This Bellville-Avenue Belle grew up in a time of cotton dresses, bare feet, and decency. She has survived a handful of dear friends, thirteen US presidents, and one late husband who fished with firearms.

My mother-in-law fell yesterday. She stumbled in the garage. It was bad. She smacked her face on the pavement. She busted her glasses. And her nose. When I found her she was bleeding.

“We're going to the ER,” I said.

“I feel lightheaded,” remarked the white-haired Scarlett O'Hara.

“Yes, ma'am. Here, take my arm.”

“Wait, I need to brush my teeth before we go.”

“But you're bleeding all over.”

"These shoes don't match my belt, get my blue shoes from the closet, the sling-back heels.”


“...And my lipstick, it's in my purse. I need my pearls."

Meet Mother Mary.

I've called her that ever since our first supper together. That was a long time ago. I remember the meal: rump roast, served with enough trimmings to make the table buckle.

For desert, we had pear salad—a half-pear topped with mayonnaise, shredded cheese, and a cherry. I ate every bite. but you should know: I'd rather lick a possum than eat pear salad.

I nearly choked.

Even so, that night Mary and I discovered we liked each other. She told me

to call her Mother Mary. It's all I've ever called her.

Before she was my mother-in-law, I visited once to take her daughter on a movie-date. Her husband answered the door with a twelve-gauge.

"Jamie's upstairs," he said. "Her mama and I are on the pier, fishing.”

Her daddy led me to the dock where Mother Mary was working a rod and reel. She started screaming, "I got one!"

Without saying a word, my wife's daddy aimed the double-barrel at the water. He unloaded two explosions and ten cuss words.

It was a speckled trout the size of a grown man's leg.

That night, we canceled our movie date and ate with my wife's parents. Fried fish, hushpuppies, French fries, okra, and anything else her daddy could stuff into a deep-fryer.

I'm hard pressed to remember having a better…

It's who I talk to when I'm alone. It's hymns I know by heart. It's my childhood pastor who once told me, "I'm sorry, son, your father's gone."

I wasn't going to write this. But I did anyway.

Yesterday, I got accused of being a Christian. It was an odd insult. He said the word hatefully.

I didn't answer.

So he said it again.

I paid my tab and walked outside to get some air.

The first thing you should know is that I had it coming. Earlier that evening, I'd asked the perfect stranger not to shout the F-word at the restaurant TV. He was watching a game. I don't even know which one.

My pal's six-year-old daughter was in a nearby booth. "Daddy," she said. "Is the F-word really Jesus' middle name?"

So I asked the man if he'd keep it down.

"Who the hell're you?" he said, standing. He towered over me by at least fifty thousand nautical miles. "You some mother #%*!ing Christian?"

It surprised me.

I've never been called that before. If he'd truly wanted me to wound me, he went about it all wrong.

This is the deep South. If you want to get a man riled, you call him

a "no good sumbitch," then strike a beer bottle briskly against an unforgiving surface.

A Christian.

I won't lie. I've spent a lot of time in church. Religion was in my drinking water. I've even attended services where snakes were handled. My cousin held one with both hands and said he felt the power of the Almighty vibrate his bones.

He sells used cars today.

Anyway, this fella wasn't just insulting me. He was referring to my heritage. The peanut-fields, the sod cabins, summer revivals, and clapboard houses of my ancestry.

The word "Christian" was engraved on my grandaddy's dogtag. And when the bullet struck him, he said the medics hollered his rank and denomination.

This word represents the best memories of my childhood. Sunday school with white-haired ladies who taught us to love fellow human beings—whether red, yellow, black, or white.…

This was a Depression, the only thing she had left was a voice. Her children hadn't eaten in two days. Her eldest boy was losing hair in clumps.

She was shouting in a general store, hollering until her voice broke.

And back in those days, women didn't holler.

It was a small store; a tiny town. It was the kind of market where the cashiers knew your name—and asked about your mama.

The screaming lady waved her finger at a man wearing a necktie. She was dressed in rags. She had wiry auburn hair, sad eyes, rough hands, three kids—filthy ones.

The owner asked the woman to lower her voice.

But the woman would not. She could not. This was a Depression, the only thing she had left was a voice. Her children hadn't eaten in two days. Her eldest boy was losing hair in clumps.

The store owner had no charity. He was new in town. He didn't know her from Adam, nor did he care for women who shouted.

