“Graduation,” June 4, 2019

Every spring, as graduation season draws near, I polish up my speech and wait to be asked to share a few words of wisdom.

Sometimes it’s a long wait. I’ve spoken at quite a few high school commencements, but was never asked to speak at my kids’ ceremonies. It wasn’t that they feared I’d embarrass them. They were used to that. Maybe they just didn’t want to sit in the hot sun in a black cap and gown listening to the same old advice they’d been ignoring for years.

My high school graduation was a long time ago. Never mind how long. I don’t recall any of the speeches, not even the one I gave. People said they liked it because it was short.

I’m sure it included some sort of advice. We love to give it, and it’s cheaper than buying a gift. But what could it have been? Wisdom comes with age. At 18, my life had just begun, and I was dumb as a box of rocks.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot of the things that my grandparents and parents tried to teach me, but I had to learn them on my own.

My best teachers were my children. I earned a master’s degree in motherhood, and I’m now working on a Nana PhD.

Some years ago, in a commencement speech that I also summarized in a column, I offered the following advice that I’d collected from family and friends and readers and life:

1.When you meet people, smile, shake hands and ask about their mother, and they might say nice things about you at your funeral.

2. If you’re going to tell a lie, tell one people will believe. That way you’ll only be known as a liar and not a lying fool.

3. Take care of living things; feed your animals, tend your garden, be kind to children, old people and everyone between.

4. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People forgive ignorance but they never forget a phony.

5. Practice what you preach, or don’t preach at all. It’s better to be a heathen than a hypocrite.

6. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh.

7. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize. Always say please, thank you and I love you. And never forget to count your blessings, especially if it’s hard to remember what they are.

8. Avoid altercations in the heat of anger. Bear in mind, in some states, “the fool needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

9. If you have to swallow a frog, don’t look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; and if you have to swallow two frogs, go for the big one first.

10. Never say anything behind someone’s back that you won’t say face to face. They’re sure to hear of it, unless they’re dead. And never speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve got it coming.

11. Don’t start doing anything you don’t want to keep doing forever. And don’t bother to finish what shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

12. Never try to teach a snake not to bite; it’s a waste of time and you’ll end up getting bit.

13. Seek first to understand and last to be understood. Ask excellent questions and listen closely to the answers.

14. Show up, be on time, be prepared and follow through. Let your wealth be the gold that others see clearly in your words and your heart and your deeds.

15. Finally, lead an interesting life. You have your dad’s eyes and your mom’s smile, but your life is all your own. Do what you want. Follow your heart. Call your nana every Sunday.

That’s my graduation speech. I always end it in the same way I’ll end this column by saying this:

If you think the world is in such a mess that you can’t change it, think again. This is your time to shine. It goes fast. Don’t waste it. Make yourself proud. Shine like the sun and the moon and all the stars in heaven above.

Old folks say,”What’s this world coming to?” Tell them not to worry. It’s coming to you.

Thank you for listening. Yes, this is your gift.

“A Boy and a Bench,” May 28, 2019

There he sat, dangling his feet, my favorite grandson (they are all my favorites) on my favorite bench, taking his own sweet time to put on his shoes.

Wiley had just spent the night at our house. He had chased lizards with Papa Mark. Read books with me. And eaten more French toast than any 6-year-old ought to be able to hold. It was time to go, but he didn’t want to leave yet. He missed his mom and dad and big brother and even his bossy kid sister. Actually, he missed her a lot.

But there were more lizards to chase. More books to read. More time to enjoy having us entirely to himself. And half a bag of cookies out in the kitchen.

When I said it was time to go, he didn’t argue. He’s good that way. But as he sat on the bench and began to pull on his shoes, his smile faded and the room grew dim. Suddenly he looked at me and smiled once again.

“Are you happy my mom brought this back to you?” he said, patting the bench. It’s an old bench and a long story.

Some 30 years ago, a friend who was moving away said she wanted to give me a special gift: An antique wooden bench she had inherited from her family.

I loved that bench. I’d often admired it in her living room. It had a graceful curved back and hand turned spindles, one of which was missing, and it definitely showed its age. But somehow, just looking at it made me feel at home.

My friend was moving miles away to a smaller house with no room for it. I was stunned by her kindness. I told her I’d keep it until she wanted it back. No, she said, it was a gift, not a loan. Besides, she said, it looked like it felt at home with me.

