“Fire and Fear,” Aug. 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you could’ve seen us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But today?

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

“Things We Do for Love,” Aug. 18, 2020

Fifteen years ago, I said “yes” to my former editor. Not to work for him. To marry him. Why? Who can explain the things we do for love?

We had worked together for 10 years, then dated for another five. It was a second marriage for us both. He was divorced, I was a widow. We knew the road we’d be traveling together.

But the strength of a marriage is not what you think you know on your wedding day. It’s how you deal with the nagging annoyances that pop up over the years like gophers in a bed of roses.

We’ve survived our share of gophers with no real regrets. We married, of course, for better or for worse. But our wedding vows did not cover haircuts.

One surprising side effect of the coronavirus quarantine is an increase in the growth rate of human hair. Especially for men. This is not a scientific fact, just a simple observation.

In the past six months, I’ve not set foot in a salon and my husband hasn’t been to a barber. In that time, my hair has grown a few inches. And his hair has grown twice as much as mine. I look like I need a haircut. But he looks like a stunt double for Bigfoot.

Or he did. Not any more.

We’ve each dealt differently with our bumper crop of hair. I put mine up in ponytail. And he ordered a set of hedge trimmers. I mean, hair clippers.

“How exactly will you manage to cut your own hair?” I said.

“I won’t,” he said. “You will.”

“HAH!” I laughed. “Not a chance! You would hate it and I’d never hear the end of it!”

He didn’t argue, just went back to watching a Giants’ game on TV, with cardboard cut-out fans in the empty seats behind homeplate. Then the clippers showed up and he tried again.

“C’mon,” he begged, waving the instructions. “I don’t care how it looks. It’ll feel cooler!”

Persuasive, isn’t he?

“Fine!” I said. “Go out on the patio. It’s gonna be a mess!”

I was tempted to start with the nose hair trimmer. Instead I used the attachment for the longest cut. Then a shorter one. Then the shortest.

Hair flew like peach fuzz in a packing shed, enough to line the nest of every buzzard for miles around.

“How’s it lookin’?” he said.

“Hold still!” I snapped. “I need to trim a little more off the back. And the sides. And the, uh, top.”

The clippers hummed like a wood chipper. Finally I stepped back to admire my handiwork and stifled a gasp: Bigfoot, bless his heart, had a buzz cut.

“OK,” I said. “You’re done.”

Running a hand over his head, his eyes got big as hubcaps and he ran inside to the bathroom mirror. I waited for a scream. Instead, when he came back, he seemed strangely calm.

“Well,” he said, scratching his prickly scalp, “it’s cooler.”

I expected complaints, but he’s been pretty good about it, possibly because we’ve had bigger things to think about.

Lately, our typically lovely Carmel Valley weather has seen temperatures climb to 107 or higher, and wildfires are burning all over California.

Last night a storm raged for hours with no rain. Thunder boomed, shaking the earth, and a spectacular display of heat lightning zigzagged across the sky and tap-danced on the hills. It looked like a battle scene from “Star Wars.” We kept watch for fires until 4 a.m., when the storm finally passed. More of the same is forecast for tonight.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles east of us, our neighbors near Salinas are fleeing from a fire that was started by lightning and is burning out of control, threatening lives and homes.

There are always bigger things to think and care about, if we care enough to think about them. A good marriage is like a good life, blessed not by a lack of annoyances, but by a practice of gratitude and an abundance of lovingkindness and grace.

If it’s 107 tomorrow, I might try those clippers on my hair.

“A Reason to Celebrate,” Aug. 11, 2020

Birthdays mark the passage of another year of learning, growing, laughing, loving, and best of all, being alive. They should always be celebrated—especially in a pandemic.

I grew up in a family that observed birthdays with only a cake. No cards. No presents. No parties. Just “Happy birthday, pass me a hunk of that cake.”

It was a good cake. My mother made it. Sometimes we cranked it up a notch with a churn of ice cream. No matter how other kids celebrated their birthdays, to me, a cake was enough.

