Nana, I love you! I will miss you so much!”

Beatrix is 7 months, way cuter and a lot more fun than my first Betsy Wetsy. She takes a while to warm up to me. When she smiles, I melt into a puddle.

Finally (so far), there is Jonah. He is 6 months old, beautiful, like his mother, and big, like his daddy. I sit when I hold him, so I don’t fall down. Or we lie on the floor where he looks for stuff to put in his mouth, and I pray that I’ll be able to get up.

I teach him how to push a toy pig’s snout to make it oink; how to throw (sort of) a ball; how to belly laugh when I kiss his belly.

And he teaches me things with his eyes: That he and his cousins will make the world a better place; that we’ll always be close in this life and the next; and that someday I’ll buy him a car.

Someone told me recently that people who have children to care for never gossip; they only talk about the children.

We all have children to care for, whether they sleep in our arms or in homeless shelters.

There are lots of important things we need to talk about. I have no doubt about that. But honestly? It’s hard to think of anything more important than our grandchildren.

And that’s not bragging.

“Halloween, Good and Bad,” Oct. 22, 2019

I have a lover’s quarrel with Halloween. There are things I like about it and things I don’t. Which, come to think of it, is also how I feel about myself and at least half the people I know.

(Note: The above statement does not apply to you. We may never have met, you and I, but if we had the pleasure, I’m sure I’d like everything about you.)

Here are a few things I like about Halloween:

1. I like candy. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I like having an excuse to buy a monster-size sack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, presumably to hand out to trick-or-treaters, when I know perfectly well I’m going to eat half those cups myself. I’d eat them all if my husband didn’t hog the other half.

2. I like seeing the costumes people choose to wear when they can wear anything they choose. I like to see little people, like my grandkids, pretend to be big, and big people, like my husband, pretend to be little. It’s fun. And I like fun a lot.

3. I like having neighbors and friends and people I don’t know come knocking on my door with their adorable children, all happy and excited and not trying to sell me something. That doesn’t happen very often except at Halloween. I’ll even share my husband’s half of the Peanut Butter Cups with them.

Here are a few things I don’t like about Halloween:

1. I don’t like tricks. Except the ones I played on my brothers when I was too young to know better, and on my children, when I was old enough to have better sense, but couldn’t resist. Never mind what those tricks were. I don’t like the kind of tricks that hurt people or animals or property, or make somebody clean up a mess. If you’ve ever been egged, or toilet-papered or cherry-bombed, you know what I mean.

2. I don’t like being scared. Life is scary enough without making it scarier. My older sister loved to scare people, especially me. When she was 12, she put a sheet over her head and tried to scare a neighbor boy, who in turn, tried to kill her with an axe. I saw the whole thing and pulled for the neighbor boy to catch her.

3. I don’t like having to come up with a costume. We all have our gifts, and costuming is not one of mine. No matter what I plan to wear, it’s never very clever, not to mention very comfortable. My best ever idea for a costume was one I made my brother wear when I was 10 and he was 6. I put a sheet over his head (possibly the same sheet my sister nearly got killed in) but didn’t tell him he was a ghost. Joe was totally blind. He didn’t know what a ghost looked like. We went trick-or-treating and when people said to him, “You’re a cute little ghost!,” he would shout, “I’m not a ghost, I’m a mattress!” It’s hard to beat a costume like that.

Every Halloween, I think of a story I heard years ago from a friend. She said she was hiding in her kitchen, pretending not to eavesdrop on her teenage daughter, Kim, who was talking with friends in the living room.

“I never know how to talk to boys,” confessed one of the girls. “I always say the wrong thing!”

Kim offered a solution. “Maybe you’re trying too hard,” she said. “Try to relax and just be yourself!”

Then, after a moment, while everyone thought about that girl being herself, Kim added this: “And if that doesn’t work for you, just be somebody else!”

Costumes don’t change who we are or how we talk to each other. Only we can do that. I like to be who I am: A wife, a mom, a nana, a friend. It works for me. But on Halloween, just for fun, I’ll be Nana Medusa with snakes on my head.

On Halloween and every day, we should always be ourselves and allow others to be who they are, as well. Maybe it will help us, together, as one, be the kind of people we’re meant to be.

“Plans Change,” Oct. 15, 2019

My grandmother used to say, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” As a child, I couldn’t see why God would find that so funny. But that was before I was old enough to make plans.

As an adult, I often think I probably keep God in stitches. But there was nothing funny in our latest change of plans. Recently, my husband and I were looking forward to going to Los Angeles for a few days to see my son and his wife and their, oh, so adorable 6-month-old.

Those plans were put on hold when we realized we might need to stay home and pack the contents of our freezer and fridge on ice in a cooler.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 9, with weather forecasts in California calling for extreme winds and low humidity — conditions that would dramatically raise an already high risk of wildfires — Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to some 700,000 homes or businesses in more than 30 counties in Northern California.

We expected Monterey County, where we live, to be included, but the outage only extended as far south as Silicon Valley. Initially, it was thought it might last a week, but power was restored to most by Friday.

