“My Big Date,” Jan. 21, 2020

Most days, my getting-ready- to-go-out routine takes two minutes tops. And that includes finding my keys.

There was a time in my life when I never went out without ironing an outfit and spending hours on my make-up and hair.

It began in my early teens, when I hoped, at least, to turn a few heads. It ended promptly at the age of 23, after my first child was born, and my only real hope was to survive another day.

These days, I feel like the Invisible Woman. I could stand half-naked on a street corner juggling live chickens and I doubt anybody would notice.

Not that I need to worry about being seen. We live out in the country and rarely get uninvited guests. Except buzzards.

One day, while my husband and I were sitting on the patio, I noticed a squadron of turkey vultures circling overhead.

“Maybe I should go put on some makeup,” I said.

My husband didn’t laugh.

“That was a joke,” I snapped.

He just snickered.

Today was no joking matter. I had a lunch date with someone I definitely wanted to impress. Someone who would study me the way a cat studies a gopher. Someone who’d take notice of all the details of how I looked, what I wore, how I smelled and every last word I said.

I was determined to give it my best shot. So I started with a quick shower and a double dose of hair conditioner. My hair has been long most of my life, but recently I felt like a change and whacked it all off.

(Here’s a little tip: When you feel like making a change, give it a few days before you act.)

The upside of my new haircut is it takes half as long to dry. The downside is it makes me look like my mother in her later years, wearing a football helmet.

Not that she’d ever do that. I’m just saying. It’s how I look. So I worked hard with a curling iron to make my hair look a little less football helmety.

The problem with the curling iron is it has a tendency to get slightly hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell. So it not only curls, it singes, and makes my hair smell like fried chicken.

To offset the chicken smell, I used a half can of hairspray and a bottle, give or take, of cologne. My favorite cologne, not that you should care, is called “Amazing Grace.” I like its scent, but mostly I love its name. I need all the grace I can get.

Next, I chose something to wear. I didn’t need to iron it because I realized long ago, if you don’t like to iron, don’t buy things that need ironing. I generally stick to neutrals, shades of gray and black. But today I chose a royal blue blouse. It wouldn’t turn heads, but my lunch date would like it.

Next, I selected jewelry. I’m usually good to go with just my wedding ring (without which I feel strangely naked.) But today I added silver hoops, a long sparkly necklace and the absolute necessity, a Christmas gift from my lunch date: A silver bangle engraved, “Love you all.”

“All” is as much as anybody can possibly love someone. It’s also how much I love her.

Finally, I did my makeup. I’ve been doing makeup so long I could do it in my sleep. And sometimes it looks like I did. But today I took great care to blend everything just so — foundation, blush, eyeshadow, eyeliner, the works.

Just as I applied a last coat of lipstick, my husband walked by, grinned at me and said, “No buzzards circling you today.”

I’ve had worse compliments.

But the best one came when I picked up my lunch date — my granddaughter, Eleanor Rose, who is turning 5, and was truly resplendent in a pink fairy dress and unicorn headband.

“Nana!” she shouted, tackling me in a choke hold. She checked me out head to toe, then said the magic words: “You look pretty, Nana! And you smell good, too!”

My mother would’ve worn a football helmet to hear that.

“Reflections on a Table,” Jan. 14, 2020

How many times in my life have I scratched this table? How many times will I be lucky enough to get to do it again? Those questions crossed my mind tonight as I cleaned up the mess we’d made at dinner.

This mess was even messier than our usual. There were just the two of us, my husband and I, cracking fresh crab and eating it with our fingers.

Earlier today he went to walk with his sister, one of his favorite things to do with one of his favorite people at one of his favorite places, Garland Ranch Regional Park, near our home in Carmel Valley, Calif.

The park includes nearly 3,500 acres of rugged land and steep trails at the northern edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

I wish you could see it.

I’ve seen it myself numerous times over the years, especially when my three children were growing up. We’d often picnic there on Sundays after church, hiking the trails, then heading home happy and exhausted.

I love the park’s main rule for visiting: “Take only memories and leave only footprints.” It applies equally well, I think, as a rule for the road of life.

These days, I don’t hike quite as happily as I once did, so today I begged off to work, while my husband and his sister walked and talked.

On his way home, my husband, bless him, stopped at a fish market to pick up a couple of fresh Monterey Bay crabs, all cleaned, cooked and cracked.

I steamed some broccoli, sliced two lemons from a bush that was a housewarming gift from friends, and we were ready to feast on one of the world’s finest and easiest meals.

After dinner, he hauled the shells down to the street for trash pick-up day tomorrow. And I loaded the dishwasher and wiped down that table.

