Farewell 2023, and good riddance.  In our generation, it is hard to recall a more heartbreaking, crisis-ridden 12 months.  The year-in-review news summaries are enough to turn the toughest stomach. Wars, weather crises, political turmoil, unrelenting gun violence—it is enough to bow the most fervently faithful head.

As we all search the horizon for bright spots, seeking hope anywhere, I started a list of inspirations from 2023.  From the tiny and personal to the global, the private to the very public, here are 10 widely disparate things and people—some more serious than others–that were bright lights for me in a tough year. In no particular order:

Neighbors still help neighbors.  In early summer, a favorite neighbor up the street experienced a sudden and serious medical emergency while alone at home.  Her kind and attentive son, blocked from reaching her quickly by an untimely traffic problem, called a neighbor, who called another neighbor, who brought still more neighbors.  All raced to her, waiting with her for the ambulance and tending to her home and beloved dogs while she got the medical attention she needed in the hospital.  Waiting for her return home, we circled round, making lists of how best to help in the next phase and sharing ideas for what would mean most to her. Interestingly, our street of all recently built homes forms a very new set of neighbors.  There’s such hope in watching how quickly the bonds of community form and sustain.

Sean Dietrich is an influencer of hope.  This writer, a columnist, novelist, and humorist, devotes his career to inspiring readers through sharing stories of the downtrodden, the overlooked, the defeated.  He testifies to how they struggle, and how they rise.  He shared so many memorable stories this year there is no room to list them all, but his blooming friendship with a young blind girl named Becca who has an angelic singing voice has stirred my heart every single time.  You don’t follow Sean to experience literary greatness; you follow Sean if you want to believe that greatness in the human spirit still triumphs in daily life.

I got Wordle in two.  Twice in the same week!  There’s nothing like blazing, blind luck to inspire hope.  If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.  Never, ever, ever give up.

One doctor really listened.  Absorbing my frustration about a medical problem that lingered, unabated by treatment thus far, the young doctor (about the age of my daughter, I surmised) snapped his laptop shut.  He turned on the stool in the examining room to face me directly and hear me out.  My problem was nowhere close to serious or life-threatening, but it was throwing my daily life off balance, and I was getting desperate.  This has been going on too long, I fumed, and he quietly agreed.  Sometimes it takes multiple tries to find the solution, he added calmly.  Can you hang in there with me while we keep trying?  He really heard me, I thought to myself, shocked to realize how rare that has become.  Hope renewed by having an ally, I said I would. And I did.

The Covenant School parents just won’t go away.   The March 27 slaughter at Covenant School of three children and three adults by a deranged former student with an assault rifle was described by our mayor as Nashville’s worst day.  The ripples of heartbreak and despair spread everywhere in the community.  Conversely, there are ripples of hope, maybe small, but still visible, in the determined voices of the Covenant parents’ group that is publicly advocating for improved gun safety in Tennessee.  Soundly defeated, even harassed and vilified for their intervention at a special session of Tennessee’s legislature in late summer, they are already speaking out as the lawmakers prepare to reconvene in the new year.  There’s a faint but discernible glimmer of light in the widening circle of churches and other community-based groups rallying to support their position and kindling the public dialogue.

When love wins, the light reflects on many.  This summer, my daughter married a loving and kind man in a ceremony meticulously planned to reflect their joy in each other.  Watching a child transformed by a loving partnership is surely one of a parent’s greatest gifts.  Watching the parallel joy of her children in their new family unit adds a dimension that beams hope all over the place.

Kentucky re-elected Gov. Andy Beshear.  Major political forces invested heavily in creating a different result, but the voters in my home state nevertheless returned their governor to his office for another four years.  It is so hard, sometimes almost impossible, to like or admire politicians in these times. Yet Beshear inspires hope by demonstrating that public officials can choose to rise above the current tide and lead with vision and decency.  Faced with the pandemic and multiple weather-related tragedies, Beshear speaks common sense, refuses to indulge in ugly partisanship, and openly acknowledges his faith without weaponizing it.  Here’s hoping he has a long and successful career as a public servant in the best sense.

