We walked to the porch and beat on the door, Daddy carried the balsam fir in a bear hug. A man answered.

Daddy came home with a dozen trees strapped and loaded on his truck. He had a bagful of gifts in the passenger seat.

He rolled his window down.

“Better hurry,” he yelled to me, spitting sunflower seeds. “Got a lot to do tonight.”

I sat in the front seat with my hands on the heater. The radio played Nat King Cole. No matter how old I get, I'm hard pressed to recall fonder memories.

We rounded the corner into a mobile-home park. It was dark. People had decorated homes with Christmas lights of every color.

We pulled into a driveway with no lights. Daddy brought out two Santa hats. Mine was too big. So was his.

He read from a clipboard. “First delivery is Billy Adams," he said.

So, I dug through the bag for boxes addressed to Billy.

We walked to the porch and beat on the door, Daddy carried the balsam fir in a bear hug. A man answered.

Daddy asked, “You Mister Billy Adams?”

The man looked uneasy, so Daddy explained the whole thing. About how our

church donated trees and gifts to people who signed up to receive help during the holidays. He used plenty of charm to get his point across.

The man looked offended. “My name isn't Billy," he said. "I didn't sign up for help, and I don't need no damn tree."

Then he slammed the door.

Daddy put his boot in the door jamb. “But Mister Adams, maybe your wife signed you up.”

“Impossible. She's dead."

“Well,” Daddy said, peeking inside. “Looks like you ain't got a tree, seems to me you could use one."

"Don't want a tree."

"And we got presents, too. Nothing fancy, just a bunch'a fruitcakes.”

A blatant lie. The boxes contained no fruitcakes, only heavenly confections that our church ladies baked. Brownies, cookies, and God's gift to mankind: fudge.

“I don't want presents," the man said, pushing…

“Can you believe someone threw him away?” she said. "He was a dumpster baby.”

Christmas morning. We served food at a mission.

Well, not me, exactly. My wife and in-laws dished out green beans and turkey while I washed dishes in back with the other indentured servants.

I'll be truthful, I'd never done anything even remotely charitable on Christmas morning—unless you count marching in the holiday parade with the Boy Scouts, tossing out coozies.

The woman washing dishes beside me was in her fifties. She was quiet, small, country. She didn't have much to say except for, “This plate goes over there,” or an occasional, “You call that skillet clean, dummy?”

Dishwashing is not my strongest skill.

A boy came into the kitchen. He was young. Black. Gigantic. They hugged. She removed her yellow gloves and kissed him on the forehead.

“This is my son,” she introduced me.

He almost broke my hand. He must've been fifteen. But he was the size of a fifty-year-old pecan tree.

She sent him back to the front-lines where he shoveled mashed potatoes to people with long beards and ratty jackets.

“Cute kid,”

said I, scrubbing a fifty-gallon soup pot.

“Can you believe someone threw him away?” she said. "He was a dumpster baby.”

And in case I didn't know what that was, she explained. As an infant, someone found him in the dumpster of a Mexican restaurant. Nobody knew how long he'd been there.

The day she met him, she happened to be volunteering at the mission thrift store when they brought him in. She'd never done any volunteer work before. She'd signed up as a way to meet people and cure her empty-nest syndrome. She was divorced. Her kids were grown.

“It was an accident that I was even there, I was supposed to be out of town, visiting family, but my car broke down."

Some ladies were giving the baby a bath in the break-room sink. He had tomato sauce all over him. She said…

Eventually, I think modest people will own every football stadium, steel factory, brewery, peanut farm, fishing hole, longleaf forest, Tennessee mountain, elementary school, and low-level supervisor job at Walmart.

I believe humble people will take over the world. Maybe that seems like a strange thing to say. Just hear me out.

Eventually, I think modest people will own every football stadium, steel factory, brewery, peanut farm, fishing hole, longleaf forest, Tennessee mountain, elementary school, and low-level supervisor job at Walmart.

It will take some time. Maybe hundreds of years. But these folks are cropping up everywhere. They're biding their time.

I'm talking about people like my cousin. At family gatherings, he doesn't even fix a plate for himself. He fills yours instead, and when you're finished, he'll take it to the sink.

At the end of the night, you'll find him and his wife doing dishes.

People like Danny. Who started a company with his friend. After fifteen years, his friend elected himself president and started buying new cars every few weeks.

They gave Danny a pay cut.

Danny told me, “When they fired me, it was kind of a blessing. I'm just not smart enough to run a big business.”

