The truth is, I used to hate holidays. They made me remember how lonely I was after my father died. They made me feel like an orphan. But I don’t feel that way anymore. Instead, I feel lucky. Very lucky. And grateful.

It’s a few days until Thanksgiving. The neighborhood is buzzing. There are vehicles lining the street. Minivans, trucks, SUV’s, Fords, Kias.

Families are in town.

My neighbor’s grandchildren just arrived from Georgia. They’re playing in the front yard. I overhear them screaming, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!”

“I’M NOT IT! YOU’RE IT!”

“NUH-UH!”

“YES-HUH!”

“OUCH! I’LL KILL YOU!”

“I DARE YOU TO TRY!”

“#$%!@”

“HELLLP! GRANDPAAA!”

Just yesterday, a cantankerous elderly man up the street asked if I would help hang his Christmas lights. I reminded him that I’ve had two back-surgeries, one tonsillectomy, and I’m Southern Baptist.

He is Pentecostal and doesn’t believe in tonsillectomies.

It took three hours on a ladder to hang those god-forsaken lights. He stood below and preached my ear off for the entire time.

When we were through, I was sweating. He opened a garage refrigerator and asked if I wanted an ice-cold chocolate milk.

“That depends,” I said. “Is it manufactured by the Anheuser Busch Company?”

Some Pentecostals can’t take a joke.

“Chocolate milk will be fine,” I remarked.

Christmas comes earlier each year. It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that children in pirate costumes

were at my front door, panhandling for candy. Now it’s Christmas lights in November.

And if you ask me, the holidays can’t get here quick enough.

My wife has already started cooking to get a jumpstart on Thanksgiving. Our home is alive with aroma. It smells like cornbread dressing, allspice, and sweet potato pie.

There are candied pecans on the counter—fresh from the baking sheet. My wife will brain any man who ventures near them. This I know from the trial-and-error approach.

A ham is in the oven. And a poundcake is in the immediate vicinity. I sampled both without permission this morning and got neutered with a melon baller.

She also made cheese-straws, lemon squares, chocolate chip cookies, peanut brittle, and peppermint bark.

And before bed tonight, she…

I name her Jessie. I bathe her in the hotel shower. I shampoo her three times until the water isn’t brown anymore.

Geneva, Alabama—my wife and I are driving Highway 27. The sun is shining. The sky is blue.

I’m on my way to speak at the Farm City Banquet in Coffee County, Alabama. There, I will stand onstage and deliver mediocre entertainment to three hundred folks wearing cowboy hats and eating barbecue.

My brakes screech.

A dog.

It’s a puppy, sitting in the center of a two-lane highway. Two green eyes, auburn hair, and floppy ears. There is some hound in her.

She’s planted on the yellow line, staring at my windshield.

I flip on my hazards. The puppy whimpers when she sees me come near. She is small. I can see every rib the Good Lord gave her. She licks my face.

There are few blessings greater than puppy breath.

I move her from the highway, into the grass. I bid her goodbye. She wanders into the road again.

So, I reason with this animal.

“Stay outta the highway, girl,” I’m saying. “You’ll get run over.”

She barks at me.

I carry her to the nearest porch—a shotgun house with rusty water heaters in the yard and a lopsided porch.

Nobody’s at home.

I place her on the steps.

No sooner have I shut my vehicle door than I see a puppy on the pavement again.

I don’t have time for games. I’m running late. I have to be in New Brockton in thirty minutes. I explain this to the dog. She only licks me.

“Don’t lick me,” I warn her.

She licks.

And I will love her until they lay me down.

She falls asleep in my lap while I drive. I hear her snore. We arrive at the non-pet-friendly hotel. My wife checks in; I carry a large cardboard box through the lobby. The box is whimpering.

“Sir, what’s in that box?” the clerk asks me.

“Don’t mind me, I’m a columnist—sort of.”

“Very good, sir. Enjoy your…

A man is walking from the back restrooms. He’s dressed in rags, his gray beard is thick. He’s carrying tennis shoes in his hand. His hair is wet.

A truck stop. The kind with a sea of big rigs in the parking lot. A place with showers in the back, a greasy cafe in the front, and a gift-shop.

The gift-shop is only a few aisles of stuffed animals, trinkets, and toys. The woman behind the cash register tells me:

“Lotta fellas on the road buy gifts for they kids before they go home.”

There is a basket of imitation Zippo lighters by the register. A John Wayne lighter is calling my name. I don’t smoke, but you never know when you might need a Chinese knock-off Zippo with the Duke’s face on it.