Imagine my surprise years later to find my own children expected a bit more than a cake. After some discussion, we reached a compromise. They could invite only as many friends as would fit in our VW van. I’d take them swimming at an indoor pool that charged fifty cents per kid and had lifeguards to keep them from drowning. When they were exhausted from swimming, I’d take them to our house to eat pizza and cake (storebought, not homemade) and let the birthday person open gifts. Finally, they’d all pass out on the family room floor.

The next day, I’d feed them pancakes and send them home. Except my three, who stayed to fight over the gifts. We did that until the kids were teenagers, and preferred parties without my help or my presence.

After they grew up and had children of their own, the parties became real wing-dings. I’ll never forget my first grandchild’s first birthday. Randy stood surrounded by dozens of family and friends, and ate his first-ever cupcake.

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Red curls glittering like a halo in the sun. Hazel eyes wide with wonder. And a look on his frosting-smeared face that seemed to say, “What is this and where has it been all my life?”

In years to come, his parties would fill a city park with a bounce house, a face painter, a taco truck and a guest list that included all his classmates with their siblings and parents.

This week, Randy is turning 10. Ten is a pretty big deal. But his birthday—like so many other things that have changed in the months since the pandemic began—will be a bit different.

He’s not expecting a party, just a small celebration with family. When I asked what he wanted for a gift, he said, “I want to spend the night with you and Papa Mark, like we used to do.”

The last time he slept at our house was months ago, before we began “sheltering in place.” He has missed it. So have we.

“I’ll talk to your mom,” I said through a mask, and he grinned.

So I talked to his mom and here’s the plan. It’s a surprise, so don’t tell Randy. He’s having a “drive-by” surprise party. Carloads of family and friends will drive by his house honking and shouting, “Happy birthday!”

Papa Mark and I will be in the last car. Then we’ll take him to our house to spend the night. He’ll play checkers with me, and make music with Papa Mark. I’ll bake a cake. Or buy one. And I will whisper in his ear my favorite birthday wish: “I am so glad you were born.”

The next day, on his real birthday, he’ll celebrate with his mom and dad and brother and sister. It will be different from his other birthdays. But it will surely be a celebration.

A birthday is a gift, not just for those who turn a year older, but for those who love them. It should always be celebrated, especially in uncertain times such as these, when we need to remember what matters most.

But a true celebration doesn’t need a party or even a cake. It takes place on its own, with a prayer of thanks and a burst of joy, somewhere in the heart.

Happy birthday, Randy. I am so glad you were born.

“How to Travel a Hard Road,” Aug. 4, 2020

Have you ever noticed the places your mind will wander if you free it to do some mindless task like mopping or driving or watching another rerun on TV?

Wait. Driving is not a mindless task. I am always mindful while driving. And I certainly hope you are, too.

But sometimes my mind seems to have a mind of its own. Take this morning when I made the bed. You know the drill: Shake the sheets, smooth the covers, fluff the pillows and try not to tweak your back.

I’ve made a bed so many times I don’t need to think about it. I can do it with my eyes closed. In fact, somedays, I probably do.

Lately, after more than four months of “sheltering in place” for the coronavirus pandemic, I was starting to get, to put it mildly, tired of the whole thing.

Tired of feeling like a prisoner under house arrest. Tired of keeping distant from people I want to hug. Tired of fearing for the lives and livelihoods of loved ones and neighbors all around the world. And especially tired of wondering when will it end?

If you’re tired of it, too, let me assure you, we’re not alone. It’s so common there’s even a name for it: “Quarantine fatigue.” It drains us of energy for things we need and want to do—like laughing and loving, feeling truly alive. Worst of all, if left untreated, it can rob us of hope.

So this morning, I decided to clear my head of worry and fear by focusing instead on one simple task: Making the bed.

It worked. For about 30 seconds. Then my mind took off like a hound after a rabbit and suddenly I recalled a memory.

I was 7 years old. My parents were divorced. I’d lived most of my life with my grandparents. But my mother had recently remarried and we’d moved to a new town. I started second grade at a school where I knew no one. I missed my dad, my grandparents and the only home I’d ever known, the one place on Earth where I felt safe.

