Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her

from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken’s too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well,…

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her. She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s wearing an oxygen facemask and a hospital bracelet. There’s a story here, I just don’t know what it is.

Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of night. There are few cars in the parking lot. My wife is with me. We’ve been traveling all day.

On the way into the restaurant, I see a few kids sitting on rockers outside. They’re playing checkers.

“HEY!” shouts a little girl. “YOU CAN’T JUMP BACKWARDS!”

“YUH HUH!” shouts a little boy.


I don’t like to butt in, but this situation calls for some well-tempered adult advice. And since there aren’t any well-tempered adults around, my advice will have to do.

“She’s right,” I tell the boy. “You can’t jump backwards unless you’ve been kinged.”

“I can’t?” he says.

“Nope. Besides, even if you COULD, it wouldn’t matter, because your girlfriend says you can’t, and girls are ALWAYS right.”


His sister laughs until the vein in her forehead shows.

We get a table. Our waitress has long hair and tired eyes. We still have miles to drive, I order coffee. Black.

The waitress tells me about her son. He’s

about to start first grade when summer is over. She hasn’t seen much of him this summer. This isn’t her only job. She has two more.

She shows me photos of her son. He’s skinny. Thick eyeglasses. Freckles.

“He’s doing Vacation Bible School this summer,” she says. “He loves it.”

As it happens, I have passed many years in Vacation Bible School—both as an inmate, and as a warden. I consider the hours spent judging heated three-legged races to be golden.

I order my usual. Three eggs, bacon, biscuits.

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her.

She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s…

You are my people. Sort of. I mean we’re not that different. The affluent and the blue collars all eat grits the same way. The red yellow, black, and white. The window washer, the Mississippian Episcopal priest.

I was on TV. It happened a few weeks ago. This was pure history for the Dietrichs. To my knowledge, I have never been on TV before. Break out the Natural Light.

The last time a Dietrich made television was when my cousin, Billy Joe Ed, got arrested for setting off M-80’s in the restrooms at the Methodist Church. They interviewed my father on television as an eye-witness.

He froze. His face developed exactly two zits.

“Hey, Mama,” he said to America.

No, this was different. It happened in Monroeville, Alabama. I was interviewed by Don Noble on Alabama Public Television. We were surrounded by the same kind of TV backdrop they use on Sixty Minutes.

You know the kind of décor I mean. A dim-lit, mostly wooden room. Leatherbound books on side tables, Robert Goulet records playing in the background. A suede wingback chair with a beer holder in the armrest.

I was nervous, watching men in headphones run in circles. They positioned me on my mark

and told me to “Speak up!” and “Quit mumbling!” and “Don’t LOOK straight at the camera, kid!”

Then, they aimed a NASA spacecraft lens at me until I developed two zits.

The makeup lady applied powder to my forehead.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “Pimples are just a natural part of life.”

So, Don asked a few questions, and I tried my best to sound smart—which is always a mistake. The only way I know how to sound smart is to make quotation-mark gestures with my fingers when I speak.

Don asked questions in rapid fire. I almost choked.

He asked about my favorite TV show—Andy Griffith.

He asked where I look for spiritual guidance—Richard Petty.

He asked what my favorite literary topic was—I blanked. “Hey, Mama” I pointed out.

Then, he asked a question I wasn’t ready for.…

My father would build campfires big enough to be seen by Sputnik. And he’d tell stories. Wild, lavish, sometimes true, stories. And when he told them people listened. He was a master if ever there was one.

A campfire, the South Alabama woods. I was spending time with a Little League team. My bloodhound (Thelma Lou) was sleeping on someone's lap.

The campfire smoke was the only thing keeping the yellow flies from sucking the flesh from our bare bones.

And I was telling a ghost story. It was about a one-legged man.

I come from a long line of storytellers and chicken thieves. I suppose you could say that much of my ancestry happened around campfires. That’s what folks did before iPads, iPhones, and shoot’em-up video games. We talked.

The Little League team sat in the dirt. A boy named Chris was petting Thelma Lou’s coat. Thelma snored.

I slapped yellow flies for dear life.

Long ago, my childhood Little League team would sit around campfires like this, eating weenies and beans from tin plates.

