“Darlene on the Run,” Jan. 31, 2023

(This column is from 2022.)

Do you ever dream of doing something big, but feel too small to try? Whenever I feel that way, I like to think about Darlene. I wrote this story about her years ago. It goes like this:

Long after it was all over and done, folks still liked to wager on what possessed her to do it. Some said it was the mower. Others blamed the bull. But there was more to it than that.

One summer, while visiting my family in the Carolinas, I stayed at my sister’s house, but spent a few hours each day writing at my friend’s place.

Jane lived out of town on a few quiet acres surrounded by cow pastures. I’d show up early, we’d drink coffee, then she’d leave for work and I’d stay behind to write, free of distractions. At least, that was the plan.

One morning, I’d just written a lead, when I heard a truck coming up the road. It was Jason, the teenager Jane hired to mow her yard. I’d not met the boy, but I knew his parents.

“Hey, Jason!” I said. “I’m glad to see you were lucky enough to get your mama’s good looks!”

He laughed, thinking it was a joke. I offered iced tea (in the South, not to do so is a sin.) He said, “No thank you, ma’am,” and fired up the mower. I watched him cut a strip by the fence. Then I went back to work.

Minutes later, the mower stopped. I looked out the window and saw Jason sprinting across the yard, flapping his arms like Big Bird on fire.

“Lord help us!” I said, “the cows are out!”

For the record, I grew up with cows. I could still milk one, maybe, if need be. But milking is a far cry from catching.

Once, as a child, I got chased up an apple tree by a nasty herd of Herefords that held me hostage until I handed over every apple in my bucket. Since then, I’ve been a bit wary. It’s not that I don’t like cows. I just don’t trust them.

Still, I’m a country girl, born and raised. When cows are on the loose, I can’t ignore them. Besides, poor Jason was pitifully out-numbered. I’d have given better odds to Custer.

The culprit was Darlene, a sassy little Holstein, all black and white and full of herself. For some reason, she’d apparently decided to jump the fence and lead her sisters in an unarmed, four-legged rebellion.

“Jason!” I shouted, running out the door, “What’s the plan?”

“I’ll try to cut ‘em off!” he yelled. “You go call Mr. Lee!”

I found the number. A woman answered on the third ring.

“Tell Mr. Lee his cows are out,” I said, “and it looks like they mean business!”

Meanwhile, Jason, bless his heart, had managed to corral most of the escapees under an apple tree where they now milled about munching apples, looking all guilty and glum.

Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I saw a black and white flash moving fast: Darlene was making a break for the road!

Not one to be cowed by a cow, I grabbed a stick, planted my feet and met her head on.

“Stop!” I ordered. Much to my surprise, she did.

Lowering her head, she turned her muzzle to one side and stared, as if sizing me up. And then I saw it: A fiery hot gleam in her eye. When she twitched her tail and charged, I threw down my stick and ran.

Darlene never looked back. She kicked up her heels, trotted across the road and jumped clean over a barbed-wire fence to join Bubba, the neighbor’s bull, in what I hope for her sake were far greener pastures.

What do you think? Did she do it for love? Or for adventure? Or because the mower scared the bejeezes out of her?

No. I saw the gleam in her eye that day. I wish you could’ve seen it, too. She did it for one reason only: Deep down inside her big, bovine heart, Darlene believed in herself.

“A Time to Remember,” Jan. 24, 2022

(This column is from 2012.)

Out of the blue, the boy phoned to ask a question about a moment we shared years ago, a moment so momentous we would never be the same.

I remembered it well. How could I forget? He said it wasn’t important, he just wondered what time it took place. I smiled. He had no idea how important it was to me. Or how long it would keep me awake, flipping dusty, dog-eared pages of my mind, to find the answer.

What kind of mother forgets what time her child was born? It’s not like I wasn’t there. Yes, I had a few distractions. I didn’t check my watch. But still ….

Here’s what I clearly recall. I was 23 years old, married almost three years, living 3,000 miles from my family in a town so new and unfamiliar I’d get lost going to the grocery store.

My husband was teaching and coaching at a local high school. We had health insurance and a steady paycheck. We’d bought a house for about two years’ worth of his salary. It would shelter our family for nearly 50 years.

