Don becomes “Donnie” again. I see it on his face. Even though he’s old enough to file for AARP, Mama's pride that reduces all grown men into little boys.

I am in the kitchen with an elderly woman named Pauline. And, dear Lord, can she cook.

Her son, Don, brought me here. He tells me his mother’s downhome fare is good enough to coax even the most depraved human being into behaving like a Pentecostal.

This is Pauline’s old home. She raised a family here. She doesn’t live here anymore, she’s too old. She’s in the retirement home.

This house sits vacant most of the time. Old photos line the walls. Bed sheets cover furniture. The last time they used this place was for a family reunion last year.

I arrive at eight in the morning. The smell of bacon hits me like a freight train. Crackling eggs. Biscuits. Grits. Holy Chet Atkins, I’m home.

Pauline is wearing 1962—red polka-dot apron, pearls. She’s all business. The woman is a feeder. If you don’t know what that is, have a seat at her table.

Her food is breathtaking. Her grits contain so much butter I need to say three Hail

Marys and two Our Fathers when I'm finished.

After breakfast, she takes a breather. We wash dishes.

“Now,” she announces. “Let the REAL cooking begin.”

Class is in session.

I’m here as an observer, watching a feeder teach her son to make pound cake. It's a private moment. I feel privileged to see it.

Don is beside her, paying attention. She uses no recipes. She goes by feel.

“See,” Don tells me, “I always wanted to learn Mama’s poundcake. It’s the best there is, ask anyone, I just wanna carry on her legacy.”

You’ve never met her, but you already know her legacy. She represents every kitchen queen there ever was.

She is frilly aprons, Thursday-night Civic League, pear salad with cherries and shredded cheese on top, and an accent that makes your heart sore.

She cooks by…

Out of impulse, the old man makes a deal. Old men who who drive candy-apple Fords have been known to do that.

This story isn’t mine, but I’m going to tell it like I heard it. I first heard it from an old man who drove a Ford. And I have a soft spot for old Ford men.

So there he is. The old man is driving. He sees a car on the side of the highway. A kid stands beside it. Hood open.

The man pulls over.

He’s America’s quintessential old man. He drives a half-ton Ford that he’s been babying since the seventies. He changes the oil regularly, waxes it on weekends. The candy-apple red paint still looks nice.

He looks under the kid’s hood. He can see the problem right away, (a) the transmission is shot, and (b) it’s not a Ford.

Fixing it would cost more than the vehicle.

The kid is in a hurry, and asks, “Can you give me a ride to work? I can’t afford to lose my job.”

So, the old man drives the kid across town. They do some talking.

The man learns that the boy has four children, a young wife, and a disabled mother living with him. The boy works hard for a living. Bills keep piling up.

It rips the man's heart out.

They arrive at a construction site. There are commercial framers in tool belts, operating nail guns. The kid pumps the old man’s hand and thanks him for the ride.

“Take care of yourself,” the man tells the kid.

The kid takes his place among workmen, climbing on pine-framed walls, swinging a hammer.

The old man decides to help the kid. He doesn’t know how. Or why. But it’s a decision that seems to make itself.

That same day, he’s at a stop light. He sees something. An ugly truck, sitting in a supermarket parking lot. A Ford.

A for-sale sign in the window.…

I don’t know why a fool like me writes about people who hold cardboard signs at busy intersections, or about girls with Downs syndrome in Cracker Barrels.

Cracker Barrel—A young woman walked past me. She walked with a heavy gait and awkward steps. She waved at every person she saw.

She had Down syndrome. I don’t know how old she was. Early thirties maybe.

The waitress took her order, but the girl was in no mood to order.

“YOU ARE A PRETTY WAITRESS!” the girl said in a voice loud enough to register on most recently calibrated Richter scales.

The waitress—early sixties, wiry—smiled. “Why thank you, sweetie. What’s your name?”

“MY NAME’S RINDA!” the girl said.

“Rinda? Pretty name.”


Linda let out a laugh. So did the waitress. So did everyone who heard it.

Linda might be the happiest person I’ve ever seen.

My own waitress was young. Hispanic. And even though she was as radiant as a pot of coffee, I could tell she was tired.

