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 Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God,” while she made breakfast.
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.
It’s one thing to say “thanks,” a few times each day. It’s another thing to send a thank-you card to the IRS along with your income taxes.
But then, she had a lot to be thankful about. We were a sad little family, and we owed thank-yous to a lot of people who were kind to us. My mother intended to see that those words got said.
People did a lot for us.
For example: in the years following my father’s death, my family received—this is just a guesstimate—eighteen million bajillion casserole dishes on our front porch.
So back to the seafood joint. We are sitting at a table. Every Dietrich in my clan is here.
There is a man playing guitar in the corner, people at the bar. The place is alive with smiles, and people eating dangerous amounts of cholesterol. My wife is beside me. My young niece is in my lap. My brother-in-law is on my left. My mother is across from me, looking happy.
And it’s been an interesting year for me.
Good things have happened. And sad things, too. This year, I visited Dixieland Stampede for the hundredth time. This year, I lost my thirteen-year-old dog. This year, I visited the grave of my father after several decades.
This year I’ve visited more states than I have ever visited in my life. Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and the states bordering the Rocky Mountains. I’ve told stories to audiences of people who, for some odd reason, want to hear them.
I’ve met beautiful people. I’ve shaken hands with a nine-year-old who had terminal cancer—who isn’t alive to read this now. I kissed the powdery cheeks of a ninety-nine-year-old who laid her hands on my head and said, “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you.”
And I’ve watched my mother learn to smile again. She’s even wearing flip flops. The older I get, the less I know.
The waitress brings our food. My mother asks me to say a few words.
So I do.
“Thank you, thank you.”