“Making the Best of It,” June 7, 2022

My dad was a simple man. He loved simple food, like the cornbread his mother baked every day. Simple people, who never tried to put on airs. And simple pleasures, like hunting and fishing and being with me.

I loved most everything about him. He could also be what my mother called “hard to figure,” but I didn’t mind. I was a little hard to figure myself.

Dad grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, hunting, fishing and farming. He married my mother when he was 25. She was 15. They moved a few miles from the farm, near the mill where he worked different shifts every week.

My sister was born two years later. For a while, they were happy. When WWII began, Dad enlisted in the army. My mother begged him not to go, but he said he felt he had no choice.

He was shot crossing the Rhine River into Germany, and spent a month recovering in a military hospital. Finally, he was discharged and returned home to his family and his mountains and his job at the mill.

I was born a few years later. My mother never forgave him for going off to the war. They divorced when I was 2, and Dad moved back to the farm. I lived with my mother, but often spent weekends with him. He’d pick me up on Friday, and on our way to the farm he’d say, “A weekend’s not forever, but we’ll make the best of it.”

And we always did. He taught me how to ride a horse, milk a cow, slop a pig, drive a tractor … and that you don’t have to live in the same house with someone to know that they love you.

He also tried to teach me to fish, until he realized I’d much rather talk than bait a hook.

Like most good parents, he taught by example more than by words. He kept every promise. Showed up on time. Worked hard at the mill, harder on the farm. Tipped waitresses at the cafe for ham and grits or just a cup of coffee. If I needed him, he was only a phone call away. And he never forgot to thank his mother for her cooking.

He loved her cornbread. So did I. But I’d never do what he did. At the end of a meal, he’d crumble a hunk of cornbread in a glass of buttermilk and spoon up every bite. I called it a waste of good cornbread. He called it making a good thing better.

We weren’t alike in every respect. But he was my dad, and I am _ and will always be _ his daughter, a simple woman, who loves simple food, simple people and simple pleasures.

He’s been gone for 30 years, but I remember him clearly and think of him often, in the same way I hope my children will remember and think of me.

Last night, in a rare mood, I decided to make a Boston cream pie. Never mind why. I just wanted one. As you may know, it’s actually a cake. I found a recipe online: Bake one layer of a cake, split it in half, fill it with custard, put the halves back together and cover it with chocolate sauce.

Sounds easy, huh? You also have to make the custard and chocolate sauce. I did it all in about three hours, thinking “this thing better be good.” After it chilled, I cut two slices, one each for my husband and me.

It was pretty good. Not great. My husband said he liked it, but he’s learned not to complain. The cake was dry. It looked a little like cornbread. Suddenly, I knew what to do. I cut two more slices, one for each of us. But this time, before serving, I crumbled them up a bit and drizzled them with milk. And “pretty good” got a lot better.

My dad would’ve loved it. Maybe not as much as he loved cornbread in buttermilk. But he’d be proud I remembered what he taught me.

Life is like cooking. We can’t make everything the way we want it to be. But we can make the best of what we’re given.

The next time I want a Boston cream pie? I’ll buy one.

“A Dose of Sunshine,” May 31, 2022

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. That’s what my mother always said. Actually, she said a lot of things. They took root long ago in my brain and bloom in my memory without warning.

I was 8 when she introduced me to the cleansing power of the sun. She was on the back porch running clothes through the wringer of the washer. I was in the living room watching TV.

“Get out here!” she yelled. “I need help with this wash!”

I had no idea how my life was about to change.

She had hauled a load of wet wash to the clothes line in the yard and was standing, hands on hips, waiting for me.

I sat down on the steps and said, “What do I have to do?”

“Come hand me these clothes and I’ll pin ’em on the line!”

“Do I have to do it now?” I said. “I was watching TV.”

She gave me a look. So I got up and handed her a wet shirt.