Have you ever taken something for granted — things like people and health and dining room tables — until they suddenly grab you by your collar and say, hey, remember me?

That happened to me tonight. I was wiping the table, polishing it back to a shine, trying to rub out a few of the scratches, when suddenly I saw my face reflected on its surface and recalled a lifetime of memories.

I’ve been cleaning that table, and accidentally scratching it, most of my adult life. It’s 6 ft. long, 3 ft. wide, and built of dark-stained pine from the mountains where I was born.

I bought it with my late husband when we were first married and had it shipped from North Carolina, to California.

From the start, just looking at it made me feel at home. It came with two ladder-back chairs that sit at either end, and two heavy benches that fit along the sides for children and guests.

In addition to serving as a dining table, it has also been a place for homework and projects, potlucks and parties and, oh, so many celebrations.

We refinished it several times over the years. But if you look closely, you can still see a few places where my kids pressed too hard with their pencils.

Now, when our grandkids come to dinner, I love pointing out to them where their parents left their marks long ago.

The next time my husband’s sister (who is also one of my favorite people) and her family are in town, I hope we can all hike in Garland Park together, then come back to our house to feast on crab (or whatever’s in season) on that table. I would like that a lot.

It’s not a very big table, but it still has room for all sorts of new memories. Just looking at it still makes me feel at home.

Someday, when I move on from this life to the next, I’ll pass it along to one of my children … or maybe to one of my grandchildren.

I’ll be taking nothing with me but memories, and leaving behind only footprints — and a lot of scratches on an old pine table.

“The Lazy Susan of Life,” Jan. 7, 2020

I’m sitting in room full of strangers, whose feelings at the moment (based on the looks on their faces as they stare at their cell phones) range from total boredom to downright fear.

I wonder what the look on my face tells them about me? I’m waiting for my husband, who moments ago, was rolled away on a gurney to undergo a routine colonoscopy.

“Routine” is an interesting word, isn’t it? Especially when applied to a test that can lead to a diagnosis called “terminal.”

I kissed him goodbye before they rolled him away. He seemed surprisingly calm for a man wearing no underwear. By now, I’m sure he’s been pumped so full of meds that he’s feeling just fine, no worries, no pain.

Too bad they don’t offer those meds to us folks in the waiting room. Waiting is never fun. But it gives you time to think.

That’s what I’m doing. My mind is like a mental Lazy Susan spinning with thoughts, good and bad. I’m trying to pick the best ones and skip the rest. But the bad ones keep coming around. Here they come again:

“What if they find something? What if it’s serious? What if…?”

I shake my head, like a dog trying to rid itself of fleas, and wait for the good thoughts. They take their sweet time, but, whew, here they come again:

“He’ll be fine. No reason to worry. Just believe the best.”

I grab onto the good thoughts and hold on tight. But they’re slick, like they’ve been sprayed with WD-40. The bad thoughts are coated with Gorilla Glue. I look around and wonder if anyone else is thinking about Gorilla Glue and WD-40.

Probably not. We all have our own ways to deal with waiting.

This is not my first rodeo. I’ve waited for lots of medical results for myself and for people I love.

I suspect you have, too.

Is it just me, or do you find it less worrisome to wait for news for yourself than for a loved one? I think what I fear most is not dying, but grieving. When I die, I won’t need to grieve.

Years ago, I waited in a similar waiting room while my first husband was having the same procedure with the same doctor.

I prayed for the best and tried to expect it. But the news that day was not good at all. Four years later, after multiple surgeries and nonstop treatment, my children and I lost their dad to cancer.

It’s not easy to wait, hoping for the best, when you know how it feels to face the worst.

But isn’t that what we do every day? Yesterday, for instance, I woke up, drank coffee, and went merrily on my way through a minefield of potential tragedies and disasters called “life.”

I could’ve crashed my car, but stopped just in time. I could’ve slipped on a spill (as I did once) and broken my ankle. But I saw the spill and wiped it up. I could’ve had news from a loved one that would break my heart and change my life forever. But thanks be to God, I did not.

Why do we remember so clearly all the bad news in life, but forget so easily and fail to give thanks for the countless times we are spared?

I remember once, interviewing a man, the father of four young children, who had lost his wife in a horrific car accident.

“My children and I grieve for their mother,” he said. “We’ll never forget her. But she would want them to grow up unafraid. She would want them to know that they’ve had a great life with just one tragedy.”

The Lazy Susan spins again and I grab all the good thoughts I can hold. I don’t want to let worry rob me of joy. I want to believe the best, and have the faith to trust that, if it comes, I will face the worst with grace.