She wore a button on her apron which read: “Soy Amada.”

I ask about the button.

“It means ‘I am

loved,’” she said. “My mom’s from Mexico, she’s gave it to me.”

“Soy amada,” I said.

“See?" she said. "Now you are loved.”

How about that.

After breakfast, I drove toward the grocery store for my wife. She had given me a list a mile long.

It’s important to note: in our entire marital career, I’ve never made a successful grocery run. Usually, I’ll do something like accidentally buy the only brand of coffee creamer which she thinks tastes like fresh baby vomit.

On the way to the store, I saw a man standing in the median. He held a handwritten poster reading: “Need food, God bless.”

The minivan ahead of me turned on its hazards. A blonde woman stepped out and handed the man several plastic bags.

I saw the man sit on…

Only weeks ago, I visited the church in Palatka, Florida, where Billy was baptized and ordained a lifetime ago. I was the only visitor.

My father’s truck. I was riding shotgun. He was skinny, shirtless, sunburned. Billy Graham was on the radio, preaching like a man with his hair on fire.

Daddy didn’t do radio preachers—unless it was Billy. Daddy turned the volume up. His face went still. I’ll never forget it.

Billy said the words, “Jesus wept.” And my daddy started crying.

Daddy clicked the radio off. He wiped his eyes and said, “You know, I’d like to shake old Billy’s hand someday.”

Funny. The preacher who spoke at Daddy’s funeral delivered a good sermon. He told the congregation that “Jesus wept.” And I remember thinking about what a coincidence that was.

But at this age, I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.

I have a memory from my Granny’s dank, single-wide trailer. It was a place that smelled like smoke and mildew. The once-white ceiling was yellow from tobacco. My granny had been keeping the same Winston ember burning since the early fifties.

Billy Graham’s face was on a black-and-white console television. His voice

was loud enough to blow the speaker.

“WHO IS YOUR NEIGHBOR?” he shouted.

My Granny forced a lungful of smoke out and asked me, “Who’s your neighbor?”

I shrugged.

Billy hollered to beat the band. He held his Bible in one hand. By the time he got to the invitation, I was singing along with “Just as I Am.”

As a young man, I pulled electrical wires with a man who was bad to drink. He was late-sixties; I wasn’t even twenty.

The man’s family had washed their hands of him. He wasn't exactly father of the year.

One night, my phone rang. He was half tight, calling from a downtown payphone. He said his engine wouldn’t start.

Which was nothing short of a miracle. If he would’ve gotten behind the wheel in his condition, this story…

I was in Walmart, buying a set of grossly overpriced windshield wipers. A tall man said my name.

I like yard work as much as I like walking shin-first into a trailer hitch. Let's just say that I’m not a meticulous man. I don't iron my jeans, and I don't worry about the length of my lawn.

Long grass never hurt anyone.

But wives feel differently about this. And, as it happens, so do neighborhood associations.

Anyway, long ago my lawn was out of control. The problem reached a crescendo when the neighborhood association noticed a family of raccoons building a summer cottage in my tall grass.

I was forced to evict the coons and start mowing regularly.

But one afternoon, my landscaping worries were over.

Enter Dillon. Dillon showed up on my porch, unannounced, with his mother.

He was a sixth-grader with a round face. The kind of chubby face I had at his age—which earned me the name, “Chip.” Which was short for “Chipmunk.” Which was short for “Slow-Moving Dodgeball Target.”

Dillon was shy. His mother nudged him and made

him speak for himself. Dillon used a voice quiet enough to qualify as non-verbal.

“I’m starting a lawn service...” he said.

It took me three nanoseconds to answer, “You can start tomorrow.”

We agreed upon terms and conditions, and we shook on it.

“You were so brave, Dillon,” I heard his mother say when they left my porch. “I'm proud of you.”

I remember the look on his face when she said it. All little boys need someone to be proud of them.

He charged twenty bucks per cut. I paid him thirty. Dillon was as dependable as they came. Every Wednesday, he arrived pushing a mower.

Sometimes we talked. I’d ask how life was. He’d give wordy responses like, “Fine,” then dart away before any threat of actual conversation.

