“Taking a Dream Vacation,” July 13, 2021

Summer is a good time to travel. As a child, I spent most summers roaming the Earth through the dog-eared pages of an encyclopedia. That’s how I first discovered faraway places like Casablanca and California.

Reading introduced me to the world. But I traveled on flights of imagination. I would close my eyes and recreate in my mind a photo of a place or work of art that had caught my eye. Then my mind would take wing and carry me away to imagine how it would feel to visit that place and see that image in reality.

I was especially fascinated by a photo of a statue that, according to the encyclopedia, had been carved hundreds of years ago by a man named Michelangelo. In my expert opinion (I was 10), it was a perfect rendering of the David I knew from the Bible.

I wish you could see it. If you haven’t seen The David, look it up. You can thank me later.

Not only was it a breathtaking piece of art. It was also the first image I’d ever encountered of a totally nude male. I wondered: Did my mother know what was in that encyclopedia? And would I get in trouble for staring at it?

The only real travel I did as a child was to spend a few weeks on my grandparents’ farm in the mountains of North Carolina, or a weekend at Myrtle Beach. But after college, I flew from the Carolinas to California—a place I had often visited in my dreams—to spend a summer with my favorite aunt, Shirl.

That was it. I stayed, married, started a family and, in time, began a career. And “California of All Places” (as my mother called it) became my home.

My husband was a teacher and a basketball coach. Our travels were limited to away-games and summer camping trips. Our children grew up riding buses with basketball players and spending a week every summer splashing their mother in a river in Yosemite. They say it was a good way to grow up.

We seldom traveled far. But you can learn a lot about the world without ever leaving home, just by reading, watching, listening, asking questions, paying attention and dreaming.

My children were in their early 20s when we lost their dad to cancer. In the wake of his loss, we stayed close as a family. But we each began to find our own ways around the world.

My oldest, an actor, went to Romania to film a movie. My daughter went to Denmark to visit a friend. My youngest spent a month in Nepal, hiking the foothills of the Himalayas.

I did some “real” traveling, too. First, I went to Holland to be “best man” at the wedding of one of my husband’s former basketball players, who had lived with us for a year. Then I went to London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Casablanca and, yes, to Florence to see The David.

I also visited lots of places that didn’t require a passport, towns that had carried my column for years, where I met readers who made me feel like family.

The last chance I had to do that was more than a year ago, days before the pandemic lock down, when I flew to Wichita Falls, Texas, to speak to hundreds of good people at a fundraiser for a local charity. It felt (as I often say) like a family reunion, without the fistfights.

I hope to travel for “real” again soon. But it will never take the place of simply traveling in my dreams, recalling people I’ve met and places I’ve been, and imagining the people I’ve yet to meet and places I’ve yet to go.

If you can’t afford to travel—or don’t care to spend days wandering through airports, wishing you’d worn more sensible shoes—here’s another way to see the world.

When you meet someone new, or spend time with an old friend, smile into their eyes and ask: “Where did you grow up? What was it like? What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been? If you could go anywhere on Earth, where would you go? And why?”

I hope we all get to travel this summer. If only in our dreams.

“Lessons from a Plant,” July 6, 2021

You can learn things from watching a plant. And watching is more fun than weeding.

I might’ve been a gardener, if my mother had not forced me as a child to pick beans and okra and other stuff I never wanted to touch, let alone, eat.

Her garden was a haven, not only for beans and okra, but for beetles and worms and spiders and wasps, all sorts of creepy, crawly, nasty-looking vermin that loved to bite or sting or burrow into my skin.

I never timed it, but I’d swear an hour of gardening meant 10 minutes picking, 20 minutes wiping sweat and 30 minutes slapping bugs and mouthing words I’d never say out loud. More than once I saw a snake. My stepfather would laugh at me and say, “It’s just a garter snake, it won’t kill you!”

To me, snakes were no laughing matter. I kept a list in my Bible (where I thought God might be more likely to see it) of things that gave me pause.