She told him how the previous store owner let the family charge groceries on an account. On the first of every month, she put money toward the bill—though it was never enough.


wouldn't hear her.

She screamed, telling him she had no husband. She told him how she took in wash for a pittance. She pleaded for beans, salt pork, or even a few tins of hard biscuits.

The new shop owner was fresh out of pity, a business man. The only things he knew about this woman were in his logbook.

He removed the food from her basket by force. The kids wailed. She slapped him. He kicked her out and warned her not to come back until she settled her debt. Then he called the sheriff.

She left in tears.

For supper that evening: water and hollow tummies. The oldest boy later recounted that he was so hungry he felt drunk. Sometimes he laughed for no reason. Then cried.

The next morning, the family awoke to loud noises on the porch. She walked downstairs…

“My son had a distended belly from not eating proper, and he was close to slipping into a coma."

I used two words and made a fat mistake. I guess that's progress. Usually, it only takes me one word.

Anyway, I wrote about an adopted girl. I referred to her mother as an “adoptive mother.”

Poor choice of words. Mothers who adopt are REAL mothers. Those who give children up for adoption are "birth-mothers."

Adoptive mothers don't exist.

Sometimes I have the IQ of a room-temperature Budweiser.

That day, I received forty-two messages from parents of adopted children, and step-parents. They all had adoption stories. These were kindhearted letters from people with so much sweetness they make pound cake look bland.

I read each message aloud to my wife. It took me an afternoon to read through them—it was one of the finest afternoons I've had in a while.

Here's why:

One woman wrote: “I was working as a waitress. This girl who washed dishes was pregnant and told me in passing that she was going to abort her baby because her boyfriend had landed in jail...

"I didn't sleep all night. The next

day I just went right up to her, my hands were trembling, and asked if she'd let me and my boyfriend adopt.

"It's been a long road, but the bottom line is, my son is my pride and joy. I've never looked back. I just wanted you to know that I fully consider myself his real mother.”

As you should, ma'am.

Another friend writes: “When I heard I couldn't have kids it made me feel like I was a broken washing machine or something.

"The day we first held our baby girl my husband said I smiled so big... He says I looked like an unused coloring book who was finally getting colored in—I don't know if that makes sense.”

It does.

Someone else: “My son was born in a bad part of town... People were doing meth, trading drugs for sex. Later, we…

"I studied eight hours a day, six days a week, just to keep up with the teeny-boppers. I kept telling myself, 'You can do anything for that baby, she deserves your best,' you know?"

I have a bad ankle. I don't know what I did to it, but it's been nagging me for months. I visited the doctor. He looked like a twelve-year-old.

He frowned at me, then said—and I quote: "Sucks getting old, doesn't it?"

I paid a lot of money to hear Junior say that.

The nurse fitted me with an ankle brace. She was elderly. Skinny. Everything she said sounded like sorghum. In the short time she helped me, we made friends.

There's a tattoo on her hand. Two interlocking hearts. I asked about it—you don't see many tattoos on someone who looks like Granny.

“My daughter made me get this,” she said. “We got matching ones when she graduated last year."

I did the math. This woman seemed awfully long in the tooth to have a child so young.

She must've known I was confused because she laughed. "She's actually my granddaughter."

Well, as it happens, her granddaughter is her daughter. When the child was a one-year-old, her mother shot herself. Nobody knew who the father was.

"It was

traumatic," she said. "When we found her, she was laying on her mama's body, asleep."

She speaks without flinching.

She adopted her granddaughter. And since babies are expensive, her husband went back to work. But it was a struggling economy. There wasn't much work.

They agreed she'd come out of retirement and go back to nursing.

Her certifications had expired, the medical world had advanced. They told her she'd have to complete nearly as much school as entry-level students.

“Lord,” she said. “Didn't think I'd been gone THAT long. But things had changed. When I's in school, we didn't have Google.”

Her husband wasn't sure if it was a good idea. Neither was she. Hard studying, odd hours, clinical shifts.

She enrolled anyway.

As it happened, the refresher courses weren't bad. Not for her. She had more experience than some of…

I appreciate your honesty. Allow me to return the favor.

DEAR SEAN: A friend of mine introduced me to your writing. I've only read a little, but as a retired copy editor, and author of two books, I think you could use some work.