We both cried. Over the years we lost touch, but I still think of her and pray for her, especially when I polish that bench.

It sat for two decades by the staircase in my living room. I hid the broken spindle with a pillow that was embroidered, “Home Sweet Home.”

Meanwhile, my life kept changing. I lost my husband to cancer. My children grew up and made me proud. When I remarried and moved from the coast to the desert, the bench went, too. It seemed a bit out of place in the desert, but for 12 years, it helped me feel at home.

Last year, when we moved back into the old house on the coast, I put the bench back by the stairs. As I stood there admiring it, I laughed. We’d been through a lot together, that old bench and I. Maybe we were both stronger than we looked?

Two months ago, my husband and I moved again, downsizing to a smaller house with great views and no stairs. I had to get rid of more stuff than I kept. Including the bench. I offered it to my kids. No one had room. So my daughter-in-law agreed to sell it for me. I told myself we’d give the money to some good cause.

Letting go is always hard, but it frees our hands and opens our hearts to embrace the gifts life is waiting to give us.

On Mother’s day, soon after we moved in, my son and his wife and their three children brought me a gift. My daughter-in-law had noticed a bare spot in our new home where the bench would fit and look great. So instead of selling it, she had someone carve and replace a perfectly matched spindle and repair a crack in one of the legs.

When she and my son carried it into our dining room, Wiley and his brother and sister beamed with pride. And I cried.

That’s why Wiley asked me today, “Are you happy my mom brought this back to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It made me so happy! Your mom is such a kind and thoughtful person.”

“I know,” he said, pulling on a shoe. “I love her so much.”

And, for a moment, I thought I saw that old bench smile.

“Writing in the Dark,” May 21, 2019

What do you do if the power goes off? Me? I don’t do much.

My husband was working, playing his bass in a band at a party for people we didn’t know. I stayed home to write a column. But first I washed my hair. Clean hair helps me think. So I washed and dried and de-frizzed it with a flat iron hot enough to split an atom. Why does hair always look better if it knows you’re not going out?

When I sat down to start writing, I realized it was 6 p.m., time for Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Finals with the Portland Trailblazers, a team I admire, and the Golden State Warriors, the team I love.

My husband, also a diehard Warrior fan, sets games to record if he won’t be home. Did he remember to record it? To check, I turned on the TV and tried changing channels.

Here’s a confession. I barely know how to work our TV. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I seldom watch it without my husband, and if he’s home, the remote is glued to his hand. But surely I could set it to record the game. How hard could it be?

So I started fiddling with the remote, switching channels back and forth and getting nowhere.

Then a funny thing happened. Everything quit. The TV. The remote. The Wi-Fi. Even the lamp. What did I do wrong?

Wait. The lamp? I tried some other lights. Nothing worked. Hah! The power was off! I was so relieved to think I didn’t break the TV I did a little victory dance. But why did the power shut off while I was fooling with the remote? Did I maybe, like, overload a circuit?

We had recently moved to a new place. I could barely find the bathroom, let alone the circuit breaker thingamajig. Even if I found it, could I fix it without risking electrocution or setting my hair on fire?

It was getting dark. Raining hard. My cell phone was nearly dead. The nearest neighbor wasn’t near. And we didn’t have a land line because my husband had insisted we’d never need it.

So I called him on my nearly dead phone. To my surprise, he answered. The band was on a break. I heard laughter. Folks were having a good time.

“Our power’s out,” I said, “and my phone is almost dead and I thought you ought to know in case you want to call me.”

He didn’t want to call. He just wanted to play his bass. No surprise there. I knew he was a musician when I married him.

He told me he’d gotten a text from the power company saying our power would be off until 10 p.m., about the time he’d get home. His big concern was if the TV was recording the game. He was also concerned for me, of course. He’d have said so, no doubt, if my phone hadn’t died.

Suddenly, my survival instinct kicked in. I found candles, but no matches. A big sweater and fuzzy socks. And a flashlight that worked, hallelujah, so I could maybe find the bathroom.

What would I eat? We had half a loaf of banana bread. And a stick of butter. I wouldn’t starve.

And what exactly would I do for four hours in the dark? I looked at my laptop. The battery was charged, good to go. So I decided to write this column. But first, I took a few moments to sit alone in a dark house, listening to rain and watching a neon sunset light up the clouds.

I thought about my sister, who lost power for five days in a blizzard and didn’t miss heat as much as she missed her TV.

