Why I’m a Sucker for Holiday Love Stories

My dad, a 1965 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, used to work with the Academy to recruit young men and women from our area in South Jersey who might be a good fit to attend West Point. Cadets would come down during breaks to speak at local high schools–I was used to seeing lots of good-looking young men stopping by the house on the regular!

But during my sophomore year of high school, my father began chatting regularly with a guy named Clint who was a senior at a regional school a couple of towns over. One day that spring, I answered the phone and took a message for my dad that Clint had been accepted at West Point. Good for him, I thought.

I saw Clint sporadically that next year; we ran into each other at Disneyland right before the Army-Navy game, when the park was closed down for the cadets and midshipmen to enjoy it. Sometimes Clint would stop to see my dad and chat about all the ways in which West Point had changed or stayed the same.

It wasn’t until mid-December of my senior year in high school that I got a call from Clint one day, asking if I wanted to go Christmas shopping with him. I said yes.

(Later, I learned that he’d asked my dad’s permission before calling because he didn’t want to ruin their friendship. Isn’t that sweet??)

What I remember from that date was that I laughed more than I had with any other guy I’d ever dated. We had such a great time. But I didn’t hear from him again for a few weeks . . . until he came over a few days after Christmas to see if I wanted to go out again.

I did.

We spent most of my Christmas break together getting to know each other. But I wasn’t sure if this was a romance or not, because even though I thought we were enjoying each other, he never even tried to kiss me.

On New Year’s Eve, we went to a party at his friend’s house. As the clock chimed in the new year at midnight, finally we had our first kiss.

A year later, on Christmas Eve, he asked me to marry him, giving me a ring in a Christmas stocking filled with Hershey’s kisses.

This year, it will be thirty-nine years since he asked me out. I call him my forever boyfriend, because he still cherishes me as though we’ve just begun dating, and I still see him as the boy who made me laugh and stole my heart.

So, yeah, this really IS the most romantic time of year!

To Live is an Awfully Big Adventure

This is an unusually personal post for me, and it is likely in danger of veering into melodramatic territory. But if you stick with me, I have some fairly solid takeaways at the end. I think, anyway.

A little history–both of my parents died of blood cancers about a year apart when they were sixty-three. I was thirty-nine and forty respectively at the time, and living through cancer with them made a serious impact on me. I joke about it sometimes, but deep down, I honestly began to worry that I have an early expiration date that grew a little closer with each passing year.

That’s not a great excuse, but at least it’s a slightly reasonable explanation for why I hadn’t had a mammogram in a long time. I just didn’t want to know. Call me an ostrich.

After several missteps with unsatisfactory doctors over the past few years, this summer, I decided to try again with a new primary care doc, a really fabulous physician who listens to me and who insisted that I had to have some basic tests recommended for a mid-fifties woman. I took a deep breath and did them all.

To my enormous relief, the first few tests came back fine. I’m still dealing with a few ongoing issues identified by the doctor, but we’ve gotten those under control.

The last test I had done was my mammogram, in mid-August. It seemed to go well; the tech did extra pictures on the left side and noted that I shouldn’t be alarmed if I was called back for a follow-up. So when I was indeed called and told that they had ‘found something’, I tried not to be upset. I was on the verge of leaving for nearly three weeks away from home for a family visit and then the NINC conference, so I told them I couldn’t go back for the follow-up until October 5th.

For three days, I didn’t tell anyone in my family about this. Then I realized that keeping it to myself was causing me more stress, so I let everyone know, telling them I wasn’t worried and didn’t want to talk about it. I mentioned it to a few close friends at NINC so that they’d understand if I was a little quiet here and there. After that, I mostly put it away. Or I tried to, at least.

But once I was back home last week, unpacked and settled, the anxiety over this appointment ROARED back to life. Despite meditation, prayer, and breathing exercises, by Wednesday I was an absolute mess. All I could think of was what if it’s bad news?