“These clothes need sun to get dry before it rains,” she said, glancing up at dark clouds rumbling over the mountains. “And sunshine kill germs. It’s the best disinfectant.”

I’d never heard of disinfectant but it wasn’t hard to figure.

“Doesn’t soap do that?”

“Soap helps,” she said, “but sunshine’s a better cleaner. And cleanliness is next to godliness.”

I couldn’t argue with that. So I said, “I’m just a kid. You could do it faster without me.”

She rolled her eyes. “Quit stallin’ and get to work,” she said. Then she added with a sigh, “Someday you’ll be blessed with children of your own.”

Her tone made me think: Did she mean blessed or cursed?

That story surfaced in my memory this morning. I hadn’t thought about it in years. My husband and I were sitting outside our house, soaking up sun on a spectacular spring day and brainstorming all sorts of improvements we could make. Put in some new plants. Replace the fence. Resurface the patio….

It was one of those wishful conversations where anything is game until reality creeps in and you start to see dollar signs.

“OK,” he said, “I’m gonna start a load of laundry. Would you like a second cup of coffee?”

He often reads my mind. I nodded and smiled. Moments later he handed me a fresh cup, just the way I like it.

“Mmm,” I said, “lovely.”

He went inside and I leaned back in my chair to sip coffee and savor the morning.

We live in Carmel Valley, Calif., 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay, on a hill where we see mostly rolling green mountains and a big blue sky; buzzards, hawks, hummingbirds and quail; rabbits and gophers; bobcats and deer; and maybe, on occasion, a mountain lion.

I never tire of the sights. But this morning, I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds.

Down by the river, wild turkeys gobbled. A donkey heehawed. Dogs barked like they meant business. A hummingbird buzzed past my ear. And a breeze from the coast swept the valley like a broom, rustling the limbs of oaks and pines and cottonwoods, and rattling the leaves on a plum tree above my head.

The air carried a faint, mixed fragrance of the plants we often use in cooking _ Meyer lemons, rosemary, sage and thyme.

And best of all, I could feel the sun, warming my face, easing my aches, clearing my mind. All that and a taste of coffee.

Some days it’s worth waking up and going outside just to let Nature cleanse your soul.

My mother was right. Sunlight is the best (natural) disinfectant. Cleanliness is next to godliness. (I still can’t argue with that.) And I have indeed been blessed with three children of my own, plus nine helpful grandkids.

But I’m also blessed with an automatic washer and dryer. And especially with someone who seems happy to use them.

“Graduation,” May 23, 2022

(NOTE: This column was posted on Monday, May 23, the day before the horrific school shooting in Texas. It was written as a celebration of the upcoming graduations of our children, from preschool through college. In the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragedy, it may seem inappropriate and insensitive. Please know that was not my intention. Our hearts are broken, and our prayers will continue to lift up the people of Uvalde,Texas.)

There’s a growing sense of excitement and great cause to celebrate this time of year. Why? One word: Graduation.

The end of May through early June will be filled with pomp and circumstance and tears of pride and joy as countless numbers of our collective children _ from preschool through college _ will don caps and gowns and march through a cheering crowd to accept a diploma and move on to the next stage of their lives.

After two years of a pandemic, when so many ceremonies were either cancelled or held remotely, this year will be all the more reason to celebrate.

My oldest grandchild, Randy, is finishing fifth grade and will go to middle school next fall. I cried when he started preschool nine years ago. It seems like yesterday. In another nine years, he’ll be off to college.

Life passes quickly. We need to celebrate every chance we get. So to celebrate this season of graduations, here’s a list I’ve shared several times over the years when I’ve been honored to speak at commencement ceremonies. I call it:

“Things My Grandmother Said, or Would Have Said, if She Had Thought of Them.”

1. When you meet people, smile, shake hands and look them in the eye, and they’ll probably say nice things about you at your funeral. Especially if you ask, “How’s your mother?”

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

3. Look after living things. Tend your animals, water your garden, be kind to children and old folks and everybody else.

4. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People won’t expect you to know everything, but they can’t abide a phony.