And about my brother, who is blind and has lived his life in the dark, bearing every burden by turning his face to the light.

Somehow I didn’t feel alone any more. And I began to write.

Our power finally came back on. My husband got home early. The TV recorded the game and we watched it. The Warriors won. My hair was clean. And the column was almost finished.

When life seems hard, it helps to count our blessings, knowing it could always be harder, and that for some, it’s never easy.

“An Unlikely Reminder,” May 14, 2019

Someone sent me an email about a gas station in South Africa, where the owner posts daily “inspirational” quotes on a chalkboard in plain view of customers and passing drivers.

The email included some of the quotes, such as:

_ “It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd that’s going in the wrong direction.”

_ “When you forgive, you heal. When you let go, you grow.”

_ “I am a woman. What’s your superpower?”

_ “If you had to choose between drinking wine every day and being skinny, what would you choose? Red or white?”

_ “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Most of the quotes were thought provoking, even the funny ones. OK, especially the funny ones. But one quote was, for me, an entirely new thought: “Be who you needed when you were young.”

What does that mean? Is it suggesting we should be the kind of person we needed when we were young — for ourselves? Or that we should do it for our children and grandchildren and other young people we meet?

Maybe we should do it for all of us, young and old alike?

Here’s another question. Do you think it’s possible that the kind of person we needed when we were young is also the kind of person we’re meant to be?

Perhaps you’re wondering, with all the problems in the world, why would I choose to give so much thought to a quote from a gas station chalkboard?

I wonder that, too. But it’s not really a choice. Sometimes when my train of thought leaves the station, I just have to jump on board and see where it takes me. I’ve been riding this train for days, thinking about a person I needed when I was young.

My mother worked shifts at a mill, had four children, eight sisters, a demanding mother and little time for friends. But one day when I was 12, I came home from school and found her on the porch sipping sweet iced tea with the prettiest lady I had ever seen.

“Hello, child!” said the woman, cupping my face in her hands as my mother introduced us. I was hopelessly smitten.

Her name was May, a perfect name for someone as lovely and warm as the finest day of spring. Short dark hair, curled just so. Red lipstick. Brown eyes that lit up like fireworks when she smiled. And she smiled a lot, it seemed, especially at me.

She was my mother’s friend, but she became what I needed: A role model, a confidante and a grownup friend whose wise counsel I could always trust.

In the next few years, I spent as much time as I possibly could with May, sometimes overnight at her home, talking, laughing, crying, whatever, just being together. I told her everything, all the things I feared, all the things I hoped for and especially all the things I didn’t know.

I watched her the way a cat watches a butterfly. How she listened and encouraged and never spoke ill of anyone, even if they had it coming. How she was always compassionate and kind, not just to me, but to everyone, even strangers.

She was a woman of faith and grace and integrity, with a quick wit and a grand sense of humor.

I wanted to be just like her.

After I left home for college, May moved away and I never heard from her again. Years later, when I tried to reconnect, I was shocked to learn that she had died. I had been so sure that she would live forever. I don’t know if I told her how much she meant to me. I hope so.

How many souls do you think leave this world never knowing what they meant to someone?

Sometimes the best reminders come from unlikely places. Thanks to a quote from a gas station chalkboard, I thought of my friend May, someone I needed when I was young and still hope to be just like.

We don’t always mirror people we admire. But remembering them reminds us to keep trying.

“My One and Only Mama,” May 7, 2019

Recently I heard a joke that seems fitting for Mother’s Day. I would gladly cite the source, but I don’t recall where I heard it, just as I often don’t recall where I left the glasses that are sitting on my head. Here’s the joke:

During an exam to become a police officer, a young recruit was asked how he would respond if, in the line of duty, it became necessary for him to arrest his own mother.

The young man fell silent trying to imagine something so utterly unimaginable. Finally, he nodded and replied.

“If I had to arrest my mother,” he said, “the first thing I’d do is call for back-up.”

If you’re laughing, chances are you were blessed, as I was, to be raised by a formidable woman. The New Oxford American Dictionary on my laptop defines “formidable” as: “Inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable.”

The qualities in that definition fit my mother like an iron glove. She was not large physically, but to me, she was larger than life. She was also powerful, intense and extremely capable, not to mention insufferably stubborn.

She surely inspired fear and respect. I personally never dared to disrespect her, but my sister did. Once. She promptly learned never to do it again.