He's blessed to

be a janitor now.

People like Lisa. Who has spent most of her life living in a two-bedroom trailer. She has five kids. Five. No husband. She jokingly calls herself a failure.

Well, joke all you want, Lisa. But your daughter is no failure. She graduated from the University of Alabama on a full scholarship. Your oldest son did the same thing. Your youngest boy is a missionary in Chile.

Some failure.

Then there's Billy, who stutters. His father beat him for it. Also, Amanda, who towers over her eighth-grade class, who thinks she's fat, who speaks in a whisper.

Caroline, who's wanted to be an artist her whole life, but is too busy caring for her disabled husband to have time.

Melissa, too unselfish to take the last biscuit at breakfast this morning. Ricky, a richly talented human being, and too good-hearted to believe…

This two-lane highway is more or less empty today. It's a weekend, and people are spending time at family homesteads. That's how things go in this part of the world. Family first. Family second. Family last.

I'm driving. I see old barns outside my window. I counted three in the time it took me to write that.

Also: I see cattle. Pastures—brown from fall weather. A bright sky. An old billboard that reads: "Sinners go to hell."

Another billboard: "I buy junk, but sell antiques."

I pulled over to visit this junk shop, which was once an old service station. Because shopping for garbage is my favorite pastime.

The old woman behind the counter has silver hair that hangs down to her hips.

“Anything in 'ticular you huntin', hon?”

“You got any old pocket knives?”

“'Course we got'em. 'Ere's a passel of'em rye chonder.”

I'll bet they don't have passels up north.

This two-lane highway is more or less empty today. It's a weekend, and people are spending time at family homesteads. That's how things go in this part of the world. Family first. Family second. Family last.

We pass several houses with herds of cars parked out front. These are old, single-story homes you don't usually notice when you ride by. They have plank-siding,

tin roofs, screen doors, live oaks in the front, tire swings.

I haven't seen a good tire swing in ages.

My father hung tire swings often. Once, he scaled to the top of an oak to hang one from high branches. He climbed better than any of my pals.

“How'd you learn to climb like that?” one kid asked.

“I'm an iron-worker, son,” said Daddy. “We can climb anything.”

The boys were impressed.

Well, I'll bet he couldn't have climbed these trees I'm driving past now. These things are covered in kudzu. You can't climb anything covered in that. I have tried.

My aunt's backyard was a kudzu jungle. I decided to conquer one of these trees. And, since I was the son of an iron-worker, I believed genetics were on my side. They weren't.

Just now, a semi-truck shot by…

The truth is, I was going to write about something else. But today, I saw a young girl crying outside the doctor's office. It got to me.

I'm not a physician, but I'm about as close as you can get. And as a highly trained liberal arts major, I'd like to give you a prescription.

Don't worry.

Don't make me say it twice.

Of course, I shouldn't suggest such a thing. To tell anyone to quit worrying is like trying to keep a pet squirrel.

I once had a pet squirrel—I'm not making this up—named Hank Williams Aaron. One day, I opened the cage to feed him. All I saw was a brown blur. Hank was halfway to Galveston before I could say his name.

My point: you can't stop worrying. Because your mind is like a squirrel, the moment you open the door, it goes nuts, so to speak.

I don't even know what I'm saying here.

The truth is, I was going to write about something else. But today, I saw a young girl crying outside the doctor's office. It got to me.

She sat on a bench, head hung low. A puddle in her lap. People walked by, uninterested.

An old woman

finally stopped and hugged the girl.

They exchanged no words. Only painful smiles.

Look, I know life isn't fair. In fact it's downright criminal. Flat tires, red bank accounts, relationship disasters, a bad diagnosis, busted bones. Death. I don't know what fate dumped in your lap, but I know it stinks.

You have a right to worry, you're a person. This world kicks you in the teeth, then steals your wallet. What kind of idiot would tell you not to worry?

Me.

Yesterday, I pulled out old photos. I thumbed through and saw images of my ancestors. They were poor. I'm talking lucky-to-make-it-past-forty poor.

Then, I found a few pictures of myself, awkward boy that I used to be. Chubby faced, freckled. That kid had a lot to learn—just like his poor ancestors did before him.

And it wasn't all hopscotch and…

This is love, kid. Not just romance. It's bigger than that. I'm talking about the sort that could change the universe.

Girls like flowers, so buy her flowers. It's that simple. You're fifteen, she's fifteen. Not enough fifteen-year-olds give flowers anymore.