When you need an optimism demo, watch a dog.  Yes, yes, yes, legends are written, and movies are made about all the magical gifts of animals—their dedication, their healing powers, their learning skills and discernment.  On that very long list of things to cherish in their daily lives, I choose optimism.  In my house, there’s a morning ritual as predictable as dawn; my dog spins, dances and prances in front of the closet door closed on his food bin.  Not in so many words, he radiates hope and absolute, unwavering confidence: You’re going to open that door, I just KNOW it, and you’re doing to scoop that stuff for me, ANY MINUTE NOW!  I know you are, I know it, I DO, and I’m SO EXCITED I can’t stand it ONE MORE SECOND.  And I will say ALL this again tomorrow, and every morning after that.

Jon Batiste’s musical genius is getting the attention it deserves.  Many of us first encountered the New Orleans native when he was band director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  In the last couple of years his career has exploded, as he has won Grammys, an Oscar and more accolades for an astonishing range of work that includes movie scores and a couple of full-length albums.  Jon defies genre and radiates hope and faith.  For a quick dose of the power of Jon’s work if you aren’t already familiar, try his song Freedom.

There was a star.  On a chilly Christmas morning, a few days after the winter solstice, the dog needed his morning break just as dawn was barely evident.  Watching him from the back porch facing the woods behind the house, I looked up at the still-dark sky.  There was a bright, single pinpoint of light reflecting in the east above the trees.  A satellite, maybe?  A helicopter hovering?  Or the Eastern Star of Christmas?  I know what I think.

The sun has no voice, surely, so I must have imagined that call.  It summoned me outside as it continued its ascent in the bright, early hours of the morning after Thanksgiving.  The striated rosy and berry pinks of dawn over the hill behind had just faded, giving way to near-blinding illumination from a cloudless sky.

Probably will be too cold out here, I grumbled, unsure about accepting this invitation as I wrested open the porch door and stepped out in my tattered old yellow robe and slippers.  Still, lured by the crimson tints still clinging to a few determined trees in the woods behind the house and the bleak grace of the towering bare trees farther up the slope, I longed for some different air. I took along my book and coffee, and, of course, the dog, who frets if ever left more than about 14 inches from my feet.

The porch is shuttered for winter, like a beachside pub in the off season, its colorful flower pots retired to storage and cheery cushions stashed in the garage.  But on this particular morning, there was an odd, welcoming draw in its lean openness.  To wrest one of the creaking old iron chairs around sideways was the work of a moment.  There!  Now I could read without squinting straight into the rising sun, and I perched.

A chilly breeze denied the sun’s promised warmth, and I hoisted the collar on my old bathrobe higher around my neck, inhaling deeply, once, twice, then three times, not entirely sure why this perch inspired the deep breathing exercises.  The sun settled on my right cheek and hand, holding in place like the lingering touch of someone familiar.

The dog, in his elevation some seven inches above ground, struggled to settle.  His requisite security patrol around the visible perimeter completed, he sat briefly on the concrete, then for a fraction of a second on the grass, before he came to stretch up and position both paws gently onto my thigh. This telegram read:  The grass is wet and the concrete is cold.  What shall we do?  Appreciating his dilemma, I plucked one of his beds off the floor of my adjacent office, dropped it on the porch concrete, and sighed with satisfaction along with him as he jumped in. He curled up with face toward the sun and gaze toward the woods, from which despicable aliens like turkeys or deer might always encroach. There being none in sight, he closed his eyes.

With fresh clarity bestowed by the warm light and wafting winter air, I could admit why I needed that deep breathing.  I let that discomfort stand up on two feet and sat with it, staring into the trees, my finger holding my place in the little book I was ignoring.  Thanksgiving Day was a tough one, a low-key version of the holiday, or what I sometimes call an “off year”.  I desperately missed my late parents, who loved rowdy family groups and festive holiday gatherings.  I missed my extended family, all understandably occupied with other branches of their own families, an inevitable calendar result of these holiday rotations.  Memories of earlier holidays, especially before some of the beloved had left us, scrolled across my forest view like old movies on a screen, and my eyes briefly welled with tears.  I tried one sip of coffee, now completely cold and slightly bitter.