I was absolutely over the moon thrilled to be pregnant. All my life, I’d wanted to be a mother (and a grandmother, but first things first.) My experience with caring for children was limited to two younger brothers and a year as a substitute teacher.

But I’d done some reading about parenting and felt ready for whatever lay in store.

Basically, I had no clue. It didn’t matter. What I didn’t know, the boy would teach me.

On the day he was due to be born, his father had to coach a basketball game. At half-time, I was sitting in the bleachers, like a whale riding a see-saw, when I felt the first contraction.

I sent a note to the coach in the locker room: “In labor, might need to leave.’’

Minutes later it came back: “In foul trouble, game over soon.”

The game went into overtime. When his team finally lost, I bit my fist trying not to cheer. We rushed home to get a bag for me and a burrito for the coach, then drove to the hospital in the same car our soon-to-be-born baby would drive 16 years later to get his driver’s license.

By 2 a.m., I was in hard labor. Then it got harder. The nurse was a woman whose son had been my husband’s student.

“Don’t worry, child,” she told me, “I’m gonna take good care of you.” And she did, not only for my first baby, but for my second, three years later, and my third, three years after that.

On the second day, when I was still in “hard labor,” my husband made the mistake of asking if I could “hurry it up” because he had another game that night.

He claimed he was joking. I was not amused. Then I heard him on the phone telling one of his players he was “stuck” at the hospital and needed him to fill in that night as coach.

“I can hear you!” I said.

“Gotta go,” he whispered into the phone, “good luck!”

Things got a bit fuzzy after that. Somebody told me to push, so I did, for a really long time.

Next thing I knew, the coach was laughing and I was holding a little person who had hands that were tiny, but huge, like a King Kong action figure, and a lop-sided head like the rag doll that went through the wringer of my grandmother’s washer.

He was looking in my eyes as if he knew who I was, someone he had searched for and was so glad to find. And I found myself falling, falling, fast and hard, forever and always in love.

His life was just beginning. Mine would never be the same.

What time was it? I don’t know. All I know is this: It was the right time _ not a moment too late or too soon _ just when he was needed by the world, by his dad and, most of all, by me.

But according to his birth certificate (that I finally found in a box after searching half the night) it was 5:57 p.m.

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

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Jan. 16, 2023

This column is from Oct., 2020.

Seems there’s always something to worry about. As my mother used to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s two.”

At times, it’s enough to make you want to put on a flea collar and hide under the porch with the dogs. I would never do that. I don’t have a porch. Or a dog.

But some people seem to worry a lot less than others do. Take, for example, Jonah.

My husband and I share eight grandchildren. Jonah is our youngest. I’ve been watching him closely since the day he was born 18 months ago. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

We live 382 miles apart, Jonah and I, so I mostly watch him in videos that his mama and daddy send me. Almost daily. Several times a day, if I’m lucky. And we FaceTime fairly often.

Jonah in video is not as much fun as Jonah in the flesh, but it’s a lot better than no Jonah at all. I wish I could’ve sent my mother videos of her grandkids. Maybe she’d have worried less and lived longer.

Watching Jonah has taught me a lot about how to avoid the ill effects of worry and stress. Here are some things that seem to work well for him:

_ First, he doesn’t watch TV. Except an occasional episode of “Peppa Pig.” And he doesn’t own a cell phone. He loves to grab his mom and dad’s phones, but they try to keep them out of his reach. So, unlike some of us, he isn’t glued to an electronic device. He’s far more in touch with the real world. The birds outside his window. The tickle of his dad’s beard. The smell of his mom’s hair. The temptation to try the big slide at the park or the joy of mastering a new word. (His latest favorite is “no.”)

_ He gets more exercise than a team of sled dogs. Runs more than he walks. Dances on tables. Splashes in a puddle or a bath or a lake. Keeps his mom and dad laughing and on their toes.

_ He sleeps like a baby. Limp as an over-cooked noodle. Naps if he feels like it. But sometimes he will wake in the night and try to rouse his dad to play.

_ He eats a healthy diet. Lots of veggies. No sugar. Only stuff that’s good for him. His parents make sure of it. He likes most everything they offer him. If he doesn’t like it, he spits it out.

