When Robert went to greet his nephew, he noticed a seven-year-old girl waiting in the cubicle next door.

You got kids?” Robert asked.

I shook my head. The closest I've ever come to fatherhood is cleaning dog poop off my kitchen floor.

"Lucky you," Robert said. "I've got four boys. It ain't easy."

So I've heard. Friends with kids tell me being a father is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree with a hammer. And I understand motherhood is the same—minus the hammer.

"My sister-in-law," said Robert. "Now there's a terrible

parent. She's got no business being a mother. The state of Georgia took her son away when she got hooked on crack."

Crack. And I thought dog dookie on the kitchen floor was bad.

“They took my nephew to some kinda social services place,” Robert went on. “I went to get him back. It was a damn mess.”

You'll note: I've cleaned…

People hollered things like, “glory,” and, "praise the Lord," then started singing, "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands." Which seemed like a strange song.

It was on the side of the road, outside Phenix City. The small crowd of folks crawled out of their cars, wearing their Sunday best, walking toward a small pond. It was a curious sight, to see vehicles lined up on the shoulder in the middle of nowhere.

My buddy said the whole church came to these events. Which wasn't saying much—there weren't many members.

No sooner had I stepped out of the truck, than a woman in a frilly hat shushed me, whispering, “Y'all almost missed it, you're just in time.”

Lucky us.

Three men waded into shallow brown water while the small crowd sang a song

I didn't recognize. My friend knew it by heart, something to do with the River Jordan.

One man stood in the water wearing rubber chest waders, the kind meant for fishing. The boy beside him wore tennis shoes, a bathing suit, and a long white T-shirt.

"Purpose," said the man in waders. "God has a purpose for this boy."

The man went on to explain that one week prior, the boy, had survived a motorcycle wreck. Somehow, the boy walked away from the accident without breaking a bone or sustaining a single…

Little houses dotted the sides of the highway. Each with an outdoor workshop—a place men go to tinker. “Piddling,” my granny would’ve called it.

On a two-lane county highway—somewhere in Alabama. The weather was perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean it.

"Look at that barn," said my wife.

I looked.

We must've passed fifty of them. Each looked like a photograph. Dilapidated things—old wood and tin roofs.

We rocketed by pastures that rolled up and down like little oceans. Herds of cattle, huddled beneath enormous shade trees.

A church bus passed me. The side of the bus read, "New Zion Methodist Church, South Carolina." The folks inside were singing. So help me, singing. The lady in back looked like Aretha Franklin—only happier.

Behind them, a busted-up yellow truck with so much rust it hardly qualified as yellow. A bumper sticker read, "Go to church and live right, or Nick Saban will get you."

We shot past ponds, big ones. I can't look at rural bodies of water without wondering whether they're full of bream and bass. What would be the point of having them if they weren't?

We stopped at an elderly man's vegetable stand. I bought forty-seven homegrown tomatoes.

"You're wiping me out," he said.

"Yessir."

He winked. "Well, hell. What am I gonna do with all this money?"

I hear Disney World is lovely this time of year.

We drove past magnolias, live oaks, and enough pine trees to make you sick of pine trees. Which could never happen.

Little houses dotted the sides of the highway. Each with an outdoor workshop—a place men go to tinker. "Piddling," my granny would've called it.

It was inside a workshop, my uncle showed me how to change the oil on a Chevy. And once, during a family reunion, when they ran out of beds inside the house, I slept in the bed of that truck. I fell asleep staring at old political posters on the garage walls. Things that read: "I like Ike," or, "Carry on, with Roosevelt," or, "United we win."

Once, when I was much younger, I stood on this beach at midnight. I was wearing a stiff shirt and necktie.

You ought to visit the beach at midnight. If for no other reason, than to see this starry sky. It's magnificent. It looks like someone sprinkled powdered sugar on a puddle of motor oil.

And sometimes, Gulf waves sound like the earth breathing. In and out. Or, maybe it's God whispering the same thing over and over. Such as: "It's gonna be okay. Okay. Oooookay.”

Once, when I was much younger, I stood on this beach at midnight. I was wearing a stiff shirt and necktie.

Earlier that same day, I'd attended the funeral of a friend. It was open casket. My pal looked like he belonged in a wax museum. The whole thing reminded me of my father's funeral, which made me sick to my stomach.

While I sat in the sand, I saw a man dragging a cooler. He noticed me sulking and mumbled something in Spanish.

I gave a confused look.

So, he opened the cooler and offered me a beer. “I sit here?” he asked.

It was a rude thing to say. Especially since

I was trying to be miserable in peace.

He sat down, anyway.

The man didn't say a word since I wouldn't have understood him. He only stared upward.

Finally he pointed his bottle at the night and said, “Big. It's big, yes?"

"Yeah."

He made the international hand-gesture for, "big"—like measuring a whale with his hands—and dropped his beer.

I laughed.

So did he.

Of course, he was right. The night sky is more than big. It's gargantuan, loaded with flecks of light. The entire brain of God is up there, smeared all over, for us to see exactly what he's thinking.