My new teacher’s name was Mrs. Harrison. A few days after I showed up in her class, she asked me to stay in at recess. When the class went out to play, she closed the door, took my face in her hands and smiled.

“I’ve noticed you don’t seem very happy,” she said. “Would you like to talk about it?”

I burst into tears. Bawled like a baby. Told her everything and then some. She listened. When I stopped, she took a clean handkerchief out of her desk and dried my face.

“You’re traveling a hard road,” she said, “but it will get easier. You can talk to me anytime, but always remember this: You are stronger than you know.”

She was right. The road got easier, mostly because she made school a pleasure. There’d be more hard miles ahead, as there are in every life. But her words would echo in my memory just when I needed to hear them.

In the four years my first husband fought for his life battling cancer, I often felt so weary I wanted to hide in the closet under a pile of dirty socks. But mostly, I wanted to be strong for him and our three children—and myself. Giving up was not an option.

Several things helped. First, coffee. I drank a lot of it.

Second, I knew my kids were watching me. I wanted to show them we could help their dad live his last days to the fullest, and after losing him, we could honor his memory by moving forward with our lives.

Third, I had an army of prayer warriors—family, friends and readers around the country—asking God to give me strength.

And always, I had this: Every time I felt like hiding in the closet, Mrs. Harrison would whisper in my memory, “You are stronger than you know.”

Sometimes, when we doubt our own strength, it helps to know someone believes in us.

We have never traveled a road quite like this pandemic. But we are traveling it together, believing in one another.

And we are stronger than we know.

“Sunny Days Ahead,” July 28, 2020

My grandmothers did a lot of lovely things for me. Both were fine cooks, specializing in all my favorite foods, cornbread and biscuits and cobblers. Both read to me, sang with me, and told me hair-raising tales. One made a doll for me that I still treasure. The other taught me how to cheat at cards.

But what they did best was simple: They both seemed to like having me around. For me, that was enough.

I often wonder what my grandchildren will remember about me? I’m not a great cook. I don’t sew. And I’m never much good at cards, even if I cheat.

But if they remember nothing else, I hope they won’t forget how much I love having them around, laughing, telling stories, reading or just being together.

One of the hardest things for me in the past four months of this pandemic is all the time I’ve missed spending with people I love, all the laughs we haven’t shared, all the meals we haven’t eaten, all the memories we haven’t made together.

That’s especially true for my grandchildren. Childhood is a sacred door, open only for a while. The bond between a child and a grandparent—like mine with my grandmothers—can be strong enough to last forever. But it needs to be forged early, while the door is still open.

Lucky for me, I have modern miracles that my grandmothers never dreamed of—videos, emails, texts and Facetime–to keep in touch with my kids and grandkids. Communicating electronically is a far cry from holding each other close. One is real. The other is a substitute until the real thing comes along.

We take turns calling, texting and sending videos. Content doesn’t matter as much as seeing faces and hearing voices. Connecting is what truly counts.

Sometimes I read to the little people, or they read to me. Randy, my oldest grandchild, who’s almost 10, FaceTimed recently to say he had a “special book” he wanted to share with me: “Life,” by Cynthia Rylant.

I gave him that book a few years ago. He knows it’s one of my favorites, both for Rylant’s beautiful writing and Brendan Wenzel’s perfect illustrations.

“I’d love to hear you read it,” I said. And so, he began:

“’Life begins small. Even for the elephants. Then it grows…’”

He read every word of it with great expression, stopping at times to turn the book around to let me see the illustrations. When he finished, we took a moment to savor together the joy of a good book well read.

He said he also read it to his brother and sister and they loved it, too. Elle is 5. Wiley is 7. Elle liked the baby elephant. Wiley liked the snake in the grass.

“What’s your favorite part of the book?” I said.

He thought about it, then nodded. “Remember how it says, ‘Life is not always easy,’ then it shows a wilderness?”

“Yes,” I said, “I remember.”