A few notes of justification: in addition to the looming memory of my parents’ cancer battles and deaths, I also had no idea what to expect from this appointment. They’d said it would be a high-level mammogram and ultrasound, and that I should expect to be there for at least two hours so that the radiologist could read the pictures. The sense of the unknown was rather terrifying.

On Thursday, I stuck to my regular schedule as much as possible. I spent the morning with my youngest granddaughter (talk about the perfect distraction!!) and then I had a podcast scheduled with my business partner and dear friend Mel Jolly and the cool dudes from Draft2Digital (along with some other lovely guests!). I was live with them right up until the moment I had to leave for the appointment. Thankfully, both Kevin and his wife Kara knew what was happening, so he didn’t give me TOO hard a time about ducking out early.

At the imaging center, I watched closely every nurse and tech with whom I interacted. Did they know something? Was this anticipated to be a problem? Were they prepared to give me life-threatening news? The receptionist called what I was having a diagnostic mammogram. Diagnostic? That meant they already assumed something was there that had to be diagnosed. My anxiety soared.

I sat in the back waiting room with a few other women in our lovely ‘open in the front!’ hospital tops, still not sure what to expect. After about twenty minutes, one of the techs asked if she could speak to me privately. We went into a mammogram room, and she explained that I was going to have an ultrasound first, and then if necessary, the higher-level mammogram. I told her how anxious I felt, and she offered kindness and water–both of which I accepted. Before she could get my water, however, the ultrasound tech called me in for my turn.

I lay on the table, open and vulnerable as only a woman in this position can be. The tech was friendly and comforting, and she made small talk for the first few minutes. Then she stopped talking, began measuring, and noted that she had to move the wand under my arm as well.

Inside, I digested all of these hints and spit them back out as impending doom. When she finally told me that I could sit up while she took the films to the radiologist to be read, promising to be back in five to ten minutes, she also asked if I’d had any recent immunizations. I told her no, not since last year when I had my flu shot and COVID vax. She nodded and left.

I sat on the table, wiping cold gel from my body, positive that the last question indicated that they were looking for any possible outside cause for something evil lurking in my body. I grabbed my phone and texted my daughter in the waiting room, my sister, and two of my friends, telling them I was sure it was going to be bad news.

I shook, I prayed, and I demanded health and wholeness of the universe. I pleaded with Jesus, requested intercessory prayer of my relatives who have already passed . . . and I repeated on rotation the simple prayer that has never failed me.

Thy will be done. Please, help. 

After what seemed like an hour, the tech knocked and came back in.

“Nothing to be concerned about!” she announced brightly as if my entire life hadn’t been held in her hands. “Sometimes, you can have cysts . . .”

Whatever she said next was lost because I had covered my face and burst into tears.

She was sweet, hugging me and telling me it was going to be okay. She passed me tissues as I sobbed out my worries that I wouldn’t live to see my beloved granddaughters grow up, that I wouldn’t see my three younger kids get married and start families. That I still wanted more years with my husband, that we still had so much to do and experience and share.

Before I left to get dressed, she shared a few of her own challenges, and I promised to pray for her and for her family. If that’s the whole reason I was meant to be there, to know that I was called to pray for her loved ones, then it was enough.

I dressed and rushed out to the waiting room where Cate was trying to read as the old lady near her filed her nails viciously, something that none of my daughters can stand to hear. Clearly, Cate had been through her own battles. When she saw me and the thumbs up that I gave her, she hugged me tight and we both shed some tears.

I expect that thousands of women each day go back to follow-up tests after ‘something’ is seen in their screening. I know that many handle it as routine, and I admire them. I also know that too many fail to receive the same ‘nothing to be concerned about’ news that I was so grateful to hear.

So what are my takeaways?

On this Friday morning, I am more cognizant of how happy I am to be alive. I am so thankful for my health and determined to protect it to the best of my ability. Everything today looks brighter, happier, more filled with possibility.

More than I can express adequately, I am so grateful to the people with whom I’d shared my anxiety who were praying for me yesterday, sending me positive vibes, Reiki, advice on how to frame my Universe-demands, and who celebrated my good news with me. My family, my beloved friends, and those who storm heaven on behalf of others most definitely held me up when I might have crumbled. A burden shared is a burden halved, goes the old adage, but in my case, the burden was sprinkled over so many people whom I trusted to have my back. I love you all.