A man is walking from the back restrooms. He’s dressed in rags, his gray beard is thick. He’s carrying tennis shoes in his hand. His hair is wet.

“See ya, Stick,” says the cashier.

Stick walks outside and lights a smoke. He stands next to a jogging stroller, filled with his earthly possessions. There is a dog beside him, wagging its tail.

Stick comes here to shower a few times per week—depending

on how much he sweats. His dog’s name is Persimmon. I ask how the dog came by the name.

“My mama used to cut persimmons to predict weather,” he says. “Figured they were magic berries. I can always use some magic.”

He is a veteran. That's all he has to say about it. And he doesn’t want any money. In fact, he refuses anything I offer.

“I work,” he said. “Feels better earning my money. That’s how I take care of Persimmon and me. How I bought this stroller.”

On the back of the neon yellow jogging stroller is a license plate which dates 1975. It’s the year Stick's son was born. He still remembers the day.

“I was getting my car registered at the exact moment, my son was being born,” he said. “I saved this plate.”

It’s hard to imagine…

“Kenny’s a fixture in our town,” one local man says. “Used’a walk into McDonald’s and he’d greet you and give you a ‘war-eagle.’ Sometimes he'd be the only hug I got all day.”

Monroeville, Alabama—this is your all-American town. Walk the square and take a trip backward on the timeline. Drive around town. You’ll see barbecue joints, a Piggly Wiggly, a Sonic, a world-famous courthouse.

And you might see Kenny.

Kenny is forty-seven. He lives in the upstairs bedroom of his parents’ house. A little about him: Kenny likes dogs, people, food, singing, sports, and hugging anyone within a six-foot radius.

Kenny has Down syndrome. There is a touch of gray on his temples. His face has smile-lines. And, if Kenny were to ever donate blood, doctors would discover he bleeds orange and blue.

He is an Auburn University fanatic.

“I’m Auburn’s BIGGEST FAN!” he says.

There’s no doubt. He gives me the dime tour of his bedroom—a shrine to the Tigers.

There are seventeen thousand orange ballcaps adorning his walls. Bo Jackson autographs, Gus Malzahn posters, stuffed tigers, eagle figurines, and Shug Jordan coffee mugs.

During the tour, Kenny breaks into spontaneous song:

“WAR EAGLE! Fearless and true,
Fight on, you orange and blue...”

He finishes his performance by hugging me. Kenny gives good

hugs.

In the corner: an Auburn Christmas tree, weighted with orange ornaments—he keeps it up year round. Auburn bedspreads, throw rugs, drapes, pillows, light-switch covers.

“When we first had Kenny,” says his father. “Doctors told us our baby had issues. Told us we’d better let him go and institutionalize him.”

Kenny’s father informed the doctor they would do no such thing. Instead, the family built their world around the new baby. They loved him.

“Raising him was the big blessing of our life,” says Kenny’s father. “We were never alone, that’s part of life in a small town. You’re never alone. This community raised Kenny WITH us.”

Kenny spent twenty years finishing school. His teachers supported him. His peers adored him. Ask around, everybody and their mother’s cousin loves Kenny.

After Kenny finished high school, he took…

In the glow of my headlights stood the once-healthy woman who raised me. She was nothing but hickory sticks and muscle.

My earliest memory is of my mother. She’s at a breakfast table. She sits alone in a gaudy brown kitchen, head bowed, hands folded.

She is speaking in a whisper, I don’t know who she’s talking to. I’m too young.

Her eyes are closed. The sun is rising in the window behind her. She’s dressed for work, sipping coffee.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

“That’s between me and the Good Lord,” she says.

My teenage years. A few years after my father placed a hunting rifle in his mouth. These were hard years. She sat on an a burgundy sofa. She closed her eyes and whispered toward the ceiling.

I couldn’t make out her words.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

“It’s between me and the Good Lord,” she says.

Over time, I grew into my big feet, and my large nose. I turned into a man—sort of.

My mother fell ill. Deathly ill. She moved to Atlanta so my aunt and uncle could care for her.

I drove to Clayton County to visit her. She greeted me in the driveway at 2 A.M. on a cold

November morning.

In the glow of my headlights stood the once-healthy woman who raised me. She was nothing but hickory sticks and muscle.

The next morning, I found her sitting cross-legged on an easy chair. Her eyes closed, whispering to the ceiling fan. The skin around her eyelids wrinkled like tissue paper.

Doctors told us the disease would kill her. The illness was eating blueberry-sized holes in her muscles. It would eventually reach her heart.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

Then, she touched my hair. “You know that when you were a toddler, I used to rub your hair like this, and it would make you go to sleep?”