Boys on the team would emit smells from their hindparts potent enough to kill most small woodland creatures.

My father would build campfires big enough to be seen

by Sputnik. And he’d tell stories. Wild, lavish, sometimes true, stories. And when he told them, people listened. He was a master if ever there was one.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t another boyhood daddy-worship column where I tell you how downright spectacular my father was. No, I wouldn’t waste your time with that sort of thing.

My father was downright spectacular.

It was the way he used his voice. It was a sing-songy kind of tone. Whenever you heard him use that voice, you knew he was either going to start a ghost story, or a four-hour sing-along of “I’m Henry the Eighth I am.”

His signature story, however, was the tale of the one-legged ghost. He always finished it the same way:

“...And EEEEVEN now, the old man wanders the forest, calling, ‘Where’s my leg?’”


When my father died, my mother took to saying “thank you” a lot more. Those two words were her favorites. If you would’ve asked me, I would’ve told you that she said them too much.

Freeport, Florida—Nick’s Seafood Restaurant sits right on the bay of my youth. This place is only a hop, skip, and a jump from my mother’s place. My family is here to eat supper tonight.

And I am feeling grateful.

The sun is getting low, and the clouds are making scattered formations across the Choctawhatchee Bay. There are a hundred muddy trucks in the dirt parking lot.

This is an old place. Old timers used to come to this same building to buy oysters by the bushel, before it was a seafood joint. Not so long ago, I used to fish these bay shores with buddies—before my voice dropped.

My mother is walking across the parking lot. She is wearing a beach dress and flip flops. Flip flops. As I live and breath.

This woman used to wear very different clothes. Hospital scrubs, service clothes, fast-food uniforms.

Once, when I was a young man, we went to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving supper. The restaurant was about to

close. I had just gotten off work, my mother still wore her work clothes, and my sister was playing the triangle-peg game.

That night, when our food arrived, my mother bowed her head and said in a soft voice, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you...”

She followed it with an “amen.”

This woman believed the best way to start each day was with a “thank you.”

When I was a child, each morning before school my mother made me engage in a bizarre, semi-Pentecostal ritual. I would stand before my bed—half awake, wearing nothing but my skivvies—and my mother would make me touch my toes and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my feet!”

Then, she’d make me reach for the sky and say, “Thank you, Lord, for my hands!”

And so on.

Then, she would sing “I’m so…

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

Last week, I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dim-lit bar, with decent onion rings, heavy burgers, and waitresses who call you “sweetie.” Not exactly the place you’d expect to see the White-Haired Beauties of America.

But they were here. Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers. A few got too loud. I was entertainment.

Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’ammed her.

“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”

We sat at the bar together. She fired up her vaporizer cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But still I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night, and I vape until my throat’s raw.”

Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and

a shameless flirt.

She told stories, of course.

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

By the time she had worn out her butterscotch vaporizer, she was talking about her husband.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”

There was another woman. Ella.

She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.

She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again. That’s when he blew out his back.

Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.

“Always had me a few boyfriends,”…

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait. It’s coming.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The

malformation started small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of…

Her brother will make a full recovery, her parents tell me. And one day, he might even pitch in the major leagues—if all goes according to the plan. But until then, he has Big Sister.

A frozen yogurt joint. I’ve just finished supper. My belt is tight from eating too much pizza.

There are too many yogurt flavors to choose from in this place. Triple Dark Peruvian Fudgesicle, Very Berry Quite Contrary, Oreo Delight, Midnight Mudpie in Mississippi—shut my mouth.

Of course, the Orange Julius flavor doesn’t taste too shabby, either.

Then again, artificial orange doesn’t always set well with me. When I was a boy, the doctor gassed me with orange-flavored laughing gas just before tonsil surgery.

All I remember after that is hearing nurses play Righteous Brothers music through a transistor radio while I breathed in orange fumes.

Ever since then, I detest Sunkist, and I can’t hear “Unchained Melody” without breaking into a nervous sweat.

So I’m sampling yogurt flavors, and that’s when I see her. She’s twelve, maybe thirteen. She’s with her family. She is small. She is a redhead.

I have a soft spot for redheads since God made me one.