If you decide to get your first mammogram in decades, don’t do it in or just before October. Going back for a potentially troubling follow-up appointment in Breast Cancer Awareness Month means you cannot watch ANYTHING–even your beloved football games–without being reminded of breast cancer. Wait until November, or maybe springtime. While this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, it really was something that I thought about quite a bit this week, each time I saw a pink jersey or a cancer-treatment ad.

Finally, I know that in a few weeks or months, my deep gratitude for life will have faded. That’s simply the way it is with most humans; once the myriad of little troubles creep in once again, we tend to leave behind whatever sense of thankfulness we might have experienced. As it says in the Bible, we are a forgetful people.

That’s one reason that I’m writing this. I want to have an Ebenezer*, a reminder of how blessed I am and that in times of trouble or uncertainty, I am not alone. I have a strong family, a network of friends, and an abiding faith in One who knows more than I do, who has already seen the end of my story.

I’m fifty-six years old. I figure I still have at least fifty years of stories to tell, of life to live, of family to watch unfold. I’m beyond-the-telling-of-it grateful that from where I stand now, with everything I know this moment, I will have those years. Or at least some of them–three of my four grandparents lived until their late 80s or early 90s.

Oh, and also–ladies, get those mammograms. While I was cursing myself for having done so earlier in the week, I am aware that early detection saves lives. I’ll be going back in six months to have my next one.

One of my favorite movie lines supplied the title for this post. In the movie Hook, a grown-up Peter Pan has just survived the ultimate battle with Captain Hook and returned to his wife and children outside Neverland. An elderly Wendy notes that his adventures are over, to which Peter, portrayed with such grace and humor by Robin Williams, replies, “Oh, no. To live . . . to live would be an awfully big adventure.”

I don’t want to forget that truth. I hope you remember it today, too.

*Ebenezer is a Hebrew word that means “stone of help”. It is mentioned three times in the Bible. 

In the book of 1 Samuel, Samuel erects an altar and names it Ebenezer. The altar is a marker that God is their stronghold and help. It is also a sign of a fresh beginning and a reminder that God’s love is everlasting. 
Ebenezer originates as a boy’s name in Hebrew culture. It has taken on the connotation of miserliness and a lack of charity. 
Ebenezer is synonymous with the idea of God reaching down to lend a helping hand to those most in need. We can build our own Ebenezers with words that become touchstones of God’s love, protection, provision, forgiveness, and faithfulness. 

The Diana I Miss

I remember the first time I heard of Diana Spencer. I was babysitting and flipping through a Newsweek magazine as one does when one is thirteen. In the Newsmakers section, there was a photo of a young British woman in a skirt, holding a toddler as the sun shone through that treacherous Liberty Print.

Not long after that, I was watching Good Morning, America and saw the engagement announcement. I don’t know exactly what it was–the fact that she was only six years older than me, or the idea that for the first time in my lifetime, the British royal family felt relatable to me. I’d read Robert Lacey’s Majesty some years before, and in the Queen, the serious and responsible older of two daughters, I’d felt a kinship. Now that she was getting new daughter-in-law in a huge, elaborate wedding, I was hooked.

By the time July 29th rolled around, I was a thoroughly devoted Diana-phile. I had clippings from newspapers and magazines, and early that morning, I was awake at three to watch wedding coverage. I don’t think I moved from in front of the television for the entire day.

When I went to eighth grade the following September, I was sporting a Lady Di hair style–the first time I’d ever cut my long, wavy hair. I imitated the Princess of Wales’ style of clothes, and if you see photos of me around that age? Just about every one has me giving the Shy Di under the bangs smile. I  bought all of the photo books about the couple and devoured them .

Over the next few years as I navigated my time in high school, met my future husband and then went to college, I continued to celebrate the highs of Diana’s royal life. I loved the few interviews she and Prince Charles allowed, found their babies adorable and travled vicariously as they performed their royal duties.