Having told you that, I will tell you this. Years ago for Mother’s Day, I wrote a column about all the women in my life who had been like a mother to me. I included my grandmothers, my aunts, a few teachers and Sunday school teachers, my mother-in-law and several mothers of my friends.

I called it “Mamas I Have Known and Loved.” My intentions were good. I meant no disrespect to my mother, and didn’t expect it to be a problem. The column was syndicated, but not in my hometown. I told myself there was no way she’d ever read a word of it.

That was not the first time I underestimated her, or made the mistake of doing something thinking I’d not get caught.

As fate would have it, someone was kind enough to mail that column to one of the mamas I had mentioned in it; who was kind enough to share it with my mother; who was kind enough, barely, not to kill me.

Imagine my surprise when I phoned, totally unsuspecting, to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Instead of “Hello,” she said, “I read what you wrote and all I can say is you need a few more mamas who aren’t me!”

Then she slammed the phone.

As with other disappointments in life, she took time to get over it. But she did. She always did. Forgiveness ranks high among all the skills needed for being a mother. It might be number 1. We never spoke of it again.

Years later, at the end of her battle with lung cancer, I spent three days at her bedside in the hospital. I sang to her hymns we had sung in church and songs she had sung with her sisters on the porch. I read passages to her from the Bible and told her stories that would have made her laugh, if not for the pain meds that made her sleep.

On the third day — the last day of her life — when my sister insisted I had to leave the hospital long enough to take a shower, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to go. But something made me look back.

She was sleeping peacefully. I went over to her bedside, leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Mama?” I said. “You’re my one and only mama. The only one I’ll ever have or want.”

Her eyes fluttered open and she gave me a look as if I had said something that made no sense, like peaches don’t have fuzz. It was a look I’d often seen from her over the years, but would never see again this side of Forever.

“That’s right,” she said, pointing her finger at my nose, “I’m your one and only mama. And don’t you forget it.”

I have never forgotten it. And I never will.

Especially — but not only — on Mother’s Day.

“The Nana Song,” April 30, 2019

Nothing has made me feel quite as close to God as holding a newborn fresh from heaven. I’ve felt it with every newborn I’ve ever held — with my nieces and nephews and the offspring of friends — but especially with my own three, and now, with my grandchildren.

There is something about an infant — all that helplessness and innocence and holiness — that calls upon the better angels of our nature to make us, at once, gentler and fiercer than we ever dreamed we could be.

As a child, I decided I would never intentionally harm any living being (with the exception of snakes, mosquitos and a certain rooster I abhorred), not even to spare my own life.

That changed in a heartbeat the moment I held my firstborn and smoothed his furrowed brow. I realized I’d do anything to protect him — kill with my bare hands, if need be. I was his mother. I would be fierce.

And I was not alone. I’ve known countless peace-loving women and men who’ve felt that fierceness in their souls at the birth or adoption or any sense of responsibility for any child.

It doesn’t dim with age. An old woman might let you give her your seat on a bus. But if you threaten a child, God help you. It’s why old people carry canes.

In our big, blended family, my husband and I share nine adult children (his two, my three, plus four of their spouses) and eight grandchildren, ages 8 to zero.

Jonah is our newest, barely two weeks old, the firstborn of my firstborn and his wife. I couldn’t wait to meet him. So I flew to Los Angeles, and was met at the airport by Jonah’s proud dad, who was grinning ear to ear. We hugged until I stopped crying. Then we drove to their home to meet Jonah.

First, I scrubbed my hands free of germs. Then I hugged Jonah’s mom. Finally I sat down and held my breath as she placed the boy in my arms.

I wish you could see him.

He looks a lot like his dad — big hands, furrowed brow and an ironclad grip on my thumb. He also has his mama’s almond eyes and heart-shaped face. But mostly he looks like Jonah.

I checked him out head to toe, smoothed the furrows from his brow and watched him grow still as he studied my face.

He seemed to like me.

So I went to work whispering in his ear things I’ve taught his cousins. For example:

1. How much does your nana love you? All. (That’s as much as anyone can possibly love.)

2. What do you do if you want something your parents won’t get for you? Call your nana.

3. Where is your nana when you can’t see her? In your heart.

I told him, of all the babies in Heaven and all the parents on Earth, God chose him and his mom and dad as the perfect match, along with their families, to be one big family together, to stand by him and keep him safe and watch him grow up to be the fine man he’s meant to be.

Then I sang for him a lullaby I once sang for his dad: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word….” It put him right to sleep.