Hard to say how long I sat there, the sun steady in its grasp on my cheek, like a comforting palm.  As I felt my chest relax, I closed my eyes and thought, shoot, I could doze, sitting right here.  And I remembered, with gratitude and for the umpteenth time:  There is nothing that begins to ease sorrow more readily than staring it right in the face.

The dog raised his head, nose twitching briskly to re-examine potential threats signaled on the breeze, and it seemed best not to doze where one could inadvertently slump forward onto concrete.  The hard day of lingering loss was behind me, a bright new morning begun, with groceries to procure and a table to set for guests coming later.  The peaks and valleys of the holidays, sometimes so closely knitted it is hard to distinguish between them, can take on different tones when an interval to sit still and breathe is afforded.

Thankful for the call of the sun and carrying the feel of that warm palm with me, I started back into the house.  Time to be up and at it.  And if the call comes again tomorrow morning, I’ll be listening.


Picture this:  The next day, there were cookie sprinkles in my bed.

You really can’t make this stuff up.  How did the little multi-colored devils make their way from the kitchen?  Certainly not because I was eating in bed; I was too exhausted by that time to even open my mouth, much less chew. Most likely they were stuck to the paws of the cat, who jumps on the bed to nudge me awake, no small job on this particular morning.

Heaven knows the kitchen floor was a virtual garden of sprinkles, topping a thick carpet of flour, dough crumbs, and what-all. It was all there for the strolling after a worn-out grandmother collapsed in bed before she finished cleaning the floor.  For all I know, the sprinkles were stuck to my own feet.

It was the morning after the annual holiday cookie-baking extravaganza, with grandkids Buddy, Sis, and me.  The kids are competent, trained clean-up staff, but the schedule went awry for this baking session, and I had to hustle them home before they could do their part.  So, I was a clean-up staff of one, surveying the damage.

More evidence of the previous day’s culinary chaos was traveling on four feet. Reaching down on to clip on the dog’s leash for his routine morning stroll, I lightened his load by plucking a small nugget of dried meringue from the fluffy black spikes of hair just above the base of his ear.  Not hard to figure that one out; he knows exactly where to loiter under the island counter to catch whatever falls.

Why is this baking process so messy?  For one thing, we make the dough from scratch and roll it out the old-fashioned way. We follow a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting that attributes the recipe to her own mother. (That’s right, the great-great-great grandmother of my baking co-conspirators.)

And truly expert bakers may have other thoughts, but in my experience, the answer to all questions about working with scratch dough is more flour, everywhere and always.  Dough getting sticky, or splitting under the pin? Dump more flour on the hands, on the rolling pin, on the dough ball.  When this technique is employed by bakers ages 9 and 11, turning the kitchen floors into a decorator’s “Dusty White” finish is but the work of a moment.

Next comes the decorating phase.  Supplied with red, green, and white icing tubes, a box of edible eyeballs, the whipped egg whites for texture, and four colors of sprinkles, Buddy and Sis set to work on holiday masterpieces.  A highlight for their G-ma is observing their artistic inclinations evolving as they get older.  In a short year, pre-teen Buddy has blown past friendly gingerbread men with smiles and standard icing trim to a tray full of one-eyed cyclops characters and a tenderly crafted skeleton.

While Sis opted for some more traditional formats—striped candy canes, and dotted Christmas trees—the concept of excess does not haunt the vocabulary or the thoughts.  Gentle suggestions about the thickness of icing or the volume of sprinkles were cheerfully yet determinedly unheeded.