She rubbed my hair. I leaned into her lap the way I did when I was a child.

The woman held a…

My father was a laborer until he died. My mother worked hospitals, wore a Chick-Fil-A uniform, cleaned condos, scrubbed toilets, served hot food, and threw newspapers. 

I met Rob in the hotel lobby. He is a stick-welder. He is tall, lean, pale-skinned, from Virginia.

He is proud of his work.

“Been welding half my life,” said Virginia Slim. “Been fifteen stories up, upside-down, hanging by a cable, spinning in circles, earning overtime. And I'm damn proud of it.” 

Stick-welders are a proud lot.

Welding is an art. If Michelangelo had lived long enough to see a TIG machine, he would’ve been a union man.

Every day of my father’s adult life, he towed a welder behind his truck. His trade took him wherever the money was. He built skyscrapers. Churches. Auto plants. He watched friends die while creating skylines.

If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

Then there’s Danny. He cleans toilets at the airport. He is short, with tattoos everywhere.

Danny is studying to be an accountant. He is forty-one. He and his girlfriend just had a baby.

He shows me pictures of Danny Jr. on his cellphone.

I ask if Danny likes his job.

“You kiddin’?” says Danny. “Pays for my college, helps me raise my

son. Man, I’m blessed.”

Chuck—a heavy-equipment operator. He travels with labor crews all over. I met Chuck at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. He was flying to New Hampshire for a big job.

As a boy, Chuck’s father ran hydraulic cranes. His father would take him to the jobsite and place him in his lap while hoisting seven hundred tons through the air.

“Sat in the cockpit watching my dad build stadiums and buildings. All I ever wanted was to be like Dad.”

And who can forget Patty. She is a fast-food employee. She runs the drive-thru window. She has rough skin. When she laughs, it sounds like unfiltered Camels.

“Been working the window for a year,” she says. “You meet all sorta people here. Some’re nice, some are total you-know-what holes.”

I’m familiar.

Patty had breast cancer a…

At the end of the night, my dog and I are walking to my truck. I am carrying several foil-covered plates they sent with me. My stomach is full.

This is an engagement party at the Cuthbert farm. There are country people here of every shape, accent, and denomination. Salt-of-the-earth people.

On the buffet line they have every home-cooked casserole you can imagine. Jugs of tea. Coolers of beer. Cheap wine. And a coonhound roaming free.

I recognize this hound. She came with me. And she’s supposed to be my date tonight.

The hound is following a boy who’s as tall as a longleaf pine. The boy is sixteen. Tallest thing at the party.

“Don’t know how he got so stinking tall,” says the boy’s daddy—a roofing man. “He was a normal-sized kid until last year. Then, BOOM. He was Michael Jordan.”

The kid is a baseball pitcher. He can pitch fastballs that shatter sound barriers.

“When he’s standing on that mound, he’s freaking awesome,” says old Dad.

I meet a forty-three-year-old woman, wearing a scarf around her bald head. She’s eating bacon-wrapped venison. The woman is on her last round of cancer treatment. She is aunt to the bride-to-be.

She says her disease was a blessing.

“A blessing?” I ask.

“People all came together for

me. You can’t imagine the support these people give you when you’re sick.

“When this many people love on you, it makes you realize that life’s a gift.”

A gift.

They tell me this woman might not make it.

I meet Miss Bonnie—mid-eighties. She has reddish-white hair and smells like Youth Dew.

She is a passionate little thing.

“Back in the day,” she says. “My girlfriends and I wanted to march with Doctor King, but my Daddy forbid it. Told me it was too dangerous.

“Daddy was a good man. He ended up driving three old country preachers and their wives all the way to Selma for the march.”

I meet a ten-year-old. His name is Jake. He’s a novice welder. He takes lessons from his father after school.

“He’s getting pretty good,”…

That's why I’m writing you, son. Because I can see you, right now. I’m sitting in a restaurant booth behind you. You’re sixteen, maybe seventeen, dressed nice. You’re on a date at a swanky Italian joint. 

Boys, I’ll make this short: treat her good.

Real good.

Treat a girl the way you’d treat the most expensive thing you’ve ever touched. No. Treat her like the most rare thing you’ve NEVER touched. 

Try to think of the most valuable object on earth. A Rembrandt painting, an 11th century Bible, the Cup of Christ, the Stetson of Willie Nelson.

Treat your girl like that.

Treat her like she’s been removed from a bullet-proof case and hooked to your arm by Billy Graham himself.