Next to “garter snake” I wrote, “Nonpoisonous, but if it scares you to death, you’re still dead.”

Next to “garden,” I noted, “Stay out! Act sick! If need be, gag yourself and throw up!”

And next to my stepfather’s name, I wrote, “Buy a toy snake at the Five & Dime and hide it in the juniper bush where he hides his jar of moonshine.”

I would never do most of the things on that list. But I liked thinking about doing them.

Despite my distaste for gardening, I’ve gained a great respect for plants: For their infinite array of vegetables and fruits I’ve come to enjoy. For their fragrance and flowers that can brighten the saddest of places, even a headstone in a cemetery or a profoundly broken heart. And especially for how they make me smile. But I’m glad to leave gardening to my husband.

Recently I bought a hanging plant covered in dazzling purple flowers. I don’t know its name. I call it “Shirley” for my favorite aunt. “Shirl” for short.
To hang it, my husband would have had to drag a ladder to the patio and risk his life to climb up to reach a hook on the eave, while I held the ladder praying he didn’t fall and kill us both.

We tried easier spots. But Shirl really wanted to hang there. So I held the ladder as my husband climbed up, adjusted the chain and settled her on the hook.

I wish you could see her.

She looks like a ballerina in a frilly purple tutu, whirling and spinning, dancing on the wind. I like watching her through the window as I work on a column. But I find her a bit distracting.

A while ago, from the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like an army of black widow spiders crawling up the steps from the patio to our bedroom.

Talk about giving me pause. But to my relief, I soon realized it wasn’t spiders. It was only the shadows of Shirl’s flowers. Have you ever noticed how our darkest fears often turn out to be nothing but shadows?

Here are some other things I’ve learned watching plants:

_ Life can be a hard row to hoe. It helps to have help. Especially if he likes to garden.

_ Some people are like artichokes, prickly and tough. But with proper treatment, even an artichoke can be a treat.

_ If you have to hold a ladder, hold it tight and pray the person you are holding it for won’t fall and kill you both.

_ Children need love and encouragement and discipline the way plants need water and sunlight and weeding. Some need more, others less. Good parents (and grandparents) are like the best gardeners, always aiming for the perfect balance and delighting in the blooms.

_ Shadows may look like spiders but they’re only an absence of light. They’re harmless. Unless they distract you and keep you from working. Or cause you to trip and fall and break a leg.

Maybe we’ll move Shirl to a less distracting spot.

“Falling in Love with Life,” June 29, 2021

How many times have you fallen in love? When was your first? What was your last? Do you recall how it felt to walk on air, trying to hide a goofy smile on your face, thinking nobody knew, but everybody did?
Some of us are slow to fall in love. I can do it in a heartbeat. I’ve had a lot of practice.

My first true love was my dad. I thought the sun rose and set in his eyes. He’s been gone for years, and I still think that.

I was 4 when I fell in love with my baby brother. He grabbed my thumb in his tiny fist and held on tight. And I decided, if need be, I would kill to protect him. He let go of my thumb, but never lost his grip on my heart.

In first grade, I fell for a boy named Clint. Our class elected us to run for King and Queen of the Halloween Carnival and I started planning our wedding. He showed up at the carnival in a monkey costume. When we walked out on stage, he twirled his tail like a lasso. The crowd roared with laughter. And I did not love him any more.

I can name every Mr. Right who ever won my heart. Some weren’t so right. A few were, well, wrong. I married only two.

My first marriage lasted 30 years and gave me three children who became my best friends and teachers in life. I fell in love with them every day, even when they acted like toads.

When the kids grew up, we lost their dad to cancer. And I found myself alone in a four bedroom house with five sets of dishes and nobody to feed.

It was the first time in my life I had ever been truly alone and it taught me several lessons:

1. Cooking for one is no fun. That’s why God created restaurants.

2. If you need someone to talk to, be a good listener. In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks’ best friend was a volley ball.