Happily, the children have matured into a phase where humor may trump heartache when disaster strikes.  I feared a hardworking young baker’s disappointment when I pulled a tray of his smaller cookies from the oven.  Apparently, decorative eyeballs require a certain dough thickness to maintain shape while cooking.  The little cut-outs were not thick enough, and they emerged looking like a pack of forest creatures that had been slain by a mythical cave monster, their eyes plucked out by vultures.  “Oh, dear,” I mumbled, and before I could utter anything more helpful, Buddy looked over my shoulder at the melted carnage.  Hahahaha, he hooted.  “That looks WEIRD!  Eeewwwww!”

My girlfriends asked maddeningly logical questions about our baking plans when I shared them in advance.  Why not just buy the dough, make it easier?  asked one.  Don’t you want to get a decorating kit with instructions?  queried another.  How great that you let them do them however they want, said a third, kindly, with only a tiny pinch of surprise.

Staring at the next-day sprinkles sparkling on the bed linens, I admit I pondered those questions.  Is doing things the hard way a family trait, I wondered, not for the first time?  Do the cookies really taste better, from scratch—and is that even the point?  Maybe I just wanted to focus on one family tradition, and the memories attached, in this first Christmas since my mother died.   In the company of the children, this one felt so right.

Observing the wreck that remained for remediation, I remembered one more detail.  Sometimes I actually like the sight of a messy kitchen.  Sometimes, it is a vivid, aromatic illustration of shared fellowship, creative outcomes, and more than a few unexpected laughs.  Even if I am left with melted eyeballs stuck like glue to non-stick cookie sheets and meringue-wearing dachshunds.  It’s the best kind of holiday chaos.

Merry Christmas to all. May the chaos reign.






Made a few notes for next time after hosting Thanksgiving for the family.

Things I Forgot For Thanksgiving Dinner

  • Graham crackers for the smores.   Oh, yes, we had the snazzy outdoor firepit, acquired in hopes of extending the space for the crowd out onto the back porch, a welcome dose of fresh air and crackling logs after the three pie varieties had worn off.  I could envision the pastoral, after-dinner sweetness of the scene, even smell the toasting marshmallows.  But not clearly enough to remember the graham crackers.  Spoiler alert:  Ritz served as an adequate substitute, but I’m still embarrassed.
  • A bathroom serving at least 10 guests benefits from more than half of one roll of toilet paper.  Surely the other nine were grateful to the enterprising niece (you know who you are) who located the back supply in the other bath and delivered where needed.  Thanks for having my back, kiddo.
  • Carrots, pickles, and smoked oysters for the relish tray for cocktail hour, meant to mimic what my mother always offered on our first Thanksgiving without her.  I kept thinking the tray looked a little dinky with just olives and pickled okra, but couldn’t quite focus on the solutions awaiting their turn quietly in the cabinet. Where they remain.  Does that stuff last until next year?
  • Actually offering liquor to your guests increases the chances of them actually drinking it.  That fine bottle of bourbon, a gift and popular new brand, went untouched.  When I wondered why to my daughter, she said, “I didn’t know it was there.”

Things I remembered

  • Mom was right.  (But you knew that already, didn’t you?) Years ago, I asked her–with what I thought was appropriate reverence–how to watch the antique lace tablecloth she handed down into my care.  One never knows, in a family, when reverence may be misplaced.  “Put a candlestick or serving dish over the spot and forget it,” she advised, an Olympic gold piece of hostess advice if ever there was one.
  • Pre-adolescent children—an age that has been known to try the patience of the most hallowed of saints–can actually be excellent kitchen meal-prep staff.  They’re like dogs, their mother observed later; they do best with a job.
  • Do not buy a used car from anyone who tells you that making gravy is easy.  It’s a myth, perpetrated by the most gifted cooks in cahoots with purveyors of turkey gizzards.  I know absolutely how tricky it can be, because I watched very carefully while my gifted sister-in-law worked really hard on it.  But not closely enough to do it myself, next time.  (And dang, it was good.)
  • A strategic Leftover Distribution Plan is vital.  Even the most calculating and careful hostess might have too much food—I’m told by a friend.  Check your shelf of disposable containers, maybe check it twice. Stand by to load them with abandon, and don’t let anyone out the front door who doesn’t tote one, preferably two or three.  It can undermine dignity to resort to leaving mashed potatoes anonymously on the doorsteps of unassuming neighbors and tearing up homemade rolls in the backyard for the birds.
  • How our dad laughed when he got really, really tickled.  Which was pretty often, at these gatherings.  Nine years after he left us, I saw and heard him in my brother’s laugh and the familiar, gleeful expression on his face.  It’s a laugh that rings bells and lights candles and melts away grief.  Extra napkins may be required to mop the face.








