Big stinking deal. I was sitting in a truck, in the rain, with nothing but a snoring dog and a new license.

I had been sixteen for under twenty-four hours. I sat in my truck. It rained. I stared at my new, hot-off-the-press driver's license.

Big nose. Goofy grin.

I hated birthdays with a purple passion. Three years earlier, Daddy died. Birthdays lost their punch.

Anyway, that day my driver's exam had been easier than I thought. I weaved past orange cones like a kid who'd grown up on a Ford 2N tractor.

After the test, I showed the license to Mama. She was proud. She fired up the skillet. While she battered chicken, I decided to take the truck out for my first legal driving experience.

“Don't be long,” said Mama. “Supper will be ready.”

I never left the driveway. My dog, Cody, sat in the seat beside me. The truck was off. It rained like hell.

My chest ached. Birthdays were supposed to be fun, dammit. Friends, family, parties. They weren't. These days were hateful reminders that happiness is a white-headed dandelion in a hurricane.

I was changing. My body was turning against me. At night, my

shins ached something fierce. The doctor said my bones were growing too fast.

Stubble appeared on my cheeks. I'd tried to teach myself to shave using Daddy's old cutthroat razor. It was like shaving with a barn axe. Blood ran all over the bathroom sink.

Sixteen.

Big stinking deal. I was sitting in a truck, in the rain, with nothing but a snoring dog and a new license.

A figure walked toward me wearing a raincoat. Flashlight in hand. The door opened and Mama crawled in. She handed me a plate wrapped in foil.

“You shouldn't have,” I said.

“No trouble,” she said. “I didn't want it to get cold.”

My shirt was greasy in a matter of seconds. Cody watched my every bite with sincerity.

“You know,” Mama went on. “One day, you're going to get a second chance at all this.…

A knockout and a tobacco picker. She and her sisters picked 'bacca during harvest seasons near Butler County. They'd been doing it since childhood.

"My mother's wedding ring was aluminum," she says, showing me a ring.

The gray band is not a perfect circle, the metal is too cheap to hold its shape.

"I wish I had more pictures of Mother when she was a kid," she goes on. "They say she was a knockout."

A knockout and a tobacco picker. She and her sisters picked 'bacca during harvest seasons near Butler County. They'd been doing it since childhood.

They worked long hours, earned pennies, lived in bunk-cabins, and made new friends. Think: summer camp for poor folks.

By age seventeen, she was still picking each season. On weekends, she and her girlfriends hiked into the woods with the other workers. They lit bonfires, laughed. Some folks brought instruments and jelly-jars. Others wore Sunday shoes.

There she met a skinny boy. He caught her eye. There was something about him. He asked her to dance. She said yes.

It didn't take long to know him—they both worked in the drying barn. She'd string blanket-sized leaves onto pine

rods. He'd climb the rafters, hanging them.

He was her first boy. For two summers they kissed. And two summers they picked side by side. When he asked her to marry, her answer was no surprise.

Then, the worst.

Only one day before their courthouse wedding, she and her sisters went into town to buy a skirt-suit for the ceremony. She walked up a flight of steps, carrying her sister's baby. She slipped.

She dropped the infant on the pavement. The baby was fine, but she wasn't. She busted her neck. They sent her to Tallahassee. Doctors said she might never walk again.

They say he refused to leave her bedside. Not even for food.

After staying motionless for weeks, her temper wore thin. She hollered, told him to leave. She said he deserved a girl in good health, not someone who might need a wheelchair.

I miss a time when instant communication among peers meant riding bikes. When children had energy to play all day, and still would.

I'm breaking promises I made long ago. Once, I swore I'd never write anything that smelled even faintly like a Gimme-The-Good-Old-Days sort of story. The kind with sentences like, "kids, when I was your age."

I've given up the fight.

Today, I went fishing. It was chilly. A skiff trolled around my beat-up boat.

It was a teenage couple. They were supposed to be fishing. Instead, they argued loud enough to beat the band. Their screaming voices traveled across the water.

Their fight ended with a round of name-calling. The young man called the girl a horrid name beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

She fired back something worse.

After the fight, they spent the next hour playing on cellphones. No talking.

And just like that, my promise went out the window.

The first thing I'd like to say is:

I'd rather cut out my liver with a dull melon-baller than call a lady a name that rhymes with "truck-face." Such an act would be an affront to the woman who raised me.