3. There are worse things than being alone. You’re in good company if you like yourself.

4.. No two losses are the same, but every loss brings gifts. The best gift for me was this simple truth: People leave, but love remains; you don’t need to be in the same room with someone to know you still love each other.

In time, I learned to like being alone. My kids and I were always close, and losing their dad brought us closer. I had family, friends, a job I loved and a faith that kept me whole. I never planned to remarry.

Then, like the song says, I fooled around and fell in love. So I married my former editor. We share five children, their others, and nine grandchildren.

Speaking of grandchildren (as I often do) I fell in love with them at first sight. You would, too, if you saw them.

Why do babies tend to make us fall in love with them? Maybe we’re meant to fall in love with everyone, starting with babies and working up to old people, all ages, all races, all religions.

Every morning I fall in love with a cup of coffee, the man who pours it, and the life we are blessed to share together.

Day and night, I fall in love with family and friends trading messages, phone calls and visits.

I fall for people I’ve never met, for readers who write to tell me about their lives, for people who do or don’t agree with me, and for every soul I read about in the news struggling to survive.

I fall in love with the world—with its sunsets and dahlias and hummingbirds and a good peach cobbler. I don’t much care for gophers, snakes or tarantula hawk wasps. But I try.

I fall in love as often as I can, knowing it might be my last chance. When my time here is up, I hope God will smile at how I’ve loved his Creation and let me keep watching it from afar.

It would be such a gift to get to see what my children and grandchildren will do with their lives, how they and their peers will right every wrong, solve every problem, that my generation left behind.

I want forever to fall in love. How will you fall in love today?

“Fears, Past and Future,” June 22, 2021

On June 15th, I stood on our patio in Carmel Valley, Calif., looking east where once again, the sun had somehow managed to climb over the mountains. Then I said a prayer of thanks and felt a great sense of relief.

It was official. California was lifting most of the coronavirus restrictions that for more than a year had painfully impacted schools and businesses and life as we knew it. Hallelujah!

Three days later, when my phone lit up for an emergency alert, my husband and I looked east and saw what we had hoped never to see again: Smoke.

A wildfire had erupted near Big Sur, in a rugged, remote part of the Ventana Wilderness some 30 miles from our home. Air tankers and helicopters were dropping retardants and water, while hundreds of firefighters were risking their lives, cutting firebreaks.

We weren’t in any immediate danger. But this was not our first dance with wildfire.

Last August, three fires erupted in Monterey County, all within three days. They burned for weeks, threatening lives and homes and wildlife, and filling the air with toxic smoke. Two raged on either side of us and nearly merged before being stopped. A third grew to within a mile of our place, forcing us to evacuate, along with neighbors for miles around. Our home was spared, but dozens were lost.

We were not alone. The same nightmare kept replaying all summer with varying details in forests and towns throughout California, and in much of the West. We prayed for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors, stayed tuned to news and wore masks for months both for Covid and for smoke.

Hopes for a wet winter ended when the season’s rainfall was one of the driest on record. Still, we thought June would be too soon for a fire. We were wrong.

You know that feeling when life sends you spinning—here we go again? I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t think I could. But here’s one of the many things I keep trying to learn: We don’t need the tickets to take a hard ride until it’s time to get on board.

After seeing the smoke, my husband and I decided to repack the emergency bags we’d packed last summer and had used more than once. Mine was under the bed. I’d forgotten what was in it. Three changes of clothes. A pair of walking shoes. A week’s worth of meds and toiletries.

We washed the clothes, put them back in the bags, and updated a sack of important papers. Our laptop computers were backed up and most of our photos were on our phones. Slow as we are, we could grab it all and be out the door in five minutes. Give or take. We were ready. As ready as we could be.

That was yesterday. Today we drove into town to meet my son and his family at the beach where I often took him when he was a little boy. We stayed for an hour, talking and laughing and watching the grandkids play in the surf with their dad.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Then we went home to have lunch with my husband’s son, who drove from San Francisco to spend the afternoon with us. It was lovely, as always, to be with him. When he headed back north, we waved a long goodbye. Then once again, we looked east at the smoke on the horizon.