Open every door for her, pull out every chair, hold her pocketbook when need be. Admire her like a painting—not a magazine.

When you spend time together, look straight into her eyes. After all, her eyes lead to her mind, which leads to her heart, which leads to her soul.

Above all—and I am governmentally serious about this—do not look at your damn phone. Not even once. I mean it. Don’t hold it in your lap, don’t set it on the table, don’t keep it in your pocket, don't make trips to the bathroom to send texts.

When

you’re with her, leave your smartphone in your glovebox. Then, place your car in neutral, lock the doors, set the vehicle on fire, and push it into the nearest muddy ditch.

You’re in public with a famous Rembrandt painting—on loan from the Louvre. Don't waste time.

See how the light hits the angles of her face. Watch the way she wrinkles her forehead when she laughs.

Listen with big ears. Let yourself drift upon the harmonics of her voice like you’re tubing down the Blackwater River with a cooler full of Budweiser and Doritos.

Ask questions. But don't ask common ones. Be original.

Ask how old she was when she lost her first tooth. Ask about her dog, and where it sleeps.

Would she rather hang-glide or flea-market? Winn-Dixie or The Pig? Kroger or Publix? Barbecue or…

I’m in my truck right now. I’m older. I’m wearing a sportcoat. In a few minutes, I’ll be walking into a courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama. A room which, up until a few months ago, I’d only ever read about.

I was a loser. At least, that’s what I would’ve told you back then.

Twenty-five years old. I sat in a truck, in a parking lot lit by streetlamps. My work clothes were sawdusty. Supper was a sandwich and a warm beer.

I was reading, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” squeezing in chapters before class. You’ve probably read it a hundred times, maybe in high school even.

I had not.

I didn’t attend high school. After my father shot himself, my mother and I worked. I dropped out in the eighth grade.

Yeah, yeah. Poor, pitiful me. So who cares about that.

A little about me:

My name is Sean. I like long walks in the woods, Budweiser, Jalen Hurts, dogs, Will Rogers, farm-raised eggs, Andy Griffith. And I enrolled in community college as a grown man. Like I said, a loser.

So, I was reading Mockingbird in my truck. I liked the book. Not only because of the story, but because of where it happened in Monroe County.

The girl I’d fallen in love with was from Escambia

County—just down the road. This same girl let me into her life. Her people were good to me. They fed me. They made me one of theirs. They told me I was special.

In my life before, I’d generally considered myself a lost kid with very little to offer anyone. Larry the Loser. Girls don’t want anything to do with losers.

Once, at the ripe age of twenty, I asked Lydia Bronson on a date. I arrived at her house in a beat-up truck. She saw my unsightly mount. She suddenly developed yellow fever, strep throat, and scurvy simultaneously.

I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. So, I went to a bowling alley and played solo. I ate a hotdog and tried to forget what a screw-up I was.

A group of high-schoolers was there that night. They were nice-looking,…

She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint. The old woman breathed slower. Slower. And slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

Their mother died.

The two daughters gathered around her bed when it happened. In soft voices, they told their elderly mother that it was okay to leave. They pet her white hair, touched her cheeks.

They shared memories in her last moments.

They remembered how they all used to sing along with the radio—especially when Patsy Cline was singing. And how their mother sewed tags into homemade clothes to make them like store-bought.

She was a single mother. She sacrificed. She did without. A saint.

The old woman breathed slower. Slower. One big breath, everyone heard it. And she was no more.

They didn’t know anything about their father. Their mother told them he’d left while they were babies. They agreed that they needed to tell the man—wherever he was.

They hired someone to find him. It took a few days. They learned that he'd moved to New Mexico because of a military career. Long ago, he'd gotten remarried. He had two kids.

That hurt.

The sisters drove to New Mexico in a minivan. They listened to Patsy Cline and mourned. They slept

in cheap motor inns, they told stories to one another. Stories about her.

New Mexico—it was a mobile home on flat land. They knocked on his door, introduced themselves. The man took the news hard. He bawled.

They sat in his den. And, when he’d gathered himself, he stared at them with serious eyes.

“Oh my God,” he remarked. “You actually think I’m your father.”

The girls held confused faces. You could’ve heard a gnat blink.

“Hate to tell you this,” he began. “But I'm not your father, and your mama wasn’t your biological mother.”

The air went cold and the girls became sick to their stomachs.

He told it like it was. It was complicated, but here are the basics:

Their mother had once been engaged to another—her high-school sweetheart. She had grown up with him.…