“Well, after the wilderness, it shows a sunny day and it says ….” Opening the book, he turned to find the page, then read once again: “‘But wilderness eventually ends. And there is always a new road to take.’”

Closing the book, he smiled. “The sunny day,” he said, “that’s my favorite part.”

“Mine, too,” I said, laughing, “but why do you like it?”

His smile faded, making him look somehow older, and I saw in his sweet face a tender boy who is wise beyond his years.

“I like it, Nana, because sometimes, you know, we get kind of…sad? And it helps to know there’s sunny days ahead.”

I pictured my grandmothers smiling down on us from above. I think they’d like Randy a lot.

In the wilderness of this pandemic, when the dark road seems never to end, I look into the eyes of my loved ones and see the light of a sunny day.

I hope you can see it, too.

“Packing up a Lifetime,” July 21, 2020

The fire started without warning, roaring like a ravenous lion through tinderbox brush in the canyon below our house. It was late afternoon, a beautiful day. Doors were open to catch the breeze blowing in from the coast. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of something decent to fix for dinner, when my phone rang.

It was Henry, my 8-year-old grandson, who lives nearby.

“Hey, my darlin’!” I said.

“Nana!” he shouted, the way he always does when he’s got something big to tell me, “are you and Papa Mark OK? Mom and I can see a huge cloud of smoke! And it looks like it’s burning by your house!”

I took a breath and noticed a faint smell of … smoke?

“Thanks for thinking of us,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’s probably not as close as it looks. I’ll check and call you back.”

“Hurry, Nana!” he said.

When I stepped out on the patio, my heart begin to pound. At the bottom of the canyon, clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky. Then, I saw flames licking up through the trees.

My husband was in the garage.

“Fire!” I shouted, as I ran past him to the driveway to get a better look. He ran after me and for a moment we stood there together, staring at what could be the end of a home we loved and a lifetime of treasures.

“I’ll back the car out,” he said. “Go get what you want to take and let’s pack up.”

I looked down the hill and saw a neighbor, whose house was even closer to the flames than ours, loading up his truck. I waved. He waved back. Then he came up the hill to make sure we knew about the fire.

The next minutes passed in a blur. Never in my life have I been so glad to hear sirens and see tanker planes and a helicopter circling overhead.

I’ve always had great respect for those who risk their lives running toward danger so the rest of us can run to safety. But I had never felt that respect quite as deeply or as personally as I felt it at that moment.

I said a quick prayer for safety for everyone, then ran inside to pack. What do you take when there’s no time to be picky and not much room in your car?

We moved to this valley just over a year ago, knowing it was, like most of California, a high risk for wildfire. Last summer we packed “emergency bags” with clothes and necessities to keep on hand if, God forbid, we ever had to run for our lives.

Where did I put mine? Not in the closet. In the garage? No, under the bed! I dragged it out and unzipped it to add anything else that might fit. A few family photos. A book I published 20 years ago. My laptop computer and a copy of my will. Odds and ends, pieces of my life.

As I packed up all that I could take, I felt painfully aware of all that I had to leave behind: The dining room table where my kids once did their homework. Paintings and photos and keepsakes that could never be replaced. My husband’s musical instruments. And more than 30 years of yellowed newspaper clippings of my work.

I grabbed my wedding ring off the bathroom counter, slipped it on my finger and told myself, “Take what you can, leave the rest, all that matters is life.”

So I picked up my bag and walked out of my house for what I knew might be the last time.

And then, I was given a gift, a finer ending to a story that could’ve been a tragedy. While my husband and I and our neighbors were packing up our lives, the firefighters, God bless them, had fought back the blaze.

The tankers were still circling. But the flames were gone. And the smoke was slowly clearing.

Only a few things remained for us to do: Breathe a sigh of relief. Be forever thankful. Unpack the car. And tell all our loved ones (and anyone else who might care) not to worry, the fire was out and we were fine, thanks.

I called Henry first.

“Signs of Life,” July 14, 2020

Somedays, when I’m feeling low, wishing the world were a better place than it seems at times, I tell myself that I’m alive and the best is yet to come.