When I was fifteen, my uncle once sent my aunt flowers. It was like the Second Coming took place on the porch.

My aunt told me, “Lotta problems could be solved if boys bought flowers now and then.”

I'm inclined to agree. I know bouquets get a bad reputation among fellas your age,—which is a shame—but these boys are missing out.

There's nothing more exhilarating than standing on a doorstep, wondering if she'll like zinnias, if she'll like you, or whether her father has violent tendencies.

Also, I feel obliged to tell you, this new girlfriend isn't just a girl. This is a human.

The problem, of course, is that each underwear ad, swimsuit magazine, and perfume commercial is trying to make her into something else.

This world has done women wrong. It's ruined their confidence. It expects them to be scholars, nannies, interior decorators, chefs, maids, and ER nurses. It tells them to be

leaner, tanner, taller, slimmer, faster, trendier, sleeker, and blonder.

And if that doesn't break your heart, let me tell you about the sixteen-year-old whose boyfriend told her she was fat.

He made fun of her. She went on a diet. Dyed her hair. She eventually lost a few sizes, then she had a few bouts with anorexia. It was bad. She's in therapy now.

I'm no expert, but she didn't need carb-counting. She needed flowers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: I know you're only a kid, but I'm counting on you to save the world.

Long ago, our ancestors gave us a society with country dances, fiddle bands, and walks home after dark. We ruined it. We traded the whole thing in for rock music that sounds like angry chainsaws, and mass shootings.

Listen, this is about more than proms, holding hands,…

The man in plaid, nods toward Jerry's mother. “She's why we do this, you know. The whole thing was her idea. Few years ago, she wanted to help our community.”

Noon. Antioch Baptist Church. North Carolina. This place is a small, brick building. It's on the side of a mountain. Not a fancy mountain, but the kind with mobile homes and cars on blocks.

An eight-year-old named Abigale greets us. She takes our coats and hats and guides us to a plastic table in the fellowship hall.

There's a boy in the corner playing “Amazing Grace” on the ukulele. He's not bad.

“What y'all want to drink?” Abigale says.

“Two sweet teas, please, Abigale.”

"Please, call me, Abby," she says.

Done.

Abby's got a lot of drink orders. Being a waitress is a hardscrabble life.

We're at a table with six others. One man is wearing a plaid shirt with suspenders. His hearing aids aren't turned up. His wife repeats things for his benefit.

The fella on my other side is Jerry. Jerry is in his early thirties and he lives at home. His mother is beside him. She keeps a close watch on Jerry at all times.

“I'm SO EXCITED!” Jerry points out.

The table concurs in earnest.

“ARE YOU EXCITED?” Jerry asks me.

“You bet your drumstick I'm excited. For what?”

“FOOD!"

Abby announces that it's

time to dish our plates. The entire room stands. Fifty people, maybe more. These are salt-of-the-earth folks. Jeans-and-sweat-shirt people.

In the line: two identical twins. They are six-foot-ten. They're mother says they're still fifteen. They're going to eat this place off the map.

Ahead of me is Jerry. His mother piles extra potatoes and dressing on his plate. Jerry asks her to drown it all in gravy.

The food is exceptional. I understand ladies have been slaving in the kitchen since four this morning. They could've been home with family, but this is more important.

Today, they'll serve a hundred and fifty. Last year they served almost that many. For this town, that's big.

“We feed anyone,” says one woman. “Nobody deserves to have a bad Thanksgiving, no matter how poor. You never know what people's circumstances are.”

The kid with…

Besides, happiness is a myth. The moment you think you have it, your transmission dies, your house blows up, and your loved ones leave.

A Sunday school teacher once told me that Thanksgiving was all about loving your neighbor as yourself.

But I think what she really meant to say was: Pilgrims and Indians.

Because that year, for our pageant, we crafted white paper collars, feathered headdresses, and flat-top hats. I ran around shirtless, carrying a tomahawk.

Things were going fine until Jimmy Dickie smuggled a bee-bee gun into school.

Jimmy lowered his musket at me and said, "Run like hell, Kaw-Liga."

The teacher confiscated his weapon, stripped him of his Pilgrim duties, and gave him the role of watermelon in our pageant. I don't know if pioneers of the New World had watermelons, but they did that year.

My friend Abe once told me he thought Thanksgiving was about family. I met Abe through a friend. Abe explained that his pregnant wife and two-year-old had died in an auto accident several years earlier.

Abe is a Cuban immigrant, so was his wife. Long ago, they arrived in Miami clutching a raft.