_ He spends a lot of time outdoors, playing in the yard, going to the park with his mom or taking walks with his dad. He stays engaged with people who make him happy, not sad, and with things that are beautiful, not ugly. He cuddles with his mom. Reads with his dad. Plays with his cousins. FaceTimes with his nana. And loves to help. You should see him vacuum.

_ He never hides his emotions. He yells if his mom leaves the room. Gets mad if his dad won’t let him put the iPad in the fireplace. And if he falls down the stairs and bumps his head, he screams bloody murder. But when he stops hurting, he quits screaming and climbs back on the stairs. He cries when he feels like crying. And he laughs a lot more than he cries.

_ Finally, Jonah knows that he is loved. He has learned that the world isn’t perfect. It can be a painful and frustrating place. There are bees in the grass that can sting his feet. Stairs he can fall down. Cell phones and iPads and other expensive stuff his parents try not to let him break.

But mostly he sees the world as a good place—a place not for worrying, but for learning and exploring and being happy.

Jonah doesn’t have time to worry. He’s too busy having fun, living his one, sweet, beautiful life.

As adults, we seldom get to enjoy the kind of freedom we knew as children. We have jobs and responsibilities. Families to care for. Bills to pay. Decisions to weigh. We need to be vigilant and informed and involved.

But worry gains us nothing, and it robs us of peace and hope and joy. We can learn a lot from a toddler.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Jonah.

“How My Sister Tried to Shoot Me,” Jan. 10, 2023

Note: I recently retired from writing a column, but some of you have asked me to repost old ones. This one is from 2006.

Sometimes if I’m feeling low, I call my sister and it’s like candy, how Bobbie cheers me up. Never mind that she once tried to shoot me. Yes, with a gun. Yes, on purpose. No, I’m not making it up.

I have an eye witness who will back me up, if he knows what’s good for him. But let’s not dwell on that. Far be it from me to hold a grudge against my only sister, even if she never said she was sorry.

Forgiveness usually requires repentance, but I afforded her grace for three good reasons: One, she’s my sister; two, I’m still alive; and three, by the time Bobbie repents, I’ll be dead of old age.

But enough about that. I want to tell you about how she brightens my day. Here are some examples:

When we were little girls, our parents split up. But Bobbie told me that sisters never split up, they always stick together.

When our brother was born blind, she said his blindness wouldn’t matter to anybody, except to people who didn’t matter.

When I won a scholarship and went off to college, and she stayed behind with three babies and a bad marriage, she told me to be safe, have fun and make her proud.

When I left the South to live my life in California of All Places, she flew out to be matron of honor at my wedding and let her 3-year-old scatter rose petals in my path.

When my first husband died, she put me to bed and made me rest. Six months later, she took me to Mexico and made me pose for a picture with a live chimpanzee.

Years later, when I brought my former editor to the South to meet my family, she told me if I didn’t marry him, she would.

So I married him. But that is not to say that jealousy was a motive in her nearly shooting me. OK, here’s that story:

One summer, when I flew home with my new husband for a family reunion, my sister loaned us her car to pick up my kids at the airport. As we were leaving, I suddenly recalled what she always kept handy in the glove compartment.

“Wait here,” I told my husband, “I’ll be right back.”

I ran back in the house and found her half-asleep in her recliner.

“Sissy!” I said. “Wake up! Your gun is still in the car!”

She yawned. “My what?”

“Your gun!”

“Well, bring it in,” she said.

“I’m not touching it!”

“It won’t hurt you!”

I crossed my arms and gave her a look. She made a face, got up and stomped out to the car, mumbling words I won’t repeat.

My husband was sitting in the driver’s seat listening to a baseball game on the radio. He raised an eyebrow when he saw us.

As Bobbie opened the car door and bent down to reach into the glove box, she made a totally rude remark about my character. Never mind what.

And then, OK, I’ll just go on and tell you: I poured a Diet Pepsi down the back of her pants.

It had not occurred to me that, at that very moment, she might already have the gun in her hand. I began to suspect it, however, by the look on my husband’s face — the same look I once saw when we went for a walk and a bulldog ran up and bit a chunk out of his arm.

Imagine my surprise when Bobbie’s head spun around like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.” And then, yes, she fired off a shot.