Two hours later, my husband is ready to go home. The news this day is all good. He passed the test with flying colors.

I wish you could see the “good news” smile on my face.

Maybe I’ll smile it more often.

“Hope for a New Year,” Dec. 31, 2019

The dawn of a new year invites us to look back, give thanks, and smile at whatever lies ahead.

I find it easier to let go of the past when I have something to look forward to in the future. For me, 2019 was a year of change. I suspect it was for you, as well. Is there ever a year, or even a day, that we don’t face some kind of change?

We turn a year older. Get married. Have a baby. Change jobs. Or we lose someone we love that we thought we could never live without.

I remember my college biology professor saying that a living cell is always changing; when it stops changing, it dies. Life is change, and we change with it. But some years bring more change than others.

Last spring, my husband and I sold the house where I had lived most of my adult life, the place where my late husband and I had raised our three children.

I loved that house, and all the memories it held for me. I never wanted to live anywhere else. But in time, my knees began complaining about the stairs. I could slide down the banister, but sliding up was a problem.

So we sold it and moved to a much smaller place 20 miles out of town, on a hill surrounded by mountains that remind me of the mountains I loved as a child growing up in North Carolina.

It was hard letting go of my old house and the town that I had called “home.” But here’s something interesting that I’ve learned about loss: It always comes with gifts. The greater the loss, the greater the gift. Have you noticed that, too?

It has been such a gift for me to wake up each morning, as I did long ago, in a green cradle of mountains. I had no idea how much I had missed them.

Another big change for me this year was the addition of two more grandchildren, bringing our combined total to eight. In March, my husband’s son and his wife gave birth to their third child, Beatrix. And in April, my son and his wife welcomed Jonah, their first.

I wish you could see them.

We are fortunate to have all our children and grandchildren closeby — five minutes to five hours away — all within reach. And we reach for them often.

When my husband retired from a lifetime as a newspaper editor, I couldn’t help thinking about what a friend had told me after her husband retired: “I married that guy for better or worse, but not for lunch!”

I needn’t have worried. Leaving the newsroom just gave my husband more time to play his bass. He practices for hours every day in the garage and plays in a band, cheered on by his biggest fans, our 8- and 9-year-old grandsons. And we take turns making lunch.

As for me, by some miracle, I still have the same job I’ve loved for almost 30 years. I wrote 50 columns this year (with two weeks off for good behavior) and was so happy to hear from readers around the country who were kind enough to write and say that my stories are their stories, too. Imagine that.

Some things change, but some things stay the same. It’s worth waking up each day just to see what will happen next.

What am I looking forward to in the coming year? Life. It’s good for me and my family. I pray it is for you and yours.

When you look back on 2019, what are the memories, and who are the people, that make you smile and fill your heart with gratitude? In what ways did your life change this year? What do you look forward to in 2020?

Here’s my New Year’s wish for you, one my grandmother would wish for me:

May all your hopes and dreams come true and your fears never come to pass.

May you give with grace and receive with gratitude, knowing either way you are blessed.

May God hold you in his hand and never close his fist too tight.

And may you say nice things about me when I’m gone.

Happy 2020!

“To Party … or Not?,” Dec. 24, 2019

Holiday parties are highly overrated. Unless someone else is hosting them. Every year in early fall, I start planning a fabulous party, with great food, lovely decorations and a guest list that includes, not only family and friends, but neighbors and other folks I’ve wanted to invite over for years. Along with their dogs.

You would be invited, too. No need to bring anything. Unless, of course, you really want to.

But somehow my party never happens. Halloween starts off with a bang. No costume party, but plenty of candy.

Then it’s Thanksgiving, which in my family’s tradition, is more about giving thanks and overeating than entertaining.

Next thing I know, it’s two days before Christmas and I’m still several gifts short. And it’s too late for prime shipping.

So I take a deep breath, slather my knees in Biofreeze, knock back two Advil and join the throngs of not-so-jolly shoppers, while praying I will find just the right gifts and that when I get home, exhausted and broke, I’ll remember who each gift is for.

Tell me this: Who’s bright idea was it to put New Year’s Day on the calendar just a week after Christmas? Seriously?

I don’t know about you, but the week after Christmas I don’t feel like celebrating anything except the surprising fact that I’m still alive. Which is not a bad thing to celebrate. As long as I don’t have to host a party for it.

Honestly? I think the best thing we could do for ourselves and each other is to declare a national holiday for the first week after Christmas — better yet, let’s make it two weeks — in which we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do, not even get dressed or go to work or talk to each other.