My own marriage and babies definitely distracted me right around the time when it became glaringly apparent that the fairy tale was faltering. 1992, the Queen’s infamous annus horribillus, was the same year that my family and I moved from Hawaii, where we’d lived for five years. I had two little girls to keep me busy. Still, it made me so sad to hear that Diana and Charles had grown apart, that they were separating. Their divorce was such a depressing end to what was meant to be the perfect happily ever after.

By the summer of 1997, I had three little girls, and my husband and I were living back in our hometown in South Jersey. I awoke on the Sunday morning of Labor Day Weekend thinking about the coming school year; my oldest daughter was beginning third grade, and our second was going into kindergarten. I came downstairs to begin breakfast and turned on the television.

The first thing I heard was something I could not believe.

“Diana, the Princess of Wales, is dead.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. No, it couldn’t be! Diana was only 36. She was young, vital, in the middle of recreating her life in the wake of her divorce. She had two small sons.

It couldn’t be.

And yet, it was. She had died horribly in a car accident in Paris, where she’d been chased by reporters and photographers. It was a wholly preventable death. So tragic. So unnecessary.

For days, I was inconsolable. I’ve heard that in recent years, Prince Harry noted that he’d been perplexed by the overwhelming grief of people who had never met his mother. I understand that it must felt odd. He’s right; none of us in the wider world knew Diana as he did, as her family and friends did.

But we loved her all the same.

She had a way of making all the world feel as though we were part of her royal adventure. We saw in her hope and possibility, grace and compassion, love for those who needed it most.

Perhaps we didn’t see the full picture; we seldom do, even with those closest to us. Maybe the real Diana could be petty or insecure or unhappy. I know that even now, I struggle when friends remember my parents in a way that it is at odds with what I knew about them in private. So I can understand a little.

In the twenty-five years since she was taken from the world, we’ve watched her sons grow up, marry and have children. We’ve seen the Royal Family grow and evolve. We’ve watched how her influence is felt even today.

When I write my royal romances, I am often thinking of Diana. I’ve alluded to her within the stories, not by name but by example. Since my books are set within the real British Royal Family (albeit with fictional characters), I think it’s important to note the tragedies along with the triumphs.

I didn’t think about what today was when I decided to release The Royal Nanny Undercover this week and put the box set on sale. But how strangely appropriate it is that I’m celebrating royal love stories twenty-five years after we lost our beautiful princess.

As I remember her today, even through misty eyes of remembered grief, I like to think of that nineteen year old nanny with the ashy blonde hair and the Sloan Ranger style. I like to recall her sitting on the beds of AIDS patients, holding their hands, weeping with them, making them laugh. I want to remember her consoling the victims of land mines and speaking out with courage and anger about the ongoing issue.

And just as I did when my own mother died, I hope that at the end, she realized how much she was loved–not for a title, but for what she meant to a world that needed her particular brand of truth and love.

The real good-bye

It’s a little after eleven on a Monday night, and my husband has just left the house to administer last rites to a man to whom he’s been ministering for a little over a year. This happens every so often; I can always tell when I hear him talking on the phone after nine at night. His particular ‘parish’–the people whom he visits, who attend the services he leads–tend to be early-to-bed folks, so a phone call that late is rarely good news.


Goodbye never comes at a good time. And even when it’s an expected parting–even when it approaches at the end of a long illness or catastrophic accident–death is never not a shock.

My husband will anoint the departing friend with oil. He’ll say those ancient words that have been repeated for generations of believers. There are assurances of mercy, promises of grace, forgiveness, and love.

I’ve sat overnight at two death beds. I’ve made my vigil as both of my parents passed from this world into the next. There is something about saying goodbye in the still silence of nighttime that makes us feel a little more alone. The dark velvet reminds of that we came into life alone and we leave it the same way.

I’ve written precious few death scenes in my books. Yet the two I have both happened at night or in the early morning. I don’t think that’s an accident.