Never mind that she fired it up in the air. My husband didn’t know that. Suffice it to say, hers were not the only pants that were wet.

Bobbie claims that it was all my fault. And that, if she had actually shot me, she’d have gotten off free and clear on grounds known in the South as “The fool needed killing.”

Still, there is one good thing about that incident. I mean, besides the fact that she didn’t kill me.

Since that day, if I call her up and she’s not home? It still cheers me up like candy, just to think of my sister, and the sound that Diet Pepsi made gurgling down her pants.

“How to Say a Hard Thing,” Dec. 27, 2022

This probably won’t be my best column ever. I always hope for the best. But doing our best takes more than just hope.

Especially in writing. If I cook a bad meal, my husband will get over it. Eventually. But a bad column will haunt me forever.

Writing takes time and effort and a fair amount of passion, all of which I try to give to every column and hope to give to this one. Do you think I’m stalling?

There’s a simple way to say a hard thing: You just go on and say it. I will do that. But first, I want to offer you some advice I’ve shared in columns over the years. I call it, “A Dozen Simple Rules of Common Sense”:

1. When you pass people on the street, smile and say, “How’s your mother?” And they will probably say nice things about you at your funeral.

2. Know what you believe, practice what you preach and always tell the truth. If you tell a lie, at least tell one people will believe, so you’ll only be known as a liar, and not a lying fool.

3. Take care of living things. Feed your animals, tend your crops, be kind to children, old folks and everyone between.

4. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize. Failing to apologize is not just rude but tacky. And you should never, ever be tacky.

5. Avoid confrontation in the heat of anger. Remember, in some states “He needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

6. Never try to teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time and it will annoy the pig.

7. 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.

8. Never gossip behind people’s backs. They’ll hear about it, unless they’re dead. And never speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve got it coming.

9. Seek first to understand and last to be understood. If you want to learn, ask questions.

10. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let your wealth be the gold that shines in your words and heart and deeds.

11. Love everyone, even people you don’t like. But treasure the jewels who will laugh with you in good times, weep with you in hard times and reassure you that you aren’t entirely crazy.

12. Stop doing what you’re doing when it’s time to stop. Don’t keep stalling. Just stop.

OK, I’ll say it: This is my final column. The decision to end it is one of the hardest I’ve ever made. But the choice is all mine. I feel led, not forced, to stop.

I’ve written a column most every week for nearly 32 years. It’s been a dream job for me. Those of you who read it, the editors who edited it and the newspapers that published it, made that dream a reality.

I cannot thank you enough.

Over the years, a great many of you have written to say that my stories are your stories, too.

When my first husband died, you said you were praying for me and that your children were praying for my children.

When I remarried and had grandchildren, you cheered.

You even pulled for Clemson to win every game just to make my brother Joe happy.

You wrote pages front and back to share with me the joys and sorrows and histories of your lives. I couldn’t always reply, but I read every word. And soon, you became for me, not just readers, but friends.

I hope I’m a friend to you, too. I plan to post occasional notes on my website (and on Facebook) and look forward to connecting with you there.

Please keep sharing your stories with your children and grandchildren and anyone who will listen — and ask them to share their stories with you.

Our stories tell us who we are, that we are all different in ways that make us interesting, but so much alike in the ways that matter most — the matters of the heart. Sharing our stories can turn strangers into friends.

Thank you for letting me share with you my stories and my life. It has been such a pleasure. I wish you grace and peace and joy.

(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 www.sharonrandall.com.)

“How to Be Thankful,” Dec. 20, 2022

Lately I’ve been thinking about gifts. Not just the gifts we wrap in paper and give to people who don’t need them. But all the gifts we are given that make life such a pleasure and enable us to give back in some way to the world.

Yesterday, my older son sent me a video of 19-months-old Leilani, learning to fly.

They were playing at a park when Leilani ran over to the swings. But instead of asking for help to climb onto the swing’s seat, she leaned over it to lie on her belly. Then she lifted her feet, spread her arms like wings and sailed back and forth.

“Are you flying?” said her dad.

She beamed up at him with pride and yelled, “Yeah!”

Then I heard my boy’s familiar laugh, a waterfall of delight.