5. Be true to your beliefs and let others be true to theirs. If you don’t see eye to eye, agree to disagree and find ways to work together for the good of all.

6. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh. It’s not a sin, but you’ll regret it.

7. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize at once. Say it like you mean it: “I apologize for my rudeness.” The only thing worse than rude is tacky and you never, ever want to be tacky.

8. Avoid confrontation in the heat of anger, especially with members of your immediate family; remember that in some states, “he 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 people’s backs that you wouldn’t dare say to their faces. They’re sure to hear about it, unless they’re dead. And you should never speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve got it coming.

11. Don’t start doing anything that you aren’t willing to keep doing forever. And don’t bother to finish what you shouldn’t have 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 questions. Listen to answers.

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

15. Finally, lead an interesting life, whatever that may be to you. To settle for anything less would be way worse than tacky.

If you are graduating this year, congratulations! Your family and I are proud of you. I hope you get lots of gifts.

It may seem, at times, that the world is in such a mess that you and your generation can’t possibly make it better. Don’t believe that. This is your turn to shine, and shine you will. When you hear people say, “What’s this world coming to?” tell them it is coming to you.

“Bitter or Better?” May 17, 2022

What would you say has been the greatest loss of your life? The death of a loved one? The end of a relationship? A fork in the road that took you to a place you never wanted to go?

When you look back on that loss, at the heartache it caused and the time it took to heal, what do you see?

Were there lessons you learned? Were there blessings that eased the pain? Did you find yourself feeling thankful, not for the loss, but for the gifts it brought, shining like rainbows in the midst of a storm?

Loss always brings gifts. The greater the loss, the greater the gifts. Sometimes we can only see them in hindsight. But in the end, we have to choose: Will the loss make us bitter or better?

My three children were barely grown when we lost their dad to cancer. He had been ill for four years, and watching him suffer took a toll on us all. We were so sure he would beat it. When he didn’t, it struck us so hard I feared we might never recover.

Then came this gift: We had always been close as a family. But losing him drew us even closer. My children were my inspiration. I leaned on them and they leaned on me, and by the grace of God, and the help of good friends, we grew not bitter, but better. Nothing has ever made me prouder. I’ll bet it makes their dad proud, too.

But my favorite example of the bitter-or-better choice will always be my brother Joe. I’ve written about him countless times and am always glad to hear from readers who find him almost as inspiring (if not quite as stubborn) as I do.

Totally blind all his life, and severely impaired by cerebral palsy, Joe lives alone, gets around with a walker, does his own cooking (he used to fry chicken, until he nearly set himself on fire) and always seems to be, as he says, “Just fine, thank you very much.”

Joe knows more about loss and how to survive it than anyone I’ve ever known. He and I live on opposite coasts but keep in touch by phone. The family we grew up in has dwindled nearly to extinction.

Some years ago, Joe lost, one by one, our mother, who was his champion; our stepfather, who was his best friend; and his wife, who was the love of his life.

He was devastated. But his faith never wavered. He leaned on his Lord, his family and the good people in his church. Then he gathered up the pieces of the darkness all around him, and moved on with his life, shining a light for others to follow.

Joe makes the bitter-or-better choice a no-brainer. He gets up each morning, straps on his leg braces, shuffles to the kitchen, fries up some eggs, turns on the radio and pulls for the Clemson Tigers to win another game.

I tell myself, if my brother can do all that and more without complaining, the least I can do is choose better over bitter, too.

It helps to have inspiration. I have more than my share. Not just from Joe. It arrives most every day in mail from readers who write to share their stories about the heartbreaks they are facing and overcoming as they choose to be better, not bitter.

I wish you could read them.

For more than two years, the pandemic has heaped loss, to one degree or another, on us all. The loss of lives and loved ones and time spent together. The loss of all sorts of things we once took for granted.