For nearly a year, things went famously. Then Dillon quit showing up.…

While I write this, you are sleeping on my bed. I am looking at you. You’re snoring to beat the band.

I was going through old photos the other day. Photos of us. My God, how we’ve changed.

I found pictures from when we were younger. I was skinnier, you had less gray on your snout and long floppy ears. You were all ears when you were a puppy.

I found the picture of the day I first got you. We both grinned at the camera.

What a day. I’ll never forget it. Someone let go of your leash, you ran toward me, ears flopping, tongue hanging out. Your paws had no traction on the wood floor. You looked like Bambi on ice.

I told you that you were a “good girl.” You gave a wide-mouthed, satisfied look because you understood those words. All dogs do.

It is the highest form of praise man can give a dog.

I also dug up pictures from our first day trip together, on the beach. I learned how much you liked swimming. It was at Fort Pickens National Park, I let

you run straight into the Gulf of Mexico. Splashing. Jumping.

I got it all on camera. What I didn’t capture on film was the park ranger issuing me a warning for having a dog on the beach.

“This is a national park,” he said. “No pets allowed on the beach.”

You licked his hand while he wrote a ticket. Then you squatted and left a steaming parting gift.

I have all sorts of photographs. Some from the days when we still used disposable cameras from the drugstore. God, how times have changed. Those things are antiques now.

I’ve taken you camping a lot. You’re the perfect camping partner. You don’t talk too much, you enjoy sleeping late.

My favorite photo of us was snapped when we were in the truck together. That’s our place. You in the passenger seat. Me driving. You’ve destroyed…

Take a look at what’s in front of you. She’s strong and fragile. Sometimes she’s sure of herself, sometimes under-confident. Happy one moment, sad the next. She can laugh and cry in one breath.

To the young man who had an argument with his girlfriend in the post office, in front of everyone, and yelled horrible things at her:

I don’t know you, son, but I overheard your girlfriend call you Jeremy. I’d like to share a few things with you, Jeremy.

First: if you’re going to have an argument, do it in a normal place like everyone else. Argue at the beach, the supper table, a car dealership, or at the cash bar of your cousin Phil's wedding reception.

But wherever you argue, keep in mind that the woman you’re arguing with is not just a woman. She’s a magnificent human being.

Choose your words carefully.

Women should be spoken to sweetly. Ugly words are out of the question because they never disappear once they’re said. Tomorrow, your hateful words will still be hanging in the air like week-old body odor.

So for the love of Mike, lower your voice. Smile at her. Talk WITH her, not AT her.

And while we’re

on the subject, when you speak to your girl (or any woman for that matter), leave her better off than you found her.

Make this the goal of your existence, Jeremy. Don’t just be nice, try to make her feel confident.

For example: saying “You look nice today,” might make her feel okay. But that’s about it.

“Gee, you're pretty,” is getting warmer, but only Swanson-TV-dinner warm.

“Darling, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me and I want to buy you food which contains dangerous amounts of refined white sugar.”

Now you’re cooking with peanut oil.

So sugar is good. Shouting is bad. Don’t shout. Especially not in public where innocent bystanders are buying stamps.

And don’t belittle a woman. Not ever. Not even if she dips you in commercial pump lubricant and sets you on fire…

The point is, I’m a guy, and my mother babied me. She’d place a television beside my bed so I could watch Fantasy Island, Andy Griffith, Family Feud, and commercials of Mean Joe Greene.

I am a man. And despite my many masculine traits, this means I am not a good sick person. I have learned this about myself.

At the first sign of a sniffle, I become bedridden and my voice gets high-pitched.

Right now, for instance, I’m in bed. A vaporizer sits on my nightstand. I’m browsing the internet for a unique, but traditional headstone made of Peruvian granite.

“Here lies Sean,” it will read. “He told his wife he was sick, and she laughed.”

My wife, Jamie, is a card-carrying woman.

Right now, she has the same fatal illness I have. And even though she’s hacking up multi-colored phlegm, running a mild fever, she is unstoppable.

Today, for example, I barely scraped together enough stamina to take a shower. She mopped, dusted, and tarred the shed roof.