In fact, if you ever start to feel sad, you ought to go stand waist-deep in the night water. You'll see things before and above you that make you feel tiny. Your heart will start slowing down, and you'll begin…

You’d never know Sarah survived the Great Depression to look at her.

To live in rural Alabama during the early ninteen-thirties was about as fun as eating a bowlful of dirt. Take it from ninety-year-old Miss Sarah, who spent her early childhood in the poverty of this forgotten era.

“Back then,” said Sarah. “My brother and I outgrew our shoes. And because Daddy had no money, we didn't get new ones. Had to go without. Daddy wouldn't even let us walk into town. He didn't want other folks seeing us barefoot, knowing how poor we were.”

You'd never know Sarah survived the Great Depression to look at her. When I met her, she wore a pastel pant suit, complimented by her brilliant white hair. And, it bears mentioning: I've never seen so many pearls on one woman before.

“See," she went on. "When cotton prices fell to rock bottom, and the boll weevil ruined Daddy's crop one year, we fell on hard times. It only took a few months.” She snapped her fingers. “We had nothin'.”

Nothing.

Today, such a statement might mean

not having cable television, internet, or health insurance. In Sarah's childhood, it meant sewing dresses from feed sacks, making soup out of ketchup and water, bathing in the creek with no soap.

And eating grits.

“We ate grits until I hated them,” said Sarah. “It was all we had. Grits, grits, grits, every day. Daddy took ill, the doctor said it was because he wasn't getting enough nutrition from just eating hominy."

In fact, her father became so sick, he was too weak to work his wage labor job at a nearby farm. So, Sarah's mother took on the role of family breadwinner.

Her mother walked miles into town to take in laundry. She also worked as a seamstress, cleaned houses, cooked, and even gave piano lessons to local children—one dime per lesson.

“I've forgotten a lot from those years,” said Sarah, closing her eyes. “But I can still…

A tiny wolf spider is hopping around our porch like he owns the place. I'm sorry to say: I hate spiders. In fact, I used to smash them whenever I saw them.

It's sunset right now. You should see all the colors.

Sometimes, I wonder if God has enough free time to enjoy things like these summer sunsets. I know he must be very busy up there, but I hope breaks free long enough to see this.

Our cat, Lula Bell, is laying at my feet, out here on the porch. I didn't know cats liked watching the sun lower. I guess they do. She's whipping her tail back and forth—which is universal feline-language for: “I feel great.”

Good for her. This feral cat has a gimp leg and lots of scars, she deserves to feel that way.

A tiny wolf spider is hopping around our porch like he owns the place. I'm sorry to say: I hate spiders. In fact, I used to smash them whenever I saw them.

Not anymore.

We don't kill spiders in this house. My wife refuses to kill anything bigger than household bacteria. She won't even kill cockroaches. She picks them up in napkins then deposits them outside.

I used to think

this was squarely ridiculous. Because during my childhood, we shot at things bigger than cockroaches, and we did our damnedest to hook anything that swam.

Anyway my arachnid-squashing days came to an end one summer. It happened when my wife and I were rushing out the door for Atlanta, to visit my aunt.

There was a loud smack on the front window.

Outside, flopping on the ground was a bird. The thing had hit the glass so hard its head was bleeding. It was still alive, panting.

My wife came unglued.

She stayed outside with that bird half the day, stroking its head, whispering to it.

I finally phoned my aunt and explained we wouldn't make it to Atlanta any time soon.

Hours later, around sundown, my wife screamed, “Come quick! Look, he's getting better!”

I didn't have the heart to tell her, the…

It's tough watching fathers and sons sit in the bleachers, smiling like a couple catfish.

Children are the happiest creatures on earth. And when they're sad, they're the saddest ones.

Children are the happiest creatures on earth. And when they're sad, they're the saddest ones.

If you are a fatherless child, I wish I could give you money. And I mean a lot. For boys: ten million dollars, cash. Maybe that would help make up for some of what you'll lack in life.

Probably not, but it's a start.

I hope somehow, it makes baseball games more fun. Those are hard. It's tough watching fathers and sons sit in the bleachers, smiling like a couple catfish.

Or, when the concession man walks by, and someone's father yells, “Two bags of peanuts!” before reaching for his wallet. Such small things go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Not to us.

We've been buying our own peanuts for a long time.

To the fatherless girl: fifty million. It's not nearly enough, but it'll have to do, since there are lots of fatherless girls out there.

You need your daddies more than us boys. A decent, overprotective father, who gives good piggy-back rides.

More than that. You need someone to remind you of how pretty you are. It's easy to

forget. Someone to wait on the porch when Joe Freckle-Face comes to pick you up for a date. Who warns this boy, you're not just a girl in the passenger seat—you're the entire world wearing a dress.

Kids without mothers: you get hundreds of billions of dollars. Maybe more. Because when you have no mother, you have no compass. You'll walk in circles, wondering if anyone gives a damn.

Few people do.

I knew a boy whose mother died during childbirth. He grew up in a house absent of frilly things. He'd tear out magazine perfume ads and keep them for later. He told me once, he liked to smell them at night, imagining he was falling asleep next to his mother.

I think about him sometimes.

When I do, there's a restless feeling I get. This feeling gets strongest when I see families who don't look…