It put me to sleep, too. For four days (if he wasn’t nursing, which he usually was) I held Jonah, and he held my heart.

Finally, I did the hardest thing to do with those we love: I said goodbye until next time, weeks away. He’s growing so fast he might be shaving by then. But it helped to know I was leaving him in the best possible hands.

Flying home, I nodded off until I heard someone snoring. I looked around. It was me. Here is the song it brought to mind:

I am Nana. Hear me snore. I hold the babies of my babies and teach them stuff they need to know. I sing them lullabies off-key, smooth their furrowed brows and pray for their very best. I’m not as young as I once was, but I am still fierce. And I plan to live forever in their hearts.

“A Smile Is Good Medicine,” April 23, 2019

It was a quick stop at the market at 5 p.m. — yes, the worst time of day to shop — to pick up a few essentials: Cream for coffee, eggs for breakfast and Advil for my splitting headache.

I’d been rushing all day, running errands, checking things off a lengthy to-do list. I did not want to play Demolition Derby with throngs of other weary shoppers. But I told myself it was my last stop before going home to put my feet up and watch my husband make dinner. Maybe I’d buy some pesto. The man is half Italian. He loves pesto pasta.

So I scored a parking place in a green zone, grabbed a bag from the trunk and found a cart that was left on the curb. Then I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and dove into the fray.

It wasn’t quite as crowded as I expected. I stopped briefly to rummage through a bucket of sunflowers and picked out the least wilted bunch. I can’t prove it, but something about sunflowers always seems to lower my blood pressure.

Next I grabbed a package of linguini and some pesto at the deli and moved on to the dairy aisle for eggs and cream.

That’s when I saw her. She was sitting in the seat of a shopping cart, padded all around with a blanket. She looked to be maybe 9 months old. Short blond curls. Blue eyes as big as hubcaps. Wearing a white lace dress with tights and shiny black shoes.

I would describe her mother, but I barely saw the young woman. I couldn’t take my eyes off the child. We stared at each other, she with her baby blues and I with my bloodshot browns. Then I did what I always do with children: I gave her my best smile. It looks a bit goofy, but it comes from my heart.

That’s a habit I formed long ago when I became a mother. Maybe I did it as a child, but I remember it best as a mom.

It started with my firstborn, in that unforgettable, life-changing moment when he was laid upon my chest and I watched him turn his tiny face up to find mine. I could not stop smiling at him. I still can’t.

At times, over the years, my smile would fade to a look of fear or worry or furious anger. But it never left my face for long. It always came back, even through tears.

It happened that same way with his sister and brother. Just to look at them lit me up like Christmas. It still does. And now, after all these years, I can’t stop smiling at their children.

But here is what I’ve learned: All children, young and old, need someone to smile at them. Not just their parents and grandparents, but their teachers and coaches, family and friends. And, yes, even strangers at the market in a rush to get home.

The toddler in the cart took her time deciding just what to make of my smile. But finally, she lit up like Christmas.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

I laughed and waved goodbye. And she blew me a kiss.

That put a lingering smile on my face that got a smile in return from every shopper I passed, even from a guy at the check out stand who got a call from his wife telling him not to get fish (it was already bagged) because she wanted to go out to eat.

I was still smiling when I got home and realized I’d forgotten to get Advil. Luckily, I didn’t need it. My headache was gone.

I don’t do everything right. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you. But I smile at children. And old people. And everyone between.

Almost always they smile back. And somehow, in that simple, magical, exchange of human pleasantry, this weary old world becomes a slightly better place.

Want to change the world? Try smiling. At children, young and old. At yourself in the mirror. At people you don’t like and strangers on the street.

Someone will smile back at you. I guarantee it.

If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll even blow you a kiss and make your headache go away.

“Easter, Old and New,” April 16, 2019

This is an Easter story. I’ve told parts of it before. But sometimes, to tell a new story, you need to repeat an old one.

A few days before Easter, when I was 4, God sent me a miracle that would break my heart, fill it with joy and teach me things I needed to know.

His name was Joe.

My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother took up with a man she hoped to marry. But when she became pregnant with his child, he left her, and we moved in with her parents.

Born premature, Joe spent almost two months in an incubator. After he was released from the hospital, my mother was told he had cerebral palsy and might never walk.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’ll teach him to walk.”

“Can you teach him to see?” she said. “He’s totally blind.”