My wife invited him for Thanksgiving. He declined.

"No thanks," said Abe. "I volunteer at shelter in Pensacola. People who have no families need me, I understand them.”

Abe texted me this morning. He always does that during the holidays.

If you would've asked my uncle, he would've told you today was about fun. Then, he'd toss back a six-pack to prove it.

He hand-rolled his cigarettes and carried tobacco in a leather pouch. He used words like, "hot almighty," and, "yeah boy."

I remember sitting on the porch with him one autumn night. He blew smoke at the stars and said, "Don't ever stop having fun, boy, or smiling. Not even if your wife leaves you for another."

God rest his soul.

Yesterday, I asked a nine-year-old what she thought Thanksgiving was.

To quote her: "It's about happiness, and like, well, turkeys, uh, maybe, I dunno, just good stuff."

Well…

This old house does something to the family. It brings them closer, makes them giddy. And it makes me recall my own family holidays, and how sad they became after my father passed.

Fifteen years ago. It's the day before Thanksgiving. I'm younger. More energetic. Supple lower back.

There I am, trapped in the backseat of a Ford. An older man sits at the wheel, his wife beside him, a girl next to me.

The girl is holding my hand. She and I are getting married in a month. She's invited me to Keego, Alabama for Thanksgiving.

Her daddy yells something to us.

"JEEZUS DADDY," my soon-to-be bride hollers back. "DO YOU HAVE TO TALK SO LOUD?"

"I DON'T TALK LOUD!"

"EVERYONE IN THIS GOD-FORSAKEN FAMILY TALKS LOUD!" screams her mother.

"HORSE HOCKEY!" he says. "BOTH Y'ALL TALK LOUDER THAN A COUPLE OF DAMN BOTTLE ROCKETS!"

They're a close-knit family.

We're in the sticks. We drive through the woods. We pass tall pines, camellias, a pond with cattails growing around it.

When we arrive, we unload hundred-pound coolers into the kitchen. Her father makes the kitchen stove come alive. He flours the countertops, boils butterbeans, slices hardboiled eggs for giblet gravy. He's prepping for tomorrow.

He's cooking everything but

the cupboard doors.

This old house does something to the family. It brings them closer, makes them giddy. And it makes me recall my own family holidays, and how sad they became after my father passed.

"My mama was a good cook," her father explains, stirring collards. "THIS was her apron, and THIS was her skillet."

The whole family is reverent about the woman they call Granny. I learn about her. Like: how she wore housecoats, how she made biscuits by feel, owned a dishwasher but didn't trust it, loved fishing—but not on Sundays.

That night, we stay up late, laughing in the den. I fall asleep on the sofa. Her father covers me with a blanket.

The next morning—I'm stiff from cramped sleep. The sun isn't up yet. Nobody's awake. I wander through the old house. Floorboards creak. The heater smells like…

He emailed a few days ago. I haven't heard from him in forever. He sent photos of his young family. I've never seen a baby so fat, nor a family so fine.

He's coming home for Thanksgiving. First holiday in eleven years.

He's not the same person he was long ago. He's older, huskier, with four kids. Four.

God, where has time gone?

When we met, he was sixteen and so was I. We sat around an Andalusia campfire with six other reprehensible, intoxicated young men. He cried about his mama. It made the others uncomfortable.

So, I took him for a walk in the field to compose himself. He staggered beside me, singing in Spanish.

He is the oldest of eight siblings. His Mexican family shared a mobile home with another family. He slept on the floor.

One night, his father left town and never came back. His mother had two jobs. So did he. He was high-schooler by day, food-service grunt by night.

After high school, he joined the military.

The week before he left, his mother invited family and friends for supper. She made cabeza—a fancy word for cow head.

She sliced a sliver off the snout and handed it to me.

My buddy giggled, saying, "She wants you

to have the lips."

I'm honored, ma'am.

Then I watched him eat an eyeball like it was a Bing cherry.

That night, my pal's girlfriend sat beside him. She was blonde, blue-eyed. They'd been dating for a year. She was pregnant. Her family disowned her because they didn't care for his skin tone.

The two married. It was a courthouse ceremony. They spent a few days as newlyweds, then he left for basic training.

We lost touch.

Anyway, he's done well for himself. He turned out to be a cracker-jack with computers. They promoted him. He's traveled the world.

A few years ago, he bought his mother a two-bedroom house. It's a modest one, with granite countertops.

That must've felt good.

He emailed a few days ago. I haven't heard from him in forever. He sent photos of his young…