We would still need to eat, of course. That’s always a problem, especially if we have children to feed. I remember picking my three up from school, thinking, “Oh, Lord, they’re probably going to want to eat. Again.”

The holiday I’m proposing wouldn’t ban eating. Or bathing. Or other necessities. It would simply be two weeks off from things that involve work. And socializing. And politics ….

Forget two weeks, let’s make it a month. Maybe then, I’d host a party to celebrate doing whatever we want — providing, of course, that it doesn’t hurt anybody or break any laws.

The truth is, I love a good party. Take the one my husband and I attended recently. It was hosted by dear friends who have hosted it faithfully every year for 50 years. He’s a retired teacher who taught with my late husband. And she is the angel who took me under her wing long ago and answered all my questions on nursing and mothering and life.

I was a regular at that party until I moved 500 miles away. Fortunately I moved back and could make it this year.

A lot can change if you don’t see someone for 20 years. But when I looked in their eyes and hugged their necks, they seemed the same as always.

That was also true of others at that party — old friends I’ve known and loved and missed for far too long. My new husband (of 15 years) had never met most of them, but they welcomed him and, as usual, he fit right in.

It was such a gift. And the eggnog and ham were better than anything I’d have served. That’s the mark of a great party. It welcomes oldtimers and newcomers alike. It lets us connect and remember who we were once, and who we are now.

We may never get to celebrate a National Do What You Want Month. But who knows? Maybe next year, I’ll host a party and invite you and everybody I can think of, and all your dogs.

Or not.

Either way, I hope my friends will invite me to their party. It’s a lovely thing to renew old ties and make new ones. Especially if I don’t have to host.

“A New Old Christmas Story,” Dec. 17, 2019

This is a Christmas story. I’ve told parts of it before. But some stories bear repeating, especially at Christmas, when old things — people and traditions and even the world — often seem new.

Like most stories, this one is woven from memories, three memories of three perfect gifts. The first gift was a bird.

When I was 6, my mother bought a fake Christmas tree. It looked like a TV antenna covered in toilet brushes. She said I could decorate it, but I knew it wouldn’t help. You can put lipstick on a pig, but still.

The day after Christmas, I went to spend a week with my grandmother on her farm. I told her about the tree and she said, “Your mama works too hard.”

The next morning, she woke me early and said, “Come see your Christmas tree.”

I looked out the window. It was snowing. And at the top of a snow-covered hemlock, there sat a single, perfect ornament: A redbird, singing its heart out, just for me.

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The second gift was a promise from my mother. When I was 10, my family fell on hard times (harder than our usual) and Mama said Santa might be late.

“How late?” I asked.

“Maybe spring,” she said.

On Christmas Eve, some people from church brought us a food basket. My mother looked mortified, but thanked them kindly. It was our only gift that Christmas, except for a box of tangerines my stepfather put under the fake tree. At supper, when Mama served up the ham from the basket, she said this:

“Life is a bank. Sometimes we put into it. Sometimes we take out. It’s hard having to take. But remember how it feels, because one day you will do the giving.”

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The third gift was a cassette tape. When my oldest child left for college, he took with him a boulder-size chunk of my heart.

It’s hard to let go of someone you’ve spent 18 years of your life watching over day and night. We visited him at school, he came home a few weekends, and we often talked by phone. But I missed him something fierce. I could hardly wait for him to come home for Christmas.

When he drove up out front (with a car full of laundry) I was waiting on the porch.

“Hey, Mama!”

I hugged him long and hard, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Glad you’re home,” I said.

“Glad to be here,” he nodded.

He unpacked his car, started a load of wash, ate everything in the fridge, then headed off to meet friends, promising to be back for dinner. But first he took something out of his pocket.

“Here,” he said, grinning, “I made this for you.”

I squinted at the names of two dozen songs he’d recorded on a cassette titled “Songs 4 Mom.”

It was the music I’d danced to as a teenager, and later, with him and his sister and brother when they were small — songs by James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder ….

“Where did you find these?”

“I borrowed them from guys at school and copied them on the tape. They’re all songs I know you love, plus a few new ones I think you’ll like, too.”

In that moment, I realized two things: My boy knew me well. And no matter how many miles or years might come between us, we would always be close.

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The best gifts aren’t usually things we ask for. But they are always what we need: A redbird singing in a snow storm. A promise of hope in hard times. The assurance of being known well by someone we adore. Or a baby lying in a manger, who makes the soul feel its worth.

May this Christmas bring you your favorite gift, the one thing you need most of all, not tied up with ribbons under the tree, but wrapped in love in your heart.

And may it fill you and me and this weary old world with peace and joy and goodwill toward all.

“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.