An hour later, as I sat down to write a column, my mind filled with fires, past and future.

Suddenly I recalled something that made me smile. Sifting through a drawer, I pulled out a quote I had copied on a scrap of paper. It’s by Mother Teresa:

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

We never need to dwell on our fears, past or future. One is gone. The other may never come. Today is a great day to be alive. And tomorrow? Lord willing, we’ll begin again.

“A One-of-a-Kind Dad,” June 15, 2021

Who’s the first person on your list for Father’s Day cards? Recently, I took a mental list of six names into a store and stared at a rack of cards, hoping to find six that were perfect, or at least not too terribly bad.

The list did not include my dad, my stepdad, my granddads or my children’s dad, who all left this world long ago. They were good fathers. You’d have liked them. I loved them dearly. I often give thanks, not just on Father’s Day, for what they meant to me and my children.

But I no longer send them cards. Instead, I take a few moments to remember each of them and things they did that made me happy. It always puts a smile on my face. I think they’d like that better than a card. And besides, they didn’t leave a forwarding address.

Why do Father’s Day cards (the few still left when I shop for them) often seem unbelievably bad? Don’t dads do more than fish? Or grill? Or take naps? Or tell dumb jokes? Some might do all of those things. But that’s not exactly why we love them.

My dad never touched a grill. He loved to fish, told a lot of corny jokes, and after years of changing shifts each week at the mill, he might nod off mid-sentence. But I loved him for being the kind of father I needed, who made me feel smart and capable and loved.

My late husband was well respected as a teacher and a coach. The high school gym where he coached is named in his honor. He wasn’t someone who’s easily summed up on a greeting card. No one is, really. But more than a teacher or coach, he was the kind of father our children needed to become the people they’ve become and to raise the grandchildren he never met, but would adore.

Much like their dad, my two boys are wonderful fathers. My youngest has three children, ages 10, 8 and 6. My oldest has two little ones, a 2-year-old firecracker and a beautiful 1-month old baby girl.

My son-in-law, bless him, never knew his own father. But he is determined to be the best dad ever to his little boy.

And my stepson is a fantastic, full-time, stay-at-home dad to his three babes, ages 9, 4 and 2.

I wish you could see them all.

For the past 20 years or so, the first person on my Father’s Day card list has been Papa Mark. That’s what our grandkids call him. He never knew my children (except through my columns) until after they were grown.

Before we were married, when he was just my editor and friend, what I liked best about him was hearing him talk about his two boys, and seeing how devoted he was to them, though they lived hours away and he saw them mostly on weekends.

That was a lifetime ago. I had no idea of the kind of grandpa he would become to the nine grandchildren we now share. The kind who reads to them. Plays music with them. Grills burgers for them. Hunts lizards with them. And brings their nana her morning coffee.

On my latest shopping trip for Father’s Day cards (for Papa Mark, my two boys, my stepson, my son-in-law, our brother-in-law and a nephew who just welcomed his fourth child) I spent nearly an hour rejecting card after card. Finally, I rolled my eyes and picked one for my husband that read: “The Man, the Myth, the Legend. Happy Father’s Day to one of a kind.”

For the others, I ended up with cards that were a bit sappy, but true. Not perfect, but the best I could find. I signed them all “Happy Father’s Day! So glad you’re a dad!” Papa Mark signed them, too (except his own) and took them to the post office.

When the dads open them, we hope they’ll know we think they are exactly the kind of fathers their children need. And that they’ll remember the old saying that goes: It’s the thought (not the card) that counts.

“Something to Celebrate,” June 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no,” I said, “not again!”

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

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

“You wanna see it?” he said.

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nana on a Mission,” May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All!” he shouts, arms raised.

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

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

I wish you could hear him.

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

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

“The Baby Song,” May 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you could’ve heard her.

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

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

(Sharon Randall is the author of “The World and Then Some.” She can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924, or at www.sharonrandall.com.)

“Three Simple Things,” May 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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