That video was two priceless gifts in one: The sight of a little girl taking wing, and the sound of her daddy’s laughter.

I thought of what my mother would say when she had barely enough money to buy groceries: “The best gifts in life can’t be bought. God gives them free and clear to a grateful heart.”

Today I awoke to another gift: Rain. Enough rain to soak the Earth without washing us away.

I once took rain for granted. Never again. After recent years of little rainfall, we keep a bag packed, ready to go, in case we need to run from a wildfire.

If you live in a drought-prone place like California, you learn to appreciate rain. If you want to complain about it, you keep the complaints to yourself.

We often fail to appreciate people and things that mean so much to us, until one day, we realize we don’t have them any more. But there’s a simple way to show appreciation before it’s too late: Just say “thank you.”

Gratitude changes everything, both around us and within us. It opens our hearts and minds and souls to freely give and receive.

More than an awareness, it takes determination to show true gratitude — to feel it, say it and mean it with all our being.

What does it mean to you when someone thanks you for something you’ve done? It helps, doesn’t it? It may even make you want to do it again.

One summer, years ago, I flew back to the South to visit my stepfather, John. We’d had a rough spell in our family, losing in a painfully short span of time my mother, my husband and my brother Joe’s wife, all to cancer.

John now lived alone in the house we all once shared. One evening he and I sat on the porch sipping iced tea as we had often done on hot summer nights.

Thunder rumbled on the mountains. Lightning bugs glittered in the yard. A scent of honeysuckle filled the air.

We traded questions, catching up on the family. Finally, I said, “So, how are you doing in this big house without mama?”

John took a minute, rocking slowly, staring at nothing. Then he cleared his throat to speak.

“It’s hard,” he said. “We didn’t always get along. But I still miss her. I reckon I always will.”

I nodded and he smiled.

“But you know,” he said, “this is a good time in our family. Everybody’s got work. Nobody’s got cancer. We’re all doing the best we can. We need to be thankful and remember it.”

A year later, John was gone. But his words to me that night were a gift I’ll always treasure.

We make the world a better place by being better people _ kinder, gentler, slow to judge, quick to offer grace _ and by practicing gratitude.

All families have hard times. We prop each other up, pray for strength and do the best we can.

But we also have countless good times to remind us we’re a family and give us stories to tell our children who’ll pass them on for generations to come.

This is a good time for me and my family. I hope it’s a good time for you and yours. Thank you for reading my words.

It’s a gift I’ll never take for granted.

“A Reason to Smile,” Dec. 13, 2022

I’m taking off this week. The following column is from 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 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 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 into a look of fear or worry or furious anger. But it never left my face for long. It always came back, even on occasion 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 then, she blew me a kiss. That put a lasting 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 dinner.

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. Maybe they’ll even blow you a kiss and make your headache go away.

“The Second Best Story Ever,” Dec. 6, 2022

At Christmas, we want to give our loved ones the gift of their dreams, the best gift that money can buy. Unless we’re broke.

This story isn’t entirely new. I’ve told parts of it before. But this is a different version with a slightly different meaning. I hope it has meaning for you.

On Christmas Eve, when I was 9, my mother dropped a bomb on my brothers — bad news that she had already dropped on me.

“Santa got stuck in snow near Asheville,” she said. “He’s real sorry, but he’s running late.”

Denton was 3. He didn’t care. Joe was 5, totally blind, but he could always see plain as day through our mother’s excuses.

“How late?” he demanded.

“Maybe spring,” Mama said.

Our stepfather hadn’t worked in months, due to a bad leg. We barely had money to buy beans, let alone, to fill Santa’s sled. Folks had left food on our porch that I’d mistaken for Christmas gifts, not pity. It can be hard to tell the difference.

That night we ate cornbread and ham, a gift from some good people at church. My stepdad came in leaning on a crutch and carrying a box of tangerines. We ate them all. Then Mama read us the Christmas story from the Bible, making sure to point out that Jesus was born in a barn.

“That’s the best story I ever heard!” Joe said.

We sang some songs, “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells,” but not “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

Denton fell asleep like a possum, but Joe yelled, “I am not one bit sleepy!” He always said that. He knew Mama would make me tell him a story. So I took the braces off his legs, tucked him in bed and said, “What do you want to hear?”