I know that my husband’s presence will bring comfort to the soul on his way beyond and to his loved ones. I’m so blessed by knowing that God has given him the gift of sharing comfort and peace with those who most need it.

Goodbyes–especially those that feel forever–are never easy. There is a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that brings me a measure of peace when I’m struggling.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This is 55.

Today, I am 55 years old.

A dear reader wrote to me this week and said she hoped I wasn’t upset about getting older. “Not getting older is worse,” she reminded me. And how right she is.

I actually love adding a year to my age. For one thing, being the history lover that I am, I appreciate that I’ve lived in seven different decades (yes, I’m only in my fifties, but I was born in the 1960s, lived through the 1970s, 1980′, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and into the 2020s). When I consider that I was born just a little over twenty years past the end of World War II–and that my grandparents were all born at the start of the twentieth century–it’s really amazing how connected we all are to people and events that can feel so far away.

I also lost my parents and mother-in-law when they were still fairly young, so for every year I live, I am grateful.

A year ago on my birthday, I was looking forward to what looked to be a fairly serene and promising year. Books were selling so-so, but the writing was moving along. After a year of working almost exclusively on the Community Garden during the pandemic, Clint was excited about the plans for expansion and improvement. We had a new granddaughter on the way. So much for which to be grateful!

And then . . . and then.

Less than two months later, we learned that our rental home was being sold, forcing us to move. During the same week, the garden was taken from Clint. Doors were slamming shut all over the place, and we didn’t know what to expect next. The year I’d thought would be so calm and happy was suddenly unpredictable and a little scary.

Yet here I am, a year later, a year older, and all of those unknowns turned into blessings.

Our new home took quite a while to find, but once we did, everything fell into place with amazing alacrity. And we’re now less than four minutes from our oldest daughter and two granddaughters. Moving to this side of town–where we haven’t lived in ten years–has been a pleasant change, letting us rediscover old haunts and favorite spots. Clint has continued gardening on a more limited basis at several senior care facilities.

My fifty-fifth year has been one of reclamation and reunion. I’ve found my best friend from childhood–or rather, she found me. I’m also back in touch with several other friends with whom I’d lost contact over the past decade or more. And as I said, I’m enjoying some of my favorite parks, restaurants, and shops on the west side of town.

I find in this decade of my life that I both care less and care more. Some things that used to annoy or worry me no longer faze me at all. I’ve realized that getting anxious about what others do or think accomplishes nothing. At the same time, issues in the world–violence, war, intolerance, discrimination, pain, and injustice–make me cry on the regular. Even though I know these evils have existed since the beginning of time, somehow the older I become, the less used to them I become. My heart is becoming more tender instead of less. I haven’t decided if that’s good or bad. Maybe it isn’t either–it simply is.

I’m grateful for work I love, and for friends who make me laugh, send me chocolate, dedicate books to me, listen to me rant, and drink tequila with me. Where and how I live makes me happy. My sister, my sister-in-law, my nephews, and my favorite niece all add to my sense of connectedness in this crazy world. Aunt Terry and Uncle John are two of my favorite people and show me steadfast, unconditional love.

I have four incredible children who are all out seeking to make our society better–and they all have the greatest sense of humor, which is the best thing they could have inherited from me. And the people they’re bringing into our family are only making us an even better, stronger family.

And then there are my granddaughters. They are gorgeous, so bright, super funny (on purpose), and the lights of my

life. Truly. Being a nana has been the life-changer I didn’t believe it could be.

The man without whom I would be neither wife, mama, OR nana is still the hottest, wittiest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. My fifty-fifth year of life is also our thirty-fifth year of marriage, and I love him more now than I did the day we said I do.

I don’t know how long I’ll be on this earth. None of us do. My parents were both 63 when they died, but three of my four grandparents lived to their late 80s or mid-90s (the one outlier had a bizarre cause of death). Each year is a gift and a victory–and I plan to suck the marrow out of them all.

(That’s a good thing, the marrow sucking. Trust me. And it’s figurative. I tend toward vegetarianism.)