Second: put

your phones away, kids.

A few days ago, it was Christmas. I visited my buddy's house. After his kids opened gifts, the children hibernated on the sofa. There, they interacted with Apple products, thumb-tapping, for three hours.

Three.

I asked if anyone wanted to play cards. They looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out my pants. Thus, I played solitaire.

That's too bad. Cards were a big deal during my childhood. I remember playing poker on the kitchen table with uncles who kept spitting into paper cups.

Back then, we had no smartphones. We had big stupid ones with cranks and four-digit phone numbers. The smartest device in our household was Mama—who could expound on anything from navigating to the interstate, to curing black lung using baking soda.

So, even though I swore I'd never say this: I miss the days…

"This was my first Christmas without him. Sorry to bother you with this story, I just really needed to tell someone about my dad today."

Alpharetta, Georgia—“Hi Sean, don't ask me why, but I felt like writing you...

"Eight years ago, my sister and her best friend died in a drunk-driving accident. They were coming home from the University of Georgia.

“The guy who hit her went to prison, and this year, my mom has decided to start visiting him.

"For Christmas, she's gonna eat lunch with the guy, since prisoners are allowed visitors on holidays. I'm telling you this because, she's an incredible woman.

"She actually loves that man.”

Ray City, Georgia—“My husband, Jesse, was involved in a hit and run accident. He got thrown two hundred feet. The person left him lying in the median.

“One life-flight transport, eight leg wash-outs, two major artery losses, one muscle-harvest from his abdomen, and one skin-graft later, Jesse and I are still fighting...

“I've been given a real blessing. The blessing of being reminded what this Christmas season is about...

"Pure love."

Panama City, Florida—“My daughter tried to take her own life, Monday morning. I have no words to describe that. She's getting help now.

“I hope one day she'll understand why she's getting help, because I'd rather her hate me than lose the beauty that is her life.

"The most beautiful moment, was standing in the doorway of her bedroom last night, looking in on her and her little sister snuggled up, asleep.

"We had a lovely Christmas."

Dothan, Alabama—“I have a son with Down's syndrome. He knocked on doors for four years to raise enough money to build a Miracle Field for him to play ball.

"He hit pay dirt with the local Rotary Club. It's beautiful. Life-changing for our special needs community. And their parents."

Augusta, Georgia—“My dad gave cars away. He was a retired mechanic who bought stuff at auctions.

“Once, this lady wanted to buy one of his Craigslist cars. Dad found out she was a single mom and he flat-out…

He told stories. He talked about growing up, about tractors, eating chicken brains for breakfast, the Br'er Rabbit, and about walking on iron beams for a living.

We were friends when her mother died. It was sudden. I don't know what killed her—I was too young. I knew it was something with her liver.

It wasn't a well-attended funeral. Her mama looked strange in the casket. Permanent smile. Waxy skin. Open caskets are hard for me. Always have been.

I needed air.

I went outside to sit on the sidewalk, head in my hands. Daddy found me. He sat down and said, "Was wondering where you went off to, Ace. You alright?"

No, I wasn't. Seeing my friend's mother in a casket—the same woman who made us grilled cheeses—turned my stomach to vinegar.

He loosened his necktie. “I know it ain't easy, but you gotta be there for your friend, she needs you."

While he spoke, she came outside. She was a small girl. Freckle-faced. Toothy grin. She wore a black dress. She sat beside my father. She didn't feel like talking.

So he did.

He told stories. He talked about growing up, about tractors, eating chicken brains for breakfast, the Br'er Rabbit, and about walking on iron

beams for a living.

He made quarters fall out her ears. He even swallowed his tongue for us—one of his best tricks.

For a grand finale, he recited Johnny Cash's “Boy Named Sue.” When he got to the swear word—my favorite part of the song—we laughed.

My friend giggled so hard it made her cry. The girl leaned onto his shoulder. She lost it. Snot everywhere. I saw Daddy's eyes water. He choked them back.

“What about heaven?” she said. “Is it real?”

Daddy held her tighter. “If heaven isn't real, darling, I refuse to take part in it.”

"Can I go there?"

"Not today, honey. But in a little while."

A little while.