We try to tell ourselves loss is just a part of life, something everyone suffers sooner or later. But when it strikes, there is no way to diminish it. And no one should have to suffer it alone.

We all need inspiration. If you’re longing to find it, you will. Look to your faith, your family, your neighbors and friends. Look all around you.

But most of all, look in your heart. In the end, bitter or better, you’ll choose it there.

“Tips on How to Stay Married,” May 10, 2022

Marriage is an excellent teacher on life _ on how to live it and survive it and share it with someone you love.

And a wedding anniversary is a perfect occasion to look back and celebrate the times, good and bad, you have weathered together, and all the things you have learned along the way.

My husband and I will soon celebrate 17 years of marriage. I’m happy to say we’re still hoping for at least 17 more.

I was also married for 30 years before losing my first husband to cancer. Nearly 50 years of marriage doesn’t make me an expert. But it has taught me a few things. And like all the women in my family, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

Here’s a freshly updated list I collected years ago (with much appreciated help from readers) of tips on how to stay married.

1_ Listen to each other. Seek first to understand before trying to be understood. When you are wrong, say you are sorry. When you are right, shut up.

2_ Don’t tie a half-hitch knot. Plan to stay married forever.

3_ Never go to sleep angry. Keep talking until you get over it or forget why you were mad.

4_ Laugh together. If you can laugh at yourself, it’ll be easy.

5_ Never embarrass, criticize or correct one another in public; try not to do it in private either.

6_ Remember one of life’s ironies: We are least lovable when we need love most.

7_ Don’t expect perfection. It doesn’t exist. If it did, it would bore you spitless.

8_ On days when you don’t like each other, try to remember that you love each other. Pray for the “good days” to come again, then act as if they have.

9_ Tell the truth, only the truth, and always with great kindness.

10_ Kiss for at least 10 seconds everyday without fail; do it all at once or spread it out.

11_ Examine your relationship often. Know its strengths and vulnerabilities. Keep moving in the direction you want it to go.

12_ Be content with what you have materially, honest about where you are emotionally, and never stop growing spiritually.

13_ To love someone is to wish them the best; always wish each other nothing but the very best.

14_ Never yell unless the house is on fire. Speak softly when you argue. Whisper when you fight. Keep it fair and show some class. Hurtful words can be forgiven, but they can never be forgotten, or taken back.

15_ Be both friends and lovers. Friendship is the oil that keeps you moving in the same direction. Love is the glue that holds you together.

16_ Show by your actions as well as your words that the person you married comes first in your life. Let nothing and no one ever come between you.

17_ Remember that you’re in love. Kiss in elevators. Hold hands in movies. Lock eyes across a crowded room. Say “You are beautiful and I love you” at least once a day. Then say it again every night.

18_ Never miss an anniversary, a birthday or a chance to make a memory. Memories may not seem important now, but one day you will treasure them.

19_ Take care of business. Pay your bills, change your oil, cut your grass, call your mother.

20 _ Open your home and your hearts to angels unaware. Teach Sunday school. Coach Little League. Feed the homeless. Talk to strangers. Pick up trash. Make something beautiful of your life together.

Finally, here’s the best advice I’ve ever heard or offered: Do what you want. Lead your own life. Follow your own calling. Be an interesting person, each of you on your own. But always save your best for each other.

And in the end, you will know you were better together than you ever could’ve been apart.

Happy anniversary. Here’s wishing you many more years to celebrate life together.

“Keeping Things Alive,” May 3, 2022

This may seem strange, but I need to tell somebody, and I’m trusting you to understand.

Here goes. I recently adopted a new family _ seven individuals with distinct personalities, not to mention a few peculiarities.

We’re having fun getting to know one another. Or at least, I am. If they have any complaints, they’ve not said a word.

Why did I adopt a new family? Let me be clear. My decision to adopt them had nothing to do with my love for the real family my husband and I share _ a big blended bunch of great people, including five wonderful grown children, their lovely others and nine of the finest grandkids the world has ever seen.