“He can’t be blind,” I said. “He smiles at my face.”

“He smiles at your voice,” she said. “He’ll never see your face.”

I began praying for a miracle, asking God to give my brother eyes that could see. I prayed for years. It never happened.

I also tried to teach him to walk, but he was too stubborn to let me. He took his first steps when he was 5. My mother called it a miracle. But it was not the miracle I’d prayed for.

When I was 10, sitting in church on Palm Sunday with Joe by my side, I heard a preacher say the miracle of the resurrection was not a one-time event. Miracles happen every day, he said, if we believe in them, and expect them.

I looked over at Joe. He was grinning. I was sure I believed in miracles. But maybe I hadn’t expected one hard enough?

“Dear God,” I prayed, “I expect this Easter you’ll give my brother eyes that can see. Sorry I didn’t expect it sooner.”

I expected hard that week. Easter morning, I ran to the kitchen. Joe was patting the table trying to find his Easter basket. Still blind. I waved my hand in his face.

“Are you sure you can’t see?” I said. “I prayed for a miracle that God would give you eyes….”

“He did!” Joe said, swatting at my hand. “He gave me yours! Can you find my Easter basket?”

Over the years, I have prayed for all sorts of miracles. Answers have varied widely. Some were what I hoped for. Others weren’t even close, though they often proved to be what I needed. And for a few, well, I’m still waiting.

The miracle of prayer is not that it always grants what is asked for, but that it changes the one who prays. It turns our fears into hope, our doubts into faith, and our worries into peace.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, puts it far more simply. There are only, she says, three prayers. The first is “Help.” The second is “Thanks.” And the third is “Wow!”

I pray those three prayers often. Especially the first one. I keep asking for help, for myself, for my friends and loved ones, for my country and the world. Lord knows we need it.

Miracles happen everyday, not just at Easter. But this Easter — on a day that celebrates the greatest miracle of all — I’m praying for help, once again, for my brother. Not for his eyes this time. For his legs.

Four months ago, Joe broke his ankle and spent two months in a rehab facility. Since then, even with using a walker, it’s getting harder for him to walk.

“Sister,” he said recently when I phoned, “I’d sure appreciate you praying for my legs. They’re not working like they should.”

He fears most of all losing the independence he has fought to keep throughout his life.

“I’ll pray,” I said, “if you promise to call your doctor.”

Easter is an old story that becomes new each time it’s told, in every heart, young or old, that listens and believes and expects.

Here’s wishing you and yours an Easter filled with family and chocolate and miracles.

“Forever Friends,” April 9, 2019

Seeing her name in my inbox made me smile. Patricia and I grew up together. We were friends through high school, then went our separate ways to marry and raise our children thousands of miles apart.

We reconnected years ago at a high school reunion. I liked everything about her, except for the fact that she hadn’t aged a bit. Not that I’d hold it against her. We now email once in a while, the way we once passed notes in class, like this:

Pat: “Can you come to my house tomorrow after school?”
Me: “Will your mama be making chocolate pudding?”

I’m not saying we wrote those things. I’m just saying we would have if we’d thought of them.

I was happy to see her note, until I read the reason for it. She wrote to tell me that Thelma, one of our former classmates, had recently passed away.

I didn’t know Thelma well, but I surely remember her. There were only 80 or so in our senior class. When you grow up in a small town, spending 12 years in a small school with the same 80 classmates, you get to know and be known by everybody and their cousins. You don’t have to know them well to “know” them, and to feel a kinship for them.

I once interviewed the late Pat Conroy after he wrote “Prince of Tides.” When he realized we both were Southerners, he said people who grow up in the same place know a lot about each other even if they’ve never met.

“Girl?” he said. “We’ve just met, but I know things about you not everyone would know.”

That’s what I felt for Thelma, not a close friendship, but a kinship. We were classmates and I took her loss personally. But she and Patricia were close.

“I will miss her!” Patricia wrote. “She always made time to call and check on me. She was a sweet friend.”

I wrote back to say I was sorry to hear about Thelma. I added that I treasure the friendship Patricia and I shared when we were young, and that I’ll always think of her, just as she thinks of Thelma, as a “sweet friend.”

That prompted an exhange of childhood memories. Patricia remembered coming to my house to talk for hours. I remembered going to her house to eat chocolate pudding.

We could’ve traded memories for days, but we said goodbye and signed off until next time.