I say that not because I have breath and a heartbeat, though both help. But life is a lot more than what goes on inside of us.

Look around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Who do you love? What do you know to be true?

Signs of life are all around us, like billboards on a freeway pointing the way when we feel lost. Here are a few of mine:

Some mornings, my husband brings me coffee, creamy and sweet, just the way I like it. I take a sip and taste both the bittersweetness of the brew and the steadfastness of the love that has placed it in my hands.

Through a window, I watch purple fronds of salvia wave like banners in the wind. A hawk glides on the currents, looking for something to kill. A deer hops the fence on the patio. I clap my hands. It hops back out. In the distance, a neighbor’s dog barks like it means business.

I spend an hour reading emails and messages on Facebook and my website. Family and friends send their love. Readers (friends I’ve yet to meet) write to confirm what life and work have taught me, that we are all more alike than different, and we are all in this same leaky boat together.

I call my brother and listen, for the umpteenth time, to his recording on his voice mail. He’ll call back when he’s good and ready. Then I call my sister and talk for half an hour about everything and nothing. We always talk about the same things, my brother and sister and I, but we’re the oldest survivors of our immediate family, and for me, it’s a sign of life just to hear their voices.

Clicking off the call, I notice a new video of my 14-month-old grandson. He’s playing peek-a-boo for the camera. Thanks to videos, I’ve watched him taking his first steps, saying his first words and belly-laughing at his mama and daddy. My mother would’ve have lived ten years longer to see videos like that.

In the afternoon, I take a drive to visit my kids and grandkids nearby. Nobody’s home at Henry’s house. But at the next stop, Wiley and Eleanor run out to hug me. I’m wearing a mask, but they know I’m grinning like a mule eating briars.

Driving home, I listen to a CD my husband recorded with his music buddies. It includes a song he wrote for me. I like all the songs (even the ones about other women) but I like my song best. I wish you could hear it.

For dinner, I make a salad of fresh produce that’s delivered each week to our door: Gem lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, basil and a handful of strawberries. I add some leftover chicken and toss it with a simple dressing. It’s two of my favorite things, easy and good. Just the taste of it reminds me I’m alive.

After dinner, my husband and I go outside for a “sunset ritual,” watching the sun bed down in a blanket of fog on the coast.

Most people like to see the sun set. They’ll flock to a beach to snap a quick selfie as the sun sinks into the ocean. But here’s a little known secret. Sometimes the sun saves the best for last, painting heaven’s doorstep with the most spectacular display, long after most folks have given up and gone home. I’ve seen that happen countless times. I’ll bet you’ve seen it, too.

Years ago, on one of the darkest days of my life, I decided sunsets are God’s way of telling us, “You’re alive. Be thankful. Don’t despair. The best is yet to come.”

The sun rises every morning and the old world becomes new. But the best shows up time after time when we least expect it. It’s worth waking up to watch for it.

What are your signs of life?

“A Freeway to Freedom,” July 7, 2020

Few things are as terrifying as driving for hours on a freeway surrounded by bumper-to-bumper bats out of hell.

I was headed home after spending a week visiting my son and his wife and their little guy in Northern California. I expected traffic, but not like this. My car’s GPS kept trying to reroute me, dumping me on side roads that were even worse.

Sometimes, when we try to get around a problem, we realize that there is no getting around it. The best we can do is just sit back and try to enjoy the ride.

That is what I did. For seven hours. With one stop for gas and a bathroom break. Followed by 10 minutes of handwashing and sanitizing everything I touched.

I can’t say I enjoyed the ride, but it gave me time to think, and my mind seized on something I keep trying to understand.

It’s called fear. Maybe you’re trying to understand it, too?

When I was a child, my mother would say, “You have to learn to watch for danger or it will sneak up on you!”

I wasn’t sure what kind of danger she meant, but I didn’t want it to sneak up on me. I got really good at watching for it. Especially after I became a mother. My kids would tell their friends, “What’s the safest thing in the world? Our mom will tell you 20 ways it can kill you!”