That was a few lifetimes ago. She left to live with her aunt in Virginia the following year. And as it turned out, Daddy gave…

This was the old world. The only thing worse than being a pregnant adolescent, was being one in a small town.

This is not my story, I just wrote it down. It was told to me by a preacher. His name was Jacob, but people called him, Brother J.J.

When Brother J.J. visited our church, he was already white-haired and elderly. He was as tall as a telephone pole, and unlike most preachers, soft-spoken.

I once saw Brother J.J. fill a church during a Christmas-season service. He sang hymns and played his fiddle for two hours. Before we lit candles, he told a story which has never left me. I wish I could tell it like him.

But this'll have to do:

THE 1930's—A TENNESSEE TOWN OUTSIDE FRANKLIN. Wintertime. It was the worst time in rural America. A fourteen-year-old girl became the victim of a terrible mistake—the kind of mistake that makes a baby.

Nobody knew who the father was, but rumors claimed her uncle had abused her.

This was the old world. The only thing worse than being a pregnant adolescent, was being one in a small town.

People were vicious. In town,

no one made eye-contact. At school, the teacher asked her to stop coming. Her mother called her a whore. Her father made her sleep in the shed.

The shed.

When her father sold the timber rights to his property, a truckload of loggers arrived to clear-cut the family land.

That night, the migrant workers slept in the same shed she did. And even though the girl had a belly as big as a washtub, one man made lewd advances.

Another man came to her rescue. He fought off the offender with his fists and a furniture leg. The next morning, both men were fired. But before her hero walked away, he asked her to come with him.

As his wife.

“Why would you wanna marry me?”…

This world is an ugly mess, you've seen it for yourself. You've fought a good fight, but you're losing.

May you kiss a baby today. A fat one. Maybe press your nose against a soft, newborn scalp and smell heaven.

And I hope you eat—food, not the baby. I hope you shovel in so much Christmas cooking it makes your vision blur and heart race.

Afterward, take an after-dinner stroll with someone special.

Maybe look at stars and think things like: how big is the universe? What color is happiness? Or: how many cups of sugar does it take to get to the moon?

Find someone to kiss; you'll have your answers.

Today, I pray you look over your life without pain. May you remember things that shaped you—good and bad. Things you lost—great and small. People who hurt you—friends and greasy pricks.

May Nancy feel the spirit of Mitch, her late, Cajun husband of fifty-two years. And may the family of the deceased two-year-old believe in goodwill toward men.

May under-confident boys discover fishing. May over-confident ones discover catching jack squat.

May your television stay off. And I pray your smartphone spends the holiday on a nightstand—unless,

of course, you're talking to someone important.

Each year on Christmas Eve, my father used to open an address book. He'd make phone calls to distant family, old friends, plumbers, electricians, coworkers, neighbors, enemies.

I attempt the same thing during the holidays, but I'm terrible at it. I'm not good on the phone.

Last year, I texted an old fishing buddy. We weren't close. The response was: “This is his son. Don is no longer with us. Merry X-mas.”

That hurt.

I also texted my old boss. He replied: “Thanks for reaching out, Sean! You were always my favorite employee!”

Favorite.

I'm touched. Maybe his favoritism is what compelled him to give me two pay cuts and buy himself a brand new, showroom-quality, one-ton truck.

May you accept things. Happy things. Unhappy things. Simple things which confuse you. The sorts of…

I tried the newspaper to cure my loneliness. Bad choice. Nothing good happens in Atlanta news. Stabbings, rapes, murders, economic downfalls. That's on a good day.

I had to work in Marietta, Georgia two days before Christmas. It was god-awful. The money was good,—real good—but that was the only thing good. It was Christmas Eve. I was far from home, cold, tired.

Lonely.

They gave us complimentary motel rooms. It was a dump. It's the first and last time I've ever stayed in a motel that smells like eggs. The place was a sheep pen off the highway.

I went to my room and called my wife. There was something sticky on the phone handle. She didn't answer.

I cussed.

Thus, I laid in bed and watched Andy Griffith. One of my favorites was on. Aunt Bee makes pickles. They're so bad Andy switches them with store-bought. You know the rest. Andy learns a valiant life-lesson about truth, justice, and the Mayberry way. Everyone hugs. Roll the credits.