The girl is feeding her little brother with

a spoon. The boy has a cast on one arm, and a sling on the other.

“He fell,” the boy’s father explains. “He was climbing our gutter on the porch.”

“The gutter?” I say.

“The gutter.”

He broke one arm and injured his other shoulder. No sooner had he hit the ground than his twelve-year-old sister came running to the rescue.

And as the story goes: she carried her brother indoors—over her shoulder. Big Sister has been caring for Little Brother ever since.

“I love taking care of people,” the girl tells me. “I’m gonna be a nurse one day.”

The girl’s mother says that her daughter has always wanted to be a nurse, from Day One. And earlier this year, before Little Brother attempted his solo flight, the girl got her chance to be a real nurse.…

Thank you for hugs from small-town women who talk with soft drawls, and aren’t afraid to tell me they love me. Watch over my mother-in-law while she attempts to eat too much fried food without a qualified member of the clergy standing nearby.

This is a small restaurant. A meat-and-three, where waitresses wear T-shirts. Where your iced tea never falls below the rim of your glass. Where catfish is fried whole on the bone.

I have two dates accompanying me tonight.

My mother-in-law—who holds my arm for balance. I’m carrying her purse. And my wife—who walks ten steps ahead of us at all times.

The dress code is summer weekend casual. I’m wearing jeans. My dates are wearing pearls, pumps, and ruby lipstick.

They always do. In fact, I’ve never seen them exit the house in anything they wouldn’t want to be buried in.

We order a round of teas. My dates scan the menus without conversation. When our server arrives, my dates have questions.

“Is your tartar sauce made with DUKE’S?” asks my wife.

“Are there REAL ham hocks in

your collards?” asks my mother-in-law. “I don’t like those ham-flavored packets.”

“What’s in the potato salad?” asks my wife. “If I even LOOK at a stick of celery I start gagging…”

“Are your French fries STEAK fries, or shoestring?”

“What kind of cake do you have tonight?”

“Where’d you graduate high school?”

“What’s your stance on foreign commerce?”

“What’s your social security number?”

The server looks to me.

“I’ll have a barbecue sandwich, ma’am,” I say.

Two more women enter the restaurant. They have white hair, and they are also sporting pearls. They sit behind us. They speak with accents that are soft and sophisticated.

As fate would have it, my two dates know them—sort of.

Miss Youth Dew and Miss Dignified are from Anytown, Alabama. My mother-in-law…

After months of hard work, the girl is on her feet and proud. And she ought to be, she’s a walking ray of sunshine.

I ran into the grocery store. I was in a hurry. I walked the aisles with groceries beneath my arms.

And it happened. I got recognized in the dog-food aisle.

I was busy trying to decide between beef chunks with gravy, or lamb with rice. A family of five walked toward me. They stopped. They stared.

The oldest daughter said, “You’re Sean!”

I looked in both directions. I was just about to explain that I had already filed for an extension this year when she hugged me.

Mother hugged me next. Then Brother. Then Father. Then Granny joined the clot.

“I can’t BELIEVE we’re meeting you here,” said the teenage girl. “It’s JUST like your stories. Oh my God, are you gonna change my name when you write about me, too?”

I made a series of unintelligible mumbles.

“I want you to call me something really crazy,” she went on. “Like Scarlett O’Hara or something.”

Admittedly, this name is a little overdone, but an overall good choice if you ask me.

Granny piped into the conversation: “Hey, I JUST read what you wrote

about Chick-fil-A, only a few minutes ago.”

Right. It bears mentioning: the subject of Chick-fil-A has been a hot topic in my inbox today. I’ve received approximately—and this is a low estimate—six hundred thousand messages regarding a misinterpreted sentence I wrote about Chick-fil-A.

I don’t have time to explain here, but let’s just say that some of the emails have been less than kind. Some have been downright scary.

Readers like Dan from Georgia, for instance, wrote: “If you were up in Georgia, I’d take your [bleeping bleep] behind the woodshed and wear your [bleeping bleep] out. LOL.”

Hey, thanks for the letter, Dan. You sound like a fun guy. LOL.

But thankfully, the folks in the grocery store didn’t want to scalp me with cheese graters. No, these were kind hearted people, from Alabama.

“I think…