I learned from the best. Like my mother, or any good parent, I watched for danger and tried really hard, like Wonder Mama, to shield my children from it.

I still do. Now they do it for their children. And I help.

Here’s the thing I don’t quite understand: How do we watch for danger, and try to prevent it, without living in fear of it? Watching for it is wise. But fearing it robs us of joy. And peace. And sleep. And health. And a whole lot of good times.

In 2001, on 9/11, when terrorist attacks took the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, I feared the possibility of another attack. For a while, that fear — of something that was merely possible, not a reality — changed how I lived. I let it steal my freedom and my peace of mind.

But in time, I realized that the goal of terrorism is not just to kill. It also aims to terrorize, to force us to live in a prison of fear, not in the kind of freedom we love.

My mother was right. We need to watch for danger. But every moment we spend fearing what “might” happen tomorrow is a moment we will miss seeing the beauty and reality of today.

After 9/11, I began to pray that I would learn to live unafraid. That was nearly 20 years ago. I’m still learning.

Like you, I’ve known other terrors in my lifetime: The Cuban Missile Crisis, when my friends and I left school sobbing, certain we’d be annihilated that night; the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that lasted the longest 15 seconds of my life; and the day my first husband finally lost his four-year battle with cancer.

Now we’re facing a pandemic, an invisible terror that’s already taken far more lives than 9/11.

Last week I watched how my 14-month-old grandson lives free and unafraid. Jonah wakes up each day ready to conquer the world, eager to do all that his mom and dad can do, open any door, empty any cabinet, dance on the table, bang his head falling down and clap his hands for every success.

We should all be so blessed to live like that. Thankfully, Jonah’s parents (and his nana) watch for danger and try to shield him from it. He will learn to watch for it, too. But I pray that he will never live in fear.

Here’s what I realized on my seven-hour drive: I can’t always choose what happens in my life. I can only choose how I live.

I’ll watch for danger and take precautions — wearing a mask and social distancing and avoiding crowds — if need be.

But with God’s grace, I hope to dwell in the joy of today, not in the fear of tomorrow. I want to stay alive, and to be alive, body and soul.

Like Jonah, we’re all born to live free and unafraid.

“Call Me Mamanana,” June 30, 2020

Children don’t stay children forever. They grow up and move on with their lives. That is as it should be. But when do mothers stop being mothers?

My kids have been grown and on their own for more years than either I or they care to admit. All three are married with children of their own and manage quite well without me.

Changing roles from “mama” to “nana” has been the best job promotion I could hope for — all the joy without any of the work. And while my grown children always make me feel loved and appreciated, my grandchildren make me feel like a rock star.

I like being my grandkids’ rockstar nana. I’m happy to leave the parenting to their parents. But I can’t quite seem to stop being a mom to my grown kids. For example:

_ It’s hard for me to go more than a few days (certainly no more than a week) without hearing from each one of them. In person. And at length. For at least 20 minutes, but preferably longer. If they don’t call me, I will track them down.

_ Yes, they’re grown, but I still need to hug them often and smell the backs of their necks. They don’t mind the hugs, but the neck sniffing drives them crazy. Too bad, I don’t care.

_ At times, I might offer them a bit of unsolicited advice, but it is always well-intentioned, and in most cases, ignored.

_ I love to tell hilarious stories about things they did when they were growing up. I can do this until the cows come home, or until the kids make me stop. I think they like hearing those stories, even if they insist they aren’t true. Which they are.

Those are only a few of the ways I still tend to act like a mom. Maybe most moms do those things. But here’s one that might seem a bit odd: I need to see every corner of every room of every place they’ve ever lived.

I’m not sure why. It’s not an inspection. It’s more like a familiarization. I just can’t quite rest until I can picture them in their new surroundings.

To do this, I have traveled near and far, across town and across country, to New York or Montana or Los Angeles, any place they’ve called home.

Today, I drove six long hours to spend a few days with my oldest and his wife and their 14-month-old, Jonah, in their new home in Northern California. We FaceTime often, but it had been a few months since our last real visit. I was hoping Jonah would recognize me as the nana who lives in his dad’s iPhone.