I was hungry. Nowhere was open on Christmas Eve. Even the Waffle House had its lights off. I drove to the gas station for supper. Pork and beans, salt peanuts, Budweiser.

“Merry Christmas,” said the cashier.

Sure it is, lady.

Back at the motel: my coworker was smoking in the breezeway, talking to his kids on the phone. When he saw me, he wiped his face.

I shut my door and cried on the bed.

When did people start working on Christmas? Why in the hell would I leave my wife on a holiday? All for few extra bucks?

My uncle once said, “Only an idiot wastes his health making money so he can waste his money on health insurance.”

But nobody put stock in what he said. He worked in a fertilizer plant. Folks in the family called him a loser. Maybe he was, but at least he was home on Christmas.

I dialed my wife again. No answer.

More cussing.

I tried the newspaper to cure my loneliness. Bad choice. Nothing good happens in Atlanta news.…

"...He reached in his pocket and handed me his own knife. A Case knife. Old. Yellow handle. Double blade. "

Christmas afternoon. I drove my truck down a familiar gravel road. It's a road I can see in my sleep. I hadn't made that drive in many years.

I pulled over on a small bridge, flipped on my hazards. I crawled underneath the bridge. It was muddy. Creek water flooded my boots. I dug with a hand shovel.

This was ridiculous.

My childhood Christmases were simple. Each member of my family received three gifts—which was a rule of Daddy's. Growing up poor changes a man.

One gift was practical. Blue jeans, slacks, or, God forbid, underpants. The other two were fun.

One year I got an LP record,—“Stardust,” by Willie Nelson—a cap gun, and khakis.

Mama opened her gift. It was a booklet I'd made from colored paper, entitled: “Mama's Coupons.” Inside were various pencil-written discounts. “One free kitchen sweeping,” or, “Seventy-percent off hugs,” and my personal favorite, “Free ice cream supper.”

She never cashed in on the last one.

Daddy's gift was was a bathrobe. Mama made it. It was a sweet gesture. Except, of

course, my father didn't wear robes. He crawled out of bed fully dressed with boots on.

He slid it over his clothes, anyway.

Our gift-opening took ten minutes, tops. Then, I ate so much at lunch my feet swelled and my ears rang.

After lunch, Daddy asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I'd expected him to say that. Daddy couldn't sit still for more than a few blinks, not even on holidays.

So we walked. We followed the creek. The small water cut through through the woods. We marched through the undergrowth until we came to a concrete bridge.

We sat on the railing, legs dangling. I reached into my coat and handed him a wrapped box the size of a butter stick. The gift-tag, covered in my sloppy handwriting.

“To: Daddy,” it read.

He made a face. "What's this?…

I squinted at the chapel in the distance. Headlights filled the parking lot. Half of Brewton, Alabama was attending the wedding.

The day of our wedding, it was a blizzard. And in North Florida, that means: fifty degrees and overcast.

I was supposed to be nervous—that's what everyone told me. They said I'd feel sick, that my knees would shake.

But no shaking.

The chapel was within spitting distance of the beach. I had time to kill, so I parked near the Gulf. The sun was setting. The sky looked like orange sherbert.

I squinted at the chapel in the distance. Headlights filled the parking lot. Half of Brewton, Alabama was attending the wedding.

A few nights before, my pal asked if I wanted a bachelor party. No, I answered. I hated bachelor parties worse than bachelorhood.

“What about a cigar?” he'd suggested.

I don't care for them.

So he gave me a pouch of Red Man chew and a racy Congratulations card. They both sat on my dashboard, unopened.

I don't chew. But, since I had nothing better to do, I tried a cheek-full. It had been a long time since I'd touched the stuff.

As a boy, my father

gave me my first pinch while we sat on his tailgate. It made me dizzy, but not sick—which impressed him.

Few things impressed him.

"Whatever you do," he'd said. "Don't swallow your spit.”

Times have changed. A father could go to jail for doing such today.

I spat on the sand. I wished he were alive. I wished someone would've been around to toast me at the reception, to show me how to tie a bowtie.

Wedding-time: I arrived at the double doors and saw the preacher on the sidewalk. The first thing he did was straighten my tie and remind me not to lock my knees.

“No matter how tough you think you are," he said. "Everyone's knees shake.”

Not me. Mine were oak limbs.

I stood at the altar— it was decorated with lit Christmas trees. The piano…