Thinking about your Thanksgiving toasts? Making a list of all the things you’re grateful for?  I’m adding new entries this year, a cadre of stalwarts who deserve way more credit than they likely ever get.

Friends, I give you the Grocery Workers on Thanksgiving Week.  Will you join me in raising a glass?

Here’s to the lovely woman in the friendly green branded shirt motoring past me on a mission.  Even at that speed, she noticed me frozen in place in front of the canned fish, searching with furrowed brow for smoked oysters.  Brakes applied, she offered assistance, unasked:  “Help you find something, ma’am?”  Of course, the oysters were right in front of me, a fact she kindly neglected to point out.

And raise your glass high to her colleague, similar shirt with hair net, who appeared magically out of nowhere, a retail EMT dashing to the scene of the emergency.  Ignoring the grocery-aisle speed limit in my typical infernal hurry, I tilted the cart just slightly, like a race car on two wheels rounding the final turn.  A six-pack of beer (bottles, naturally) on the lowest cart shelf chose this moment to leap toward freedom, crashing loudly on the floor, each occupant rolling in the direction of its own choosing.  “Are you OK, ma’am?” she inquired kindly, stooping to chase the rollers I hadn’t yet caught.  Oh, yes! I mumbled, mortified.  Just wondering if any of these are going to blast a top and spray me any second now.  She patiently checked each cap as she returned them to captivity in the carton, securely placed in the deep part of the basket.  “They look OK, but get them to check them one more time when you check out,” she advised.  If her look indicated concern about anyone who would shove a cart at that speed, she was too nice to mention it.

Hail and thank-you to the butcher, who volunteered, unsolicited, to check the stock room for the particular bone broth I sought.  If our gravy tomorrow is any good, it’s all down to him.  “How many would you like?” he asked, breaking open the carton of containers.  Are you kidding, I wonder silently, I have no idea, counting on my uber-chef sister-in-law to coach me on gravy.  Like all the greatest cooks, she rarely mentions specific quantities.  “Three!” I chirped, a wild guess, and reached for them.  Yet he wasn’t finished assisting.  “Can I get you a basket for these?”  Who ARE these people, I’m thinking at this point—escapees from a remote monastery populated by saints?

Finally, lift those glasses high for the smiling young man bagging the purchases at checkout.  Efficiently wedging the last bag into the cart, he looked me in the eye and inquired, “Is there anything else I can do for you today, ma’am?”

I stared at him for a splint second and wondered—where does all this COME from? A great retail operation that actually hires and trains for customer service—a business that manages, all news reports to the contrary, to have plenty of staff on the busiest day of the year?  The friendliness endemic in our lovely small town?  The heritage that embraces all celebrations (and the preparations they require) in our beloved American South?  Some combination of all of these things?

Nope, I got it! I assured him, adding, Happy Thanksgiving! with the biggest smile my exhausted self could muster.  And thinking all the while:  You and your friends have already done so much more than you know, restoring my faith, today of all days, that customer service is not really dead, that kindness still exists among strangers, that there’s a chance I’ll actually having decent gravy for my family.

And you don’t know it, I said silently to his back as he turned to push a cart for another customer and I waited for the glass exit door to slide open, but I’ll be toasting all of you tomorrow.

Note:  G-ma receives no benefits from any commercial enterprises associated with her stories.  She is delighted to acknowledge that the story shared here occurred at Publix in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  Cheers to that team!