You write about life. Well, I was married twenty-four years... My husband had an affair with a much younger woman. I know a little about the pain of life.

I've never lived on my own before, I'm in my late-fifties, I've raised two kids, and I'm all alone this year.

Your brand of goody-goody writing represents what's wrong with this country. I'm sorry to be so blunt, your intentions are probably pure, but you're still too ostensibly young to know how hard life is, honey. People don't need more lovey-dovey ignorance crap. Sometimes it's healthy to embrace anger.


DEAR REAL: I've always wanted to do the Dear Abby thing, so thanks for signing your letter that way. Also: I won't lie, I had to look up "ostensibly" in the dictionary.

I appreciate your honesty. Allow

me to return the favor.

You're right about me. I don't know how hard life is. My father shot himself with a rifle the day he got out of jail. My mother locked herself in her room and cried for years. My family eroded. I was twelve.

I don't want to talk much about it. It's ostensibly difficult.

I hope I used that word right.

What I can tell you is that we lived on a farm. The day Daddy passed, adult-chores fell to adolescent-me. So did the laundry. I was angry. Not just with my father, but with my peers, for having easy lives.

Eventually, we lost the farm. We lost lots of things—that's what happens to poor folks.

Mama cleaned condos, I swung hammers. We delivered newspapers, laid sod, painted houses. We got good at hocking things. Once, I even took a job digging a…

I'm a person who believes in something. In miracles. Small ones I've seen with my own eyes. In people.

Freeport, Florida—my friend found a car stuck in a muddy ditch on a secluded road. It had just rained. The ground was soft. The thing was buried up to the bumpers.

It was full of Mexican women who didn't speak English. My pal asked if they needed help—he happens to speak fluent hand-gestures.

All they could say was, “Please, yessir, thank you.”

They were a cleaning crew. Each of them had taken turns digging around the tires. Their uniforms were covered in mud. They had wet eyes.

My buddy strapped the vehicle to his hitch. It wouldn't budge. He tried everything. No luck. So, he called some friends with trucks who lived nearby.

I was one such friend.

Three of our trucks lined up, side by side. We strung tow ropes to the vehicle, then hit the gas at the same time. Seven strangers, eight shovels, two Chevies, one Ford, and many years later...

My pal married one of those girls.

Quincy, Florida—Walmart. An elderly woman in the checkout aisle. She didn't look good. She walked with a bent

back, hunched shoulders, and carried a cane.

A manager helped her unload the cart. Then he paid her bill. A girl waiting in line videoed the whole thing on her cellphone.

The manager said to the girl, “Please turn off your camera, this doesn't belong on Facebook. Show some respect, please.”

She put the camera away.

Then wrote me a letter about it.

Jonesboro, Georgia—he used to be a preacher. A good one. Then he had a wreck. It damaged his back. He got hooked on painkillers and whiskey.

The church fired him. He lost his wife, kids, and ambition. Which made him drink more.

One day, the church janitor showed up on his doorstep. He treated the former pastor to breakfast. Together, they ate too much bacon, drank too much coffee, and laughed too much.

He showed up again the…

You need new clothes, new shoes, and it'd be nice if you could find a pair of better-fitting, more expensive jeans. Your skin is old-looking, you need a tan, a firmer hindsection, lose that baby-weight, and wax those forearms.

Girls. The world owes you an apology. The television, the magazines, the news reports, and all mankind. They've done you wrong. And I, for one, am sorry about it.

They're trying to kill you. And once they've finished, they're going after your daughters.

Don't believe me? Just flip on the TV. They say you're not sexy enough. You're overweight. Your swimsuit isn't tiny enough. Your hair should be blonder, darker, straighter, and you need more volume.

Not only that, but you're dowdy. Your lips are too small; hips too big. You've got bags under your eyes, your teeth could be whiter, chest bigger, arms less flabby, midsection tighter.

I'm just warming up.

You need new clothes, new shoes, and it'd be nice if you could find a pair of better-fitting, more expensive jeans. Your skin is old-looking, you need a tan, a firmer hindsection, lose that baby-weight, and wax those forearms.

You talk too much. You don't cook enough. You're not strict enough with your kids. You need regular exercise twice per hour.

You need

more school, more credibility, more accredited classes, more professional know-how, management skills, leadership training, certifications, administrative growth.