I also feel obliged to tell you that it’s not my fault that I’m a wimp. I am like most men. My intolerance for stuffy noses originates with my mother.

As a boy,

my mother took illness seriously. She wouldn’t let her little “Poopie Bear” out of bed if his nose was even remotely red.

Thus, at the first sign of symptoms, I did what most boys in my position would do. I rolled onto my side and hollered, “Mama!” using the same voice I’d use if I were being eaten alive by mountain lions.

Mama would come running up the stairs—two steps at a time. She’d find me in bed, looking like I’d been shot with a giraffe tranquilizer.

She’d touch my forehead. I would moan. Maybe work up a few tears. You know, put some heart into it.

“I feel sick,” I’d say.

She’d take my pulse and declare, "You’re staying home.”

And I knew I was on Easy Street. The bed became my home. Spider-Man underpants became my wardrobe.

“My dreams have always been just sounds,” he says. “But not this one. I saw a color or something. It was big. And I think it was blue.”

The television in the doctor’s office is blaring news headlines. It plays disturbing footage, followed by politicians who explain that the world itself is crumbling.

The people in this waiting room watch the TV. Most are sick. If you close your eyes, you’ll hear hacking and coughing.

Welcome to the Fifth Circle of Waiting-Room Hell.

The woman beside me is dog sick. On my other side is a boy with a snotty upper lip. His cough sounds like a ‘67 Buick Roadmaster on a cold morning.

I move to the other side of the room, away from people who look like they’re about to write their own obituaries. I sit next to a man whose eyes are closed.

He hears me.

“Hello,” he says, without opening his eyes.

His name is Dan. He’s blind.

Dan wears a smile on his unshaven face. He shoves his hand in my general direction and we shake. We start talking.

The television overhead is loud enough to drown

us out, but we manage.

“I play guitar,” Dan says. “I’m not very good, but I play. Thinking of learning piano, too. My wife bought me a keyboard for my birthday.”

His wife is beside him, reading. Silver hair. Lines around her eyes. “He can do anything,” she says. “He even drew a portrait of me.”

Dan tells me that he printed a photo of her. She pricked holes into the paper with a needle, outlining the facial features. Then he traced.

His wife shows me the portrait on her cellphone. The word impressive comes to mind.

Dan also tells me he had a dream a few nights ago.

“It wasn’t just any dream,” he says.

It was a visual dream. The first time he’s seen anything since age two. At least he thinks he saw something. Truth told, Dan doesn’t even…

She gave him to his aunt—who had even more addiction problems than his mother. It was a bad idea. He was five when his aunt gave him to the foster system.

He was two when his mother gave him up. He has one faint memory of her.

In the memory, she’s sitting in the backseat, holding him. He remembers radio music. Sunlight. That’s all.

It’s a short recollection, but it’s all he has.

She gave him to his aunt—who had even more addiction problems than his mother. It was a bad idea. He was five when his aunt gave him to the foster system.

Group homes are not places you want to find yourself. Three square meals and a bed. It’s no day at the Ramada.

When he was thirteen he came down with pneumonia. It landed him in the hospital for a week. He didn’t care if he survived.

At night, he’d stare out his hospital window and wonder if anyone even cared that he was sick.

Someone cared. A woman with gray hair and kind eyes. She was a night-shift nurse.

“What’cha staring at?” she asked him once.

“I dunno,” he said. “Stars, I guess.”

She talked. He listened. She

told stories. All kinds. A good story can do a lot for a lonely kid.

She told a story about her grandmother, who was raised in orphanages during the Great Depression.

The boy was all ears.

She told him how her granny wore plain clothes and ate institutional food. How love ran thin. And how one day, she got married.

The kid’s face perked up.

“My granny wasn’t lonely forever,” the nurse said. “When she met my grandfather, she inherited a big family. She was so happy.”

When Granny passed, she'd become the happiest orphan in ten states. She had a big family. Fourteen grandkids.

“That’s a lot of grandkids,” the boy said.

“One day,” the nurse said. “You’ll have a big family.”

The thought made him smile.

But life isn’t a…