The star of the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" and author of the memoir "Made from Scratch," [Meredith, 2007] tells Beliefnet about her childhood with a mentally ill mother and an abusive father and how she managed to overcome the odds to become a successful entrepreneur and TV personality. When her alcoholic mother's long absences left an adolescent Sandra in charge of her younger siblings, she figured out cooking techniques and shortcuts that would one day become the basis for "Semi-Homemade," which helps busy moms prepare quick and easy meals for their families.You've had such a remarkable journey, from being on food stamps to being a successful TV host. Do you think that God had a plan for your life?
Oh, absolutely. I think He absolutely has one. I think He has a plan for me in heaven, too. I had two dreams about my Grandma after she died. I was really mad at her for not coming to me sooner in my dreams--I had expected her to stay in contact that way. She said, "Oh, honey, it's so busy up here. You can't even imagine. There's so much going on. It's so fun." So, yeah, I think He has a plan for me here, and I think He has a plan for me up there.
You mentioned in your book that you think your grandmother is your guardian angel. She spent several years raising you while your mother coped with alcohol addiction, and you later discovered she gave your mother money in exchange for getting to have a relationship with you. What role do you think angels play in lives, and how do we know where our guardian angel is?
I think that there are people that we see and beings that we can't. I think that mentors, and people who do good deeds, and people who take care of their families and their communities, are guardian angels that happen to be alive. And I think that guardian angels are also spiritual, and they help us to put thoughts in our mind in a moment when we have decisions to make which are either going to be good for us or bad for us.
You, your sister Cindy, and your grandmother were able to take a trip to the Holy Land together when you and Cindy were teenagers. How did seeing those places affect your spirituality?
Much later than in the moment. When you're young like Cindy and I were, you just want to play and be with your friends. It was fun to be with Grandma. I was very present when things were important, like when I was baptized in the Jordan River and like when we were underneath the olive trees in Jerusalem, and I washed her feet and she washed mine.
She [her grandmother] had been to Israel many times, at least a half a dozen. She planted trees over there. In fact, that picture of her planting a tree in Israel was something I used on the pamphlet for her memorial service. She was all about community service. And it wasn't just here domestically, it was around the world.
How would you describe your personal beliefs?
I was raised Jehovah's Witness, but my family is Catholic. I have studied Judaism and actually converted for a time when I was married. It was very important to my husband. To me, if you believe in God, you believe in God, and you believe in a higher power.
We all have power to make a difference and make the world a better place. That is our job while we're here because one thing we do today is going to trickle down and affect someone else's life tomorrow and the next day and in 10 years. The decisions and our conduct today are what tomorrow is built on. And you're not just here for yourself. I don't think God put us on the earth to be selfish beings. I think He put us on the earth to be a community, or He wouldn't have given us one another.
I go to St. Patrick's [Cathedral, in New York City], and I light candles. When I was writing the book, there were weeks where I went every single day. I lit a candle apiece for my siblings, that this book would help them and not hurt them because I didn't want to remind them of things that, hopefully, they had forgotten, but that I was living through in writing the book. I wanted it to be easy on them.
I always light one for my grandma, just because she's my grandma and I'm grateful, and I want her to have fun in heaven. I light them for my aunt and uncle and people who have been helpful in my life. And of course, I ask that everybody will be able to take away from the book what was intended. The first half of the book is a very gritty story, and it's a hard-knock story. And that's just fine because the last half of the book says, "Okay, you know what? It doesn't matter where we come from, or what we're going through now, or what we're going to go through tomorrow, what matters is how we deal with it, the type of people we turn out to be, and who we are to ourselves, our friends and our family. And did we do what we were supposed to do while we were here, or did we waste our life?"
Did you learn anything from the process of writing your book? You revisited a lot of traumatic moments, like when your father threatened to cut you off from your younger half-siblings because you challenged his authority. Do you feel that your perspective on anything changed?
I think when you sit down and you really think about what you've done and where you come from, it’s always kind of an in-your-face moment. There were a lot of painful days while I was writing the book. After I laid my grandma to rest, which is about halfway through the book, I went to bed for two days. I absolutely lost it. I didn't want to finish the book.
The writer [her co-writer, Laura Morton], who's been around the block more than times I have, and certainly in this process, said, "You've got to get back on the saddle. You've got to get back on the saddle. The rest of it will be fine. Now is where you can really make a difference. Now is when you inspire people."
You have overcome so many obstacles, from a childhood in poverty to a painful divorce. What advice would you give to somebody who was coping with tragedy in their life or going through a difficult time?
I think bad times are in a moment. And I think that you have to be thoughtful about yourself and where you want to be and where you want to end up, and be thoughtful about the path that you’re taking to get to your end result. Are you doing it the right way? Are you doing it the best way you can? Are you being thoughtful not only with those around you, but with yourself? Are you being realistic? Are you in denial? And also, are you respecting yourself? Because other people, they always say you've got to love yourself first, and then you can love someone else. That also holds true for respect. You have to respect yourself. And others, just by your sheer example in how you treat yourself, will treat you the same way.
Do you have any favorite Bible verses or inspirational quotes?
And I'm very partial to "Footprints in the Sand." I think that that's a hugely helpful poem. Also, Matthew 28:20, "And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age."
My favorite prayer? "Please God help me, in Jesus' name, Amen. Sorry I'm asking again. P.S., sorry I'm asking again."
I'm not making a joke. But, it's hard for me to believe that God does not have a sense of humor. And I'm not being flip.
You've mentioned your grandmother quite a few times. I know she was really important to you. How do you honor the important people in your life and let them know that you care about them?
I think by actions of being there, calling, texting, e-mailing, sending cards and notes. Staying in touch is important, telling them that you're thinking about them, expressing your feelings and your emotions, little gestures of kindness. It's all about expressing to someone how appreciative you are of them.
When it comes to people who are deceased, I think that you honor them by taking their advice and heeding it, and their words of wisdom and living by them, and passing them along, and also not letting them be forgotten.
Whenever I'm with my niece, Danielle, I'm like "Do you remember Grandma Lorraine? We did this, we did that. Do you remember?"
I always remind her, so she never forgets.
Do you have any possessions that mean a lot to you, things of sentimental value that belonged to someone you care about or that you bought with someone?
I have Grandma's shoes that she wore every day. They're in my closet with my own. They kind of remind me of "Footprints in the Sand." Unless you've walked in someone's shoes, you can't really judge them, which is hard because it's very easy to judge people. It's very hard to remember when someone’s really crappy that maybe they're just going through a bad day and they’re not actually a bad person. And it's very difficult to be present.
If there was one thing that people could take away from your book, one lesson, what would you want that to be?
I want them to know for sure that no matter what you've gone through, where you come from, or who you come from, you can do or be anyone you want, as long as you work hard and you stay true to your dreams and yourself. This book was written to show by example. I'm not perfect in the book. I don't claim to be perfect in the book. My family certainly was not perfect. Being raised on food stamps and welfare… I was ashamed of that forever. I tried to hide it. My mother's mental illness [addiction and bipolar disorder], I tried to hide it.
None of that stuff matters. What matters is that what you went through actually makes a difference and helps someone else. That's all that matters. If you pull yourself out, pull as many people out as you can with you.