I adore my real family and love to spend time with them. Always have. Always will. Especially if I don’t have to cook.

But two years ago, when the pandemic brought gatherings of family and friends (and even strangers in the check-out line) to a screeching halt, I began to feel a need _ I’ll just say this _ for a little more life in my life.

Have you felt that need, too?

Again, don’t get me wrong. My husband is a great companion. We’ve made the best of our time in semi-solitary confinement.

We have lots in common. We both like to eat. And sleep. And talk. Or not talk. We take turns cooking and cleaning. We use a tag team system to empty the dishwasher. He hands me the dishes, I put them away. He takes the trash cans down to the street. I do the laundry. We both fold it. He plays a video game killing demons. I play FreeCell creating order in chaos. (I like to create order any way I can.)

We watch TV together: Giants’ baseball, Warriors’ basketball and “Station 19,” a show in which my actor son plays a really good-looking fire captain.

And if the weather is nice, as it often is, we sit outside in the evening watching the sun go down, the moon come up, the stars come out and the lights come on around the valley.

Life is good for us. I hope it is for you, too. But as I explained, the disconnect of the pandemic somehow made me welcome a new family into our home. They hang out in our living room. I think they’re happy. I’m trying hard not to kill them.

Allow me to introduce to you my new family of plants. They sit stacked, one above the other, on several shelves in the corner between two sunny windows.

I’m clueless about botanical names, so I gave them common names that seem to suit them.

Gloria (short for glorious) is a gorgeous white orchid who sits on the top shelf like a queen.

Next is Jessica, with frilly green leaves speckled in pink. She’s named for my daughter-in-law, who gave her to me.

On the third shelf is Celine, a desert princess with tiny white flowers. She reminds me of our years in Las Vegas of all Places.

At the bottom, shoulder to shoulder, like leafy green guards are four big plants of various varieties. I call them “The Boys.”

And interspersed on the shelves are three remarkably real-looking battery operated candles controlled by the click of a remote. A gift from my friend Linda, they light up those plants (and my heart) like Christmas.

I wish you could see them.

I’ve never been a plant person. Over the years, I had my share of violets and such, but they never lasted long. I was always so busy taking care of the people in my life I kept forgetting that plants are living things, too.

They need love and care, or at least, a little water. I hope to do better with Gloria, Jessica, Celine and The Boys.

Once, as a child helping my grandmother tend her garden, I asked her why she did it. Her family was grown. She could buy produce at the market. Why did she keep pulling those weeds?

She laughed and gave me a look. “Keeping things alive,” she said, “keeps me alive, too.”

I didn’t understand it then. But it’s starting to make sense.

“Beauty’s More Than Skin Deep,” April 26, 2022

When was the first time you felt beautiful? Not the kind of beauty you see in a mirror, but the kind you feel when you know that to someone who loves you, you’ll always be a beauty.

Six months after my brother Joe was born, my mother was told he was totally blind and suffered from cerebral palsy, a condition that would impair his walking, but not his will.

I was four years old and had no clue what a gift Joe would be to me. Growing up, he was a thorn in my flesh, making me tell him stories or sing him to sleep. And if his tricycle got stuck in a ditch, as it always did, he’d yell for me to get him out.

Worst of all, he made me tell him what things looked like. I’d try my best to describe, say, the colors of a sunrise. The legs on a rooster. Or the cars on the trains that rattled past our house.

I’d try and try again. But if I didn’t get it exactly as he saw it in his head, he’d say, “That’s not it, Sister. Try again.”

When I was 8, I accidentally broke out my permanent front tooth. A porcelain crown would cost more than my family could afford. So for years, my front tooth was a shiny silver crown.

Some boys at school meant no harm, but took great delight in chanting, “Here comes the Lone Ranger and her silver bullet!”

At first I liked the attention, such as it was. But it got old. One day, Joe heard me crying.

“What’s wrong, Sister?”