Afterwards, I gave thanks for Thelma’s life, and asked for God’s blessings on her family. Then I spent some time thinking about friendship.

I am not what you’d call a good friend. Ask my friends. They’ll tell you. I want to be a great friend, and I try to be one sometimes. But in friendship as in life, good intentions and a C-minus effort are not enough. Friends like Thelma and Pat take time to stay in touch.

Over the years, I have known and loved and lost touch with people because I didn’t call or write or spend time with them. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I can’t defend it. It’s not that I didn’t care about them. I’d say it’s because I’m busy with work and family — my husband, our five children and their others, plus seven grandchildren, with number 8 due any day.

But I know people with bigger families and jobs, who are a lot busier than I am, and they still make time to be a friend.

Lucky for me, I have big-hearted friends who know I’m not good at staying in touch, but seem to like me anyway.

I like those people a lot. I may not see them often. But when we connect — in person or by phone or with a quick note — we pick up where we left off, and it feels, at least to me, as if we have never been apart.

It’s a forever kind of friendship that lasts, no matter how many miles come between us or how much time we spend apart. We share an unspoken vow to see (or phone or write) each other “soon.” And if, God forbid, it doesn’t happen in this life?

We’ll look for each other on the porch in heaven in a section reserved for “Forever Friends.”

“Coincidence? Maybe Not,” April 2, 2019

Do you believe in coincidence? I like to think things happen for a reason, even if I don’t know the reason. Take that strange thing I saw on the mountain.

Recently we moved to Carmel Valley, Calif., to a small house with a big view of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

I wish you could see them.

Last week, I was sitting in my new living room, checking out the view — the horse farm across the valley, the clouds rolling in from the coast, the buzzards circling overhead — when suddenly I spotted it.

On a faraway ridge, something stood alone and tall. I grabbed the binoculars and focused on what looked like a lighthouse.

“Look at that,” I said, handing the binoculars to my husband, “what do you think it is?”

He stared for a bit and said, “I think it’s a fire lookout tower.”

A fire tower? Like the one I once climbed? I knew he was right. He always is. But I wanted more proof. An hour’s search online gave me the following:

The Sid Ormsbee Fire Lookout was built in 1948, in what is now the Santa Lucia Preserve, on a ridge that rises more than 2,000 feet above Carmel Valley.

It is named for 2nd Lt. Sidney C. Ormsbee, a 26-year-old forest ranger from Capitola, who died in 1943, when his plane was shot down on a bombing mission in World War II.

No longer used for fire observation, the site is equipped with a telecommunications tower for emergency transmissions for firefighters battling blazes in the area.

That’s a short version of Sid Ormsbee’s story. This is mine: Long ago, when I was a teenager in the Carolinas, with no clue of what to do with my life, I went for a ride with some friends and ended up at an old abandoned fire tower.

I remember standing on the ground, looking up to where the tower disappeared in the clouds. Somebody (not I) said, “Let’s climb this thing.” So we did.

We climbed for what felt like forever, rung by rung, never daring to look down. When my friend reached the platform, he yelled, “Dang! It’s locked!”

We clung there for a while, holding on for dear life, feeling the tower sway in the wind. After a bit, I opened my eyes and looked down at the silent, glorious world below. I felt a sense of peace and joy unlike any I’d ever known. And I said to myself, “I can do this. I can be a ranger in a lookout tower.”

That became my goal in life for several years. Then I went off to college. After college, I moved to California, married, and had three babies. And at some point, I realized I would never want to spend my life alone in a tower without the people I love.

So I gave up my dream of living alone in a tower. Instead, I learned to find peace and joy, not in isolation, but in a crazy, frantic thing called life.

I thought about all of that this week, sitting in my living room, looking out at that tower and giving thanks for a young man who gave his life for his country.

Here are ways our stories are alike: Sid Ormsbee and my dad were born on opposite coasts in the spring of 1916. Sid played basketball at Santa Cruz High, where 40 years later, I would keep score for the visiting team from Monterey. In 1941, both men enlisted in WWII. Both served in Northern Africa and Italy. Ormsbee’s plane was shot down on the eve of my mother’s 18th birthday. The tower that bears his name, and that I see from my living room window, was built the year I was born.

Coincidences? Probably. All I know is, after so many years, I finally have my own lookout tower. And I don’t have to climb it to enjoy the view, or to feel the peace and joy it brings me.

A coincidence may be nothing but chance. But sometimes, if you look closely, you might see an old dream coming true.