Joe grinned. “Sister, we just heard the best story ever. Tell me the second best story!”

And so, I told him this:

“Once upon a time,” I said, “there was a boy named Joe. He was blind and stubborn and he could barely walk. But he never let anything stop him.

“Joe had a red tricycle, the finest three-wheeler money could buy. He couldn’t pedal it, so he pushed it, one hand on the seat, the other on the handlebar, blowing like a thunderstorm across the yard and into ditches.

“He’d brag to his sister, ‘When I grow up and get my license, I will fly so fast the angels will run and hide their wings!’ ’’

That’s how I ended the story, with Joe’s plan to scare angels. He laughed and clapped his hands. Then he fell asleep to dream his impossible dream.

Did I really think Joe would get a license and drive a car? I wanted to believe it. But I knew, either way, he’d figure it out for himself. He didn’t need me to dim his dreams. He just wanted me to dream them with him.

There’s more to Joe’s story, things he’s proud of and things he’d rather keep to himself. Isn’t that true for most of us?

He boarded for 10 years at a school for the deaf and the blind where he learned to read Braille, type on a Braille typewriter and fistfight on the playground.

He traded his tricycle for a white cane and let it lead him wherever he wanted to go.

He ran a concession stand in a county courthouse trusting his customers to pay correctly.

He married the love of his life, who was also blind, and held her hand through 10 good years until he lost her to cancer.

He has never had a license, driven a car or seen his face. But he sits on his own porch, makes his own choices, goes to church, cooks his meals, washes his dishes, buckles his braces, pulls for the Clemson Tigers and calls his sister at 6 a.m.

And at times, he’s even been known to make angels run and hide their wings.

Joe is living a dream that he and I and countless others have dreamed for him. It’s called Life.

The best gift is not one that money can buy. It’s the gift that we give freely from our heart.

This Christmas, I hope you’ll give someone the story of their dreams. And I’ll give my brother the latest version of the second best story he and I ever heard.

“A Poem for the Ages” Nov. 29, 2022

Where do random thoughts come from? What makes them pop into mind for no apparent reason? And why can I recite a poem I learned long ago, but cannot for the life of me recall where I left my phone?

It can take hours to find it. The phone, not the poem. But it took only minutes to turn up this morning under my pillow where I left it when I got out of bed.

Either that, or my husband hid it there. I’m not saying he did that. I’m just saying he might, if he thought of it. He likes to joke even if I don’t think it’s funny.

I could have found the phone sooner if I’d done like my mama taught me and made that bed the minute I crawled out of it.

Do you do that? When I wake up — if I want to function like a civilized human who actually gives a rip about making a bed or finding a cell phone — I need coffee. Two cups. With cream.

With one cup I can say “Good morning” to my husband and ask, “Did you hide my phone?”

But it takes two cups for me to put on my shoes and go see if I left it (or he hid it) in the car.

I was on my second cup this morning when I missed my phone. My husband was in the garage. I didn’t ask him about it. I just started looking for it. And that’s when I began to hear in my head a poem I recited when I was 10 years old to win first place in my school’s recitation contest. It was a small a victory, not many contestants. But it was something and I was proud.

In “The Children’s Hour,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the youngest (ages 10, 7 and 5) of his six children:

“From my study I see in the lamplight, / Descending the broad hall stair, /Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, / And Edith with golden hair.”

The gist of the poem is this: He hears his girls sneaking up. They rush in like an army of squirrels climbing a castle, overcoming him with kisses and taking him captive in their arms. Just when it seems he’s lost the battle, Longfellow says this:

“Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti, / Because you have scaled the wall, / Such an old mustache as I am / Is not a match for you all!

“I have you fast in my fortress, / And will not let you depart, / But put you down into the dungeon / In the round-tower of my heart. / And there will I keep you forever, / Yes, forever and a day, / Till the walls shall crumble to ruin, /And moulder in dust away!”

I loved how the words of that poem would roll off my tongue like snowmelt on a tin roof. It made me think of my granddad, a preacher, who knew by heart, and could recite with passion, from Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and other poetic passages of the King James.