With a sigh of relief, we decided to go to LA after all. We planned to leave Saturday for the five-hour drive. But Thursday night, before bed, I saw a news report about a small wildfire burning near Sylmar, 20 miles west of my son’s home. I started to call him, but didn’t want to wake them. And I didn’t want to seem overly protective, which my kids always say I am.

The next morning I woke early to check the news. The fire had exploded overnight, moving west, closing several highways and forcing evacuations. Winds were gusting over 70 mph.

I called my son. No answer. I left a message: “Call me.”

Minutes later, when he called back, I could hear my grandson babbling in the background. My son assured me they were in no danger, and if that changed, they would leave.

I believed him. When it comes to his wife and child, the boy is even more protective than I am. We agreed it was not a good time to visit, and not just because of the fire and the smoke. Traffic in LA is always bad, but with multiple road closures and 100,000 people under mandatory evacuation orders, it would be insane.

“Keep me posted?” I said, and he promised he would.

While people in Los Angeles fled from the fire, I followed news reports online, from the comfort and safety of my home.

At the same time, 1,000 personnel from Los Angeles’ city and county fire departments, along with crews from CalFire, worked past exhaustion — many of them risking their lives — to stop an inferno and save countless lives and homes.

I’ve always been in awe of the kind of person who is willing to risk everything — to run toward danger, rather than away from it — simply for the good of others.

I wanted to thank them, and their families, personally — to hug their necks and feed them pizza and tell them that they are heroes. They probably already know that. I surely hope so.

On Saturday, the weather cooled, the winds calmed, the fire was about 40 percent contained, and the evacuation orders were lifted.

I’ve never been forced to leave my home, but I’ve known others who’ve had to flee from fires or floods or storms. It’s a sobering reminder of how precious life is, and how quickly it can change.

We will go see my son and his family soon, I hope. As my grandmother would say, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

“My Bossy Big Sister,” Oct. 8, 2019

Once a week or so I call my sister and we talk for an hour. We live 3,000 miles and three time zones apart, and don’t get to see each other often. Not nearly often enough. But we stay in touch as best we can.

If I wait too long to call, she’ll leave me a message: “Sissy, where are you? I hope you’re OK. Call me back soon.”

When I get that message, I call her as soon as possible. If I don’t, I’ll get another message within an hour: “OK, now I’m really worried. Call me, dang it.”

Why are Big Sisters so bossy? Are they born that way or do they just pick it up with age? She is five years my elder, and some of my earliest memories are of her telling me what to do, what to think, what to wear and most of all, how to do my hair.

When I was 7, the night before my first day of second grade, she put her hands on her hips and said, “You cannot go to school looking like that!”

I didn’t know what “that” meant, but I could tell by her tone it wasn’t good. I looked the same as I did every day: Short auburn hair chopped off below my ears; brown eyes that could turn green; and a hand-me-down dress that used to be hers and had seen much better days.

“What’s wrong with me?”

She rolled her eyes. “We have to do something with your hair.”

She stuck my head in the sink, washed it, rinsed it and wrapped it in a towel. Then she combed out the tangles and twisted little sections into pin curls that she fastened to my scalp with our mother’s bobby pins.

My sister’s name is Barbara, but I always call her Bobbie. I thought those hair pins were named for her. To this day, when I see one, I picture her. After she pinned the last curl, she counted them: 52, exactly.

“Can I go play now?”

“No! We have to dry it!”

She stuck my head in her prized bouffant hair dryer and made me suffer for an hour. And if that wasn’t enough, she made me sleep on those pins all night. The next morning, she pulled out the pins, one by one, and tried to comb out the curls. But each time she stretched one out, it would spring right back to my scalp.

I looked like a sheep. One that had stuck its hoof in an electrical outlet.

She felt bad, I could tell. But she still refused to sit with me on the bus. I don’t remember much about school that day. But thanks to my sister, I’m certain I made a lasting impression.

I could tell you a hundred stories about her, besides all the ones I’ve already told. She’d be glad to tell you a few about me, but she’d be making them up.

These days, when I call, she doesn’t ask about my hair. We compare aches and pains and medications and the weather and what we ate for supper.

We talk about our blind brother, who lives near her, how he’s feeling, what he’s up to. She asks about my family and I ask about hers. Not much changes in a week, so we repeat a lot. But we’re forgetful, so it seems new.

I listen to what she says, and to what she doesn’t say, and I pay close attention to her tone. Sometimes the way we say something speaks more clearly than the words we use.

I try to make her laugh at least once before we hang up. She does that for me without even trying.

She often asks, “When are you coming home for a visit?”

My answer is usually, “Soon as I can, but not real soon.”

Every call ends the same way. We both say, “Love you, Sissy.”

We come from a long line of storytellers, so our calls often include stories like the pin curl tale. Or how she lost her wig in the bumper cars. Or the time she tried to shoot me because I poured a Pepsi down her pants.

I haven’t reminded her of the pin curl tale in ages. Maybe I’ll call while she’s asleep and leave a message: “Remember when you put 52 pin curls in my hair? It’s still frizzy. Call me, dang it.”