He did. But not at first. He took a while to warm up to me. Meanwhile, his mom and dad gave me a tour of the new place. I checked out every corner of every room. It was perfect. Then we sat in the yard and watched Jonah run barefoot in the grass.

We were eating pizza in the dining room when Jonah finally grinned, pointed to me and said the magic word: “Nana!”

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Somehow, it made that six-hour drive seem a lot shorter.

After dinner, Jonah took me in his play room and kept handing me books, one after another, begging me to read to him.

Watching him in action, with his golden hair shining like cornsilks in the sun, I thought once again, as I’ve done so often since he was born, how very much he looks like his dad.

Suddenly, I realized another reason why I love being a nana. Looking at my grandchildren, I can see, not only them, but the children I knew long ago: A cornsilk-haired toddler who begged me to read; a little girl in long braids who picked fistfuls of flowers just for me from the neighbor’s yard; and a blue-eyed boy who loved to catch lizards and hide them in my purse.

My grandchildren, God bless them, are giving me back my children. I am “mamanana.” It’s one great job with the joy of both and none of the work.

“Comforting a Friend in Loss,” June 23, 2020

(NOTE: I’m on vacation this week. The following often requested column is from October of 2006.)

What do you say to someone who has just lost the love of her life? How can you offer hope when all she sees is despair?

I often hear from readers who are grieving the loss of a loved one. They write to me about their loss, as I’ve often written about mine in this column in the years since my first husband died of cancer.

To hear their stories and share in their grief is an honor and a gift. I’ve had thousands of such letters over the years and have tried, with limited success, to answer as best I can.

Some things don’t get easier with practice. Loss still hurts, no matter how many times we suffer it. And finding the right words to offer comfort is never easy. I’d rather send a casserole than write a note, but I’m not great at casseroles either.

What I have learned is this: If we use our loss to help others, it can turn tragedy into gain. So we try. I recently heard from a woman who had lost her husband of 34 years and wanted to know how I “got through it”? Here, more or less, is the reply:

Dear “Sarah,”
I am sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how you must feel. Every loss is different — as unique as the one who suffers it. I can’t tell you what to do or how to heal. You’ll decide that for yourself. You’re the only one who can. But I’ll tell you a few things that helped me, and hope they’re of use to you, too.

First, let me say this: You are stronger than you know. You have all the strength you need. It’s in yourself, your family, your friends and your God.

It’s like the air around you; you aren’t aware of it until you need it. Just remember to “breathe.”

Second, as Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” This is your season to grieve. Allow yourself to be there. If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like laughing, laugh. If you feel like screaming, put your face in a pillow (so the neighbors won’t call 911) and scream away. Do what feels right to you.

My sister hates winter. She’d much rather lie on a beach in a bikini than bundle up in a parka in the snow. But in winter, she doesn’t try to tell herself she’s got no right to feel cold. It’s natural to feel cold in winter, just as it is to feel sad in grief. Do as my sister does — bundle up and pray hard for spring.

How long will you have to wait for the “spring thaw”? I can’t answer that. It takes as long as it takes. Pay attention to your heart and trust it to lead you. It’s a good heart. It’s broken, but it will mend.

Of all the advice I heard after my husband died, two things in particular made sense to me. The first was from a reader who told me to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom to make it look different — to make it my own. I did and it helped.

(Note: Moving furniture is like prayer; good for the soul but hard on the knees. Trust me. Do not try to move a king-sized bed and a double dresser alone.)

The other advice came from a friend: “The challenge for you now,” he wrote, “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.”

It is a challenge — one of the toughest you’ll ever face — to move forward with your life when you still long for the life you had. The reality, of course, is that you can’t go back. You can either stay where you are in a season of grief; or step out in faith to honor your husband’s memory and choose to be alive for whatever lies ahead.

You’ll make that choice when you’re ready. I made that choice many years ago, and I still make it every day.

Here’s wishing you grace and peace.