The night I won that contest, Granddad was ill and couldn’t be there to hear me. But I wish you could’ve seen his face the next day when I recited, just for him, “The Children’s Hour.”

Years later, when he left this world to go preach to the angels, he took the love of all our family to keep us all forever and a day in the round-tower of his heart.

What put that poem in my head today? I was sipping coffee, trying to wake up, and thought of a phone call I got last night from my grandson.

Randy is 12, an artist, a writer, a musician, a skateboarder, a lifeguard and an absolute joy. He had surgery a while back for a broken arm, but thankfully, it healed and he’s good to go.

He’d been worried his arm might keep him from playing basketball. But he called last night happy to tell me he made the team. And I wish you could’ve seen my face.

When a child is born, parents and grandparents are often surprised to discover they will rejoice in that child’s happiness far more than in their own.

That poem is a bit different now when it plays in my head. Instead of Alice, Allegra and Edith, I hear all my children’s and grandchildren’s names. I picture Longfellow laughing with my granddad. And I wish you could see their faces.

“Time to Wake Up,” Nov. 22, 2022

Dear Readers: I’m taking this week off for the holiday. The following column is from 2004. Happy Thanksgiving!

They were wrong about me on the bus that day. I didn’t see it then. But looking back, I can see it so clearly it makes me laugh.

Truth is often like a reflection on a pond. It’s there right in front of you. But to see it, you need to stop splashing around and wait for the water to clear.

In January of 2000, while in Los Angeles, for the Rose Bowl game, I attended church at Bethel Unspeakable Joy Fellowship in Watts.

On that first Sunday of the new year, Pastor Carol Houston preached a sermon from her heart about her ambitious, but not impossible, dream to take 35 children from that church _ kids ages 8-16, who had never been out of Watts _ on a bus trip around the country.

I felt incredibly moved by her passion. I could hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes and feel it in my soul. I could dream that dream with her. But I was not about to get on that bus.

My late husband coached basketball for 30 years, before losing a battle with cancer two years earlier. I had spent a lot of time on buses packed with kids. I missed the kids and going to their games. Actually, I was missing a lot of things. But I did not miss sitting for hours on a bus.

That Sunday, hearing Pastor Carol talk about her dream, I thought, “That woman is crazy.” And I tried not to snicker.

Beware of what you try not to snicker about in church. Six months later, I found myself on a bus with Youth Tour 2000, waiting outside the White House while Pastor Carol made it clear what she’d do to us if we didn’t behave ourselves inside.

Round trip from L.A., the tour lasted three weeks. I signed on for six days (from D.C. to Ohio) and the experience of a lifetime.

I could tell you a lot of stories about that trip and how it felt for me _ a middle-aged widow who grew up in the ‘60s in the segregated South _ to be treated like family by a preacher from Watts and her funny little flock.

For now, I’ll just tell you this: (1) I’ve never met anyone who shined with more courage and grace than Carol Houston; (2) I’ve never known any children who were more polite or better behaved than the children on that trip; and (3) I’ve never in my life been so exhausted.

It’s not easy to behave oneself, especially to Pastor Carol’s standards. I usually try to avoid sleeping in public, but at times I found it hard to stay awake.

Late one rainy afternoon, somewhere between the “Great Blacks in Wax Museum” in Baltimore and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I closed my eyes for a moment _ with my head leaning back on the seat and my mouth gaping open _ when I heard what sounded like the twittering of birds. I looked up to see a half dozen young faces snickering down at me.

“What’s so funny!” I said, bolting upright. They roared with laughter and ran back to their seats. Then 10-year-old Tanika explained.

“We never saw a white woman sleeping before,” she said.

They were right about me in most of their comments, at least, the ones that I heard:

“You’re going to write about us in a newspaper, aren’t you?”

“You look sad sometimes. Do you miss your husband?”

“I bet you wish you could stay with us all the way back to California.”

Excellent observations, spot on. Children often see important things that adults tend to miss.

But they were wrong that day to assume that I was sleeping.

Sometimes what you think you see, looking at someone on the outside, can be a lot different from what you’d clearly see if you could look beyond her skin.

Her eyes may be closed. Her mouth could be drooling. She might even be snoring louder than Pastor Carol. But that doesn’t mean she’s sleeping.

Maybe she is just waking up.