“Nothin’!” I said. “Go away!”

He wouldn’t let it go. When he got something in his head, he was like a dog with a bone. So I told him. And he laughed.

“A silver bullet!” he said, clapping. “What a hoot!”

Then I began to bawl and he hushed, took my face in his hands and ran his fingers over my eyes, my nose, my mouth.

“Sister,” he said. “You’re a beauty. Don’t forget it. And if them boys don’t leave you alone, tell ’em your blind baby brother will teach ’em some manners.”

I wish you could’ve seen the looks on those boys’ faces when I told them what Joe had said.

At 18, Joe decided he had learned enough at the school for the blind, got a job running the courthouse snackbar and rented an apartment to live on his own, 30 miles from our mother.

I was happy for him. Mama was not. Then one day she called me up in a hissy fit.

“He got MARRIED!” she said, “to a STRANGER of all things! We’ve got to do SOMETHING!”

“Calm down, Mama,” I said, “I’ll call him.”

“HURRY!” she said.

Joe answered on the first ring. “Hey, Sister, I figured you’d be calling. Yes, I got married. My wife is a real beauty. We’ve only known each other three weeks, and I know Mama’s not happy about it. But even a blind man can fall in love at first sight.”

His bride, Tommie Jean, was also blind. They’d walk hand-in-hand with Joe tapping the way with his cane. Rarely more than an arm’s reach apart, they were always laughing and whispering secrets. Their happiness made everyone who saw it happier, even in due time, our mother.

In the eyes of the world, Tommie Jean was no beauty. She never saw her own face, but she radiated joy in a way that made her shine. She and Joe shared 10 good years before he lost her to cancer. And for him, she will always be a beauty.

When I sit down to do my makeup at a table filled with products that promise to work miracles, I remind myself that miracles can happen. Then I begin. Foundation. Concealer. Eye shadow. Mascara. Lipstick.

Finally, I look in the mirror hoping to see not the face I woke up with, but the one my brother sees when he pictures me. Some days I can almost hear him say, “That’s not it, Sister. Try again.”

But here’s what I learned from his beloved: True beauty can’t be seen in a mirror. It can only be felt in our heart and soul and in the touch of one who loves us.

The best beauty secret is love.

“A Not So Bad Fall,” April 19, 2022

One of my all-time favorite reads is “Growing Up” by Russell Baker, a Pulitzer-Prize winning autobiography in which Baker writes beautifully and often hilariously about life—his and mine and yours. I read it almost 40 years ago and have never forgotten it, especially its opening sentence:

“At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time.”

I first read that line in a bookstore/coffee shop and laughed so hard I snorted coffee out my nose. Falls are no laughing matter. But it made me think of my grandmother, a woman I adored, who ranked her falls in order from “not bad” to “pretty bad” to “hell’s bells.”

At the time, I was too young to appreciate the fear of falling that often comes with age. I’ve since had a few falls of my own, even a couple that might rank as “hell’s bells.” But they weren’t caused by age. I wasn’t old. I was clumsy. Always have been. Always will be.

Recently, my 3-year-old grandson, Jonah, took me on a walk in a field riddled with gopher holes. I was trying to dodge the holes when Jonah reached up to take my hand and said, “Here, Nana, I help you.”

That wasn’t a sign of my age. It was an act of Jonah’s love.

In my worst fall five years ago, I slipped on a wet floor, broke my ankle and injured my back. The ankle healed. The back still hurts. The indignity lingers on.

All of that is to tell you this:

Last week, for the first time in years, I was reminded of that first sentence in “Growing Up.” I’d spent the morning running errands, stopped for lunch at a restaurant and was hurrying out the door to do more errands when something caught my eye.

A little girl, age 3 or 4, almost as cute as Jonah, was going in the restaurant with her mother. As we passed, I waved and she waved back with a big smile.

I wish you could’ve seen her.