And for God's sake, get a little confidence.

You drink too much coffee, not enough coconut water. You consume too much butter, not enough palm oil. You don't eat quinoa, pomegranate, kale, bone broth, kambucha, brewer's yeast.

What's wrong with you? Are you trying to kill yourself?

You eat too much bacon, butter, ham, beef, cheese, potatoes, and fried chicken. Clean up your diet. Clean up your potty mouth. And fold that laundry.

Read this book—everyone's reading it. Go see that movie—it's the most important film of our decade. Keep up with current events. Sign your boy up for every sporting team available. Make sure your daughter practices piano.

Hate these people, they deserve it. Don't talk to her, she's got a bad reputation. Never give handouts to…

Long ago, my college professor told us to choose a poem to recite in class. Students chose lofty selections from the greats. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost. I consulted Daddy's Hank Williams songbook.

10:40 P.M.—New Year's Eve. Hank Williams is on my radio. My wife is sleeping in the passenger seat. My coonhound is in the backseat.

To bring in the year, we've gone for a drive on county roads that weave along the Choctawhatchee Bay.

There are no cars out. The highway is vacant—except for police cruisers. I've never welcomed in a year like this.

As a boy, my father and I brought in holidays with shotguns. We'd march to the edge of creation and fire twelve gauges at the moon. Then, I'd sip Coca-Cola; he'd sip something clear.

Another year goes by without him.

11:02 P.M.—my tank is on E. I stop at a gas station. The pump card-reader is broken. My wife is still out cold.

I go inside to pay. The clerk is a young girl with purple hair. She wanted to be with her kids tonight, but someone called in with a sinus infection.

I buy a Coca-Cola in a plastic bottle.

I also buy a scratch-off lotto ticket. The last few minutes of the year, I'm

feeling lucky. I use my keys to scratch the ticket. I win five bucks. So, I buy another two. I win another dollar.

"Lucky you," the cashier says. "Wish I could buy one, but it's against store policy."

To hell with policy. It's New Year's Eve.

I buy her one.

She swipes a coin from the take-a-penny tray. She scratches. She wins ten bucks. We high-five.

It's only ten bucks, but seeing her win makes my year.

11:28 P.M.—I'm driving. My wife is still sawing pinelogs. I'm riding though the North Florida woods, sipping Coke. Trees grow so high you can't see the moon. It's almost like poetry.

Long ago, my college professor told us to choose a poem to recite in class. Students chose lofty selections from the greats. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost.

I consulted Daddy's Hank Williams songbook. He'd given…

Don't get me wrong, this thing isn't always petunias and soap bars. This thing can be hard as nails. Sometimes, it causes the greatest pain you'll ever feel. Even so, it's a pain worth feeling. Don't ask me why. I don't know.

It's too big to write about. But, I'm not going to let that stop me. That's because it's a pretty big thing I'm referring to. The biggest.

Jaden owes his very life to this thing.

Jaden was an abandoned infant born with crack-cocaine in his bloodstream. After his mother's arrest, he was adopted by Claire—sixty-eight-year-old single woman who heard about his situation through a friend.

Claire said, “I know I ain't got forty years to give'im like some young couples, but I'm a good mama, he can have every year I got left.”

Consequently, this "big thing" is the same thing that killed Bob Cassidy.

First, it compelled Cassidy to pull over on Highway 10 to change a woman's tire. A car struck him. It killed him on impact.

I know what you're thinking, "What a senseless tragedy." It wasn't senseless. All thanks to this thing we're talking about.

This thing also prompted Betty to adopt three rescue dogs from a kill-shelter. She brought them home and turned them loose on her twenty-acre farm.

“That's when it hit me,” she said. “I knew had enough room for lots'a dogs.”

So she drove back and adopted several more. Then a few more. Soon, the shelter started giving them to her.

Folks thought Betty was nuts. But she's not. She only looks that way to people who don't know about this thing—which often makes normal folks look like their a few bricks short of a load.

Don't get me wrong, this thing isn't always petunias and soap bars. This thing can be hard as nails. Sometimes, it causes the greatest pain you'll ever feel. Even so, it's a pain worth feeling. Don't ask me why. I don't know.

Something I do know:

this stuff is the fabric the universe. It's the only real thing out there. It's what makes average people sparkle, and ugly skies look pretty. It gives purpose to death.…