I kept walking, looking back over my shoulder at her. And that is when it happened. I didn’t see the crack in the sidewalk. It caught the toe of my boot and sent me sprawling face first onto the pavement.

Talk about embarrassing.

The little girl’s mother rushed over to ask, “Are you all right?”

I lay there a moment thinking. Finally I said, “I’m not sure.”

The little girl stared wide-eyed as if watching her first ever horror movie. I managed to give her a sideways fake smile.

Suddenly two tall men showed up out of nowhere like angels in blue jeans and puffy jackets, offered their assistance and picked me up off the pavement.

I tested my limbs. They seemed to work. My knees were skinned, but no broken bones.

So I thanked everyone for their kindness: The little girl, her mother, the two tall men and God and all his angels. Then we all went our separate ways.

I skipped the errands and drove home to lie down for a bit and let my mind wander free. Was this my last bad fall? Were there bigger falls ahead? Would my sister loan me her walker?

Funny, isn’t it? One minute we’re running errands. Then we’re lying on the pavement needing help from strangers. Or an ambulance. Or a hearse.

Most days, I pray (unless I forget) for happiness, health and safety for my loved ones, myself and the world. I try to pay attention (usually) and stay out of trouble (if I can.) That’s about all I can do. The rest isn’t up to me. If it were, we might all be in “hell’s bells” trouble.

Life lets us choose, day by day, how we want to live: Will we fill our minds with fear of things that may never happen? Or will we fill our hearts with gratitude for what we know to be true?

I took a fall, but survived it, thanks in part to the kindness of strangers. And I lived to be thankful, yes, another day.

It was a good day. Somewhere my grandmother was smiling.

“Randy’s Good Heart,” April 12, 2022

The good thing about a long drive is it gives you time to talk.

My grandson, Randy, is 11, soon to start middle school, that turning point in life when being with friends is a lot more fun than hanging out with Nana.

I’m glad to say he still seems to like being with me and playing video games with Papa Mark.

We try to see Randy and his family as often as we can, but it never feels often enough.

That’s how it is with people you love. No matter how hard you try, there’s seldom enough time to say all you want to say and hear all you need to hear.

I often think of questions I wish I’d asked my parents and grandparents when I had the chance. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions now lie buried with the only people who could answer them.

When Randy and his brother and sister take turns spending a night with us, I like to pick them up so we can talk for half an hour driving to our place.

This weekend it was Randy’s turn. He’s old enough to sit up front in the car, but I made him sit in back because it’s safer. (That’s one of the facts the kids like to cite when we play a game we call “Name the safest thing you can think of and Nana will tell you 50 ways it can kill you.”)

On the drive, we talked for a while about everything and nothing. Then Randy said, “Nana, how do you decide what to be when you grow up?”

I glanced at his face in the rearview mirror. He was serious.

“Well, buddy,” I said, “that’s nothing you need to decide just yet. Do you think about it a lot?”

He nodded. “People in my family all have important jobs they’re proud of. I want to do something I’ll be proud of, too.”

“Like what?” I said.

“I might be a mechanical engineer, but I’m not sure. I think a lot about Grandpa Randy. So many people looked up to him. I want to be like him, but I don’t know if I can.”

My first husband, for whom Randy is named, was a chemical engineer when we met. But he decided he wanted to teach and coach. So that’s what he did for 30 years, until he died of cancer.

Randy never met him, but he’s heard lots about him and he’s seen the gym at Monterey High School that bears his name.

“Actually,” I said, “both you and your dad are a lot like your Grandpa Randy. You both have a good heart, just like he did.”

I told him the story of how his grandpa’s decision to trust his heart and change careers made such a difference in his life. Randy listened, then sat for a while, staring at passing cars.

How do you explain to a child how to follow his heart? How do you define indefinable concepts (like faith or hope or love) if you don’t understand them yourself?

Some things can’t be defined. They can only be felt. I couldn’t explain it. Finally, I said this:

“Just trust me, buddy. I’m old and I know stuff. You have a good heart. It will lead you where you need to go. You’ll be a great person, and do great things, and your family will all be proud of you. Especially me.”

He grinned at me in the rearview mirror.

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Minutes later, we pulled up to the house and he bolted inside to play video games with Papa Mark.

The next day, when it was time for Randy to go home, Papa Mark offered to drive him because I needed to work.

Before they left, I held Randy’s face in my hands and asked him the questions I’ve taught my grandchildren how to answer:

“How much do I love you?”

“All,” he said, laughing.

“And where is your nana when you can’t see her?”

“In my heart,” he said, placing a hand on his chest. We hugged long and hard, then they left.

Life is full of mysteries. I’d love to see what Randy will do in life. For now, I get to listen to his questions, help him look for answers, and bake his favorite peanut butter cookies.

And I hope I will forever have a place in his good heart.

“Living the Dream,” April 5, 2022

Out in the garage, my husband is playing his bass. I’m in the living room working on a column. He thinks I don’t hear him, but I do. Nothing is noisier than somebody trying hard not to make too much noise.

He’s a gifted musician and quite the perfectionist. He often practices for hours playing the same notes over and over.

At times, it’s enough to make me want to run screaming out the driveway, snatching myself bald. Instead, I take my laptop into the bedroom, shut the door and go back to work.

If you’ve ever lived with a musician, you probably know, no matter how much you adore them, the survival of your relationship (and possibly someone’s life) requires a little tolerance. Or insanity. Or both.

I shouldn’t complain. I knew he was a musician when I married him. He was also an editor (and my editor for a while) but I didn’t let that stop me. I’d been a widow for years before we were married, and my youngest child was a drummer.

If you’ve lived with a drummer and survived to talk about it, you might feel a bit invincible.

I am not invincible. Far from it. But I love music and most anyone who plays it reasonably well. Including my husband.

Now he’s playing “Danny Boy.” And it is just as lovely as you and I and all God’s angels could ever hope for it to be.

I wish you could hear him.

Don’t tell him I said that. It’ll only make him practice more.

Today he’s working on a set list for an upcoming real-live gig. It will be the first public appearance he’s played in more than two years, since the pandemic shut down so many of life’s pleasures, like church and school and human interaction.

For me, it shut down speaking engagements, one of the parts of my job I like best. But that, too, is reopening. Lately, I’ve spoken to a few book clubs. And tomorrow, I’ll talk about writing and life and other mysteries to a woman’s club where I first spoke some 30 years ago. I hope they’ll still recognize me.

The difference between my speaking and my husband’s playing music is simple: I don’t practice. I just show up and talk. If I spend time working on what I’ll say, he never has to hear it.
He always knows when I’m working, especially if I work late because it keeps him awake. But he never complains. And I get pretty deep into my work. If the house caught fire, I might not notice, unless he dragged me and my laptop out the door.

I write the way he plays music. We always want to give it our best. If the house ever catches fire when we’re both working, we’ll be in serious trouble.

As a child, I never dreamed of being a writer. I dreamed of singing and playing piano. My family had no money for piano lessons, but I learned to sing by listening to my mother and her sisters sing harmony on the porch.

Writing required no money, except for pencils or paper, and it seemed most anybody could do it, so I took that up, too.

Dreams come true in all sorts of ways, not always as we plan.

I’ve been singing and writing most of my life. I sing mainly to myself and to babies or others who don’t care how I sound. And I write stories for readers who are kind enough to say that my stories are their stories, too.

My husband dreamed of being a musician, but he also dreamed of earning a living. So he worked for a newspaper and played music after work. He’s retired now from his day job and happy to play day and night in our garage. And I am happy to hear him. Except when he plays the same notes over and over.

I try to encourage him to do what he loves, and he does the same for me. That’s what friends do. Especially friends who are married to each other and want to stay that way.

Some might call it a dream come true. I just call it living the dream, one bass note at a time.