Now the kid is on my lap. Her diaper is wet, she has green snot running from her nose, and she smells like a pot of collards.

It’s a little early for a Christmas party. But who’s counting. We’re in my sister’s backyard. There are twinkling lights hanging over a fenced area. The whole family is here.

My sister’s neighbor is performing minor surgery on his Harley. It’s loud.

My mother is drinking a beer. I am, too. We are humble, working-class people. If we’re going to have a Christmas party with loud Harleys, by God, we might as well have cheap beer, too.

There is a kid running around. A girl. She is my alleged niece.

She calls me “Uncle Sean.”

My sister talks to the girl in a high-pitched voice. “Tell your Uncle Sean you love him.”


Close enough.

Now the kid is on my lap. Her diaper is wet, she has green snot running from her nose, and she smells like a pot of collards.

I could just eat her all up.

She looks like her mother did at this age. She has the same eyes. Same personality. It’s a get-your-hands-off-me-I-can-do-it-myself-thank-you-very-much personality.

And I’m going back in time. Decades back.

If I close my eyes, I see my baby

sister on her rump in a big hayfield. She’s five. She’s got a dog with her. An outdoor dog, with ticks and fleas.

She’s staring into space. It’s cold. She’s got yellow snot on her upper lip.

“Is Daddy really dead?” she says.

Her face is big. Her cheeks are clammy. My father’s untimely end is fresh on her mind.

“You’re gonna catch a cold,” I say. “Let’s go inside.”

“Why would Daddy kill his own self?”

“You’re gonna get fleas if you—”

“What if YOU die next? What if MAMA dies?”

And the tears come. They’re hot tears. I remember this because they were all over my chest and shoulder.

“Nobody’s gonna die,” I tell her.

“I’m scared. What’s gonna happen to us?”


She kisses his head. Throws the wheelchair in back. The truck roars to life and they’re gone. Alabama plates. Enormous TV-shaped box in the bed of the truck.

The parking lot at Target. He has no legs below the knees. His upper body is well-developed. He has a large handlebar mustache. Tattoos.

A young girl helps him out of a truck. She is eighteen at the most. Maybe nineteen.

She lifts him from the driver’s seat into a wheelchair. She is a tall girl, strapping, broad shoulders. Jeans and boots.

I can see them across the parking lot.

And even though it’s none of my business, I offer to help the girl. She too busy holding him in her arms to answer.

So he answers for her. “Thanks, boss, but my daughter’s got it. She does it all the time.”

He’s not fooling. She is stronger than a new box of Borax.

I watch her place him into his wheelchair, then buckle him in. He kisses her cheek. And away they roll into Target.

I see them in the store, too. He wheels through the aisles, laughing with the girl. There’s a look fathers give daughters. And there's a look daughters give fathers. I can spot a daddy’s-girl ten miles away.

They must be Christmas shopping

because every few words, he says, “You think Mama will like that one?”

They are in the technology section. He’s parked before a TV that’s large enough to require a movie ticket to look at. She’s standing beside him. She towers over him by at least three feet.

The screen plays “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

And I love this movie.

In fact, I’ve seen it so many times I could quote the dialogue with my hands tied behind my back and eyes closed—hanging upside down. Backwards. In the dark.

In Español.

The scene they’re watching:

George Bailey is a boy, working the soda counter in the drugstore. Young Mary is at the bar.

Mary leans forward to say to George, “Is THIS the ear you can’t hear on?”

George doesn’t answer.


I was the quiet man in the rear of her class—a double-wide trailer classroom. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained

in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia,…

By his early twenties, he was helping care for her. He called to check on her often. He grocery shopped. He brought in the mail. He carried her to appointments. 

His mother died when he was six. His childhood was a lonely one. He’d been raised by his father—a man who worked too much.

No brothers. No sisters. He was a quiet child. So quiet, kids at school wondered if he even existed.

He got older and became a quiet fourteen-year-old. He had a hard time making friends. Most nights you could find him alone at home after school, eating fast food before a glowing TV screen.

She was his neighbor. She was old and feeble, with an oxygen machine. She lived in an ancient home and she stayed inside it.

She was not friendly. In fact, she was downright hateful. Most people avoided her. Especially kids. She would chew up children and spit them out.

She spent her days stuck in an easy chair, staring at windows, watching people walk the sidewalk.

One day, she and the boy started to talk.

She was on her back porch, with her nurse when she saw him pass her.

"Get up here,” she said to him, puffing a cigarette.

“Introduce yourself to me.”

And, even though nobody saw it coming, their friendship blossomed. He opened like a camellia. He talked to her about everything. He spoke about life, about day-to-day things, and what he'd seen in the news.

They became fast friends. They stayed that way through the years.

Her lawn was overgrown; he’d cut it. The siding on her home was rotting; he’d repair it. She taught him to love books. He taught her to be nice.

By his early twenties, he was helping care for her. He called to check on her often. He grocery shopped. He brought in the mail. He carried her to appointments.

And each year for Christmas, he bought her a balsam fir. A live one. He’d place it in her living room, front and center, decorated.

Her face would grow fifty-years younger when she saw…

He woke to a tree with a family seated around it. There were newspaper-wrapped packages beneath the branches. Each gift had the word, “Dad” written on it. 

Alabama, 1963—it was chilly. It was gray. A skinny Christmas tree sat in the corner of his rundown home, undecorated. No gifts.

His wife was a secretary. He punched a clock, wore leather gloves, and moved steel for a living.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly unusual story. They worked from can to can’t. They sweat for dimes. They ate beans, rice, and white bread.

They had seven kids. Money was hard to hold on to with seven hungry tummies.

And, on the day she found him home from work early, sitting on the steps, she knew things were about to get worse.

His face was red and puffy. He couldn’t find the words. They’d fired him. His supervisor had delivered the news without warning.

His wife held him like a child.

“What're we gonna do?” he said.

“We're gonna believe,” she told him.

But he worried until he lost sleep. Then he worried harder.

The next day, he drove a dilapidated Ford through busy streets with the classifieds beneath his arm. His eldest son rode shotgun.

The boy watched through the windows while his father begged

foremen for grunt work.

“Daddy,” said his son. “We gonna starve?”

“No, son,” he said. “But we might lose a little weight.”

After three weeks of job hunting he had, in fact, lost weight. They say he wouldn't eat suppers.

The once strong steelman; an unemployed shell, skipping lunches and dinners to save money. Rejection takes a toll.

Christmas morning.

He woke to a tree with a family seated around it. There were newspaper-wrapped packages beneath the branches. Each gift had the word, “Dad” written on it.

His eldest made a picture book from construction paper and cardboard.

His daughter had given him a cigar.

His youngest gave him five quarters which he’d saved in a piggy bank.

A black-and-white family photo—colored with crayons. A sock-monkey doll, stuffed with newsprint. An aluminum ring. Shoelace bracelets.…

She started the night at my feet. Midway through, she curled between my legs. By morning, I will have black-and-tan hindparts in my face.

I’m trying to sleep with a dog. But it’s not happening. We are in a tiny camper. It’s almost midnight, I'm awake. Ellie Mae, the coonhound, is snoring like a retired chainsaw.

Earlier today, I tried to fish with this irksome dog. We were supposed to be catching trout, but you can't fish when you have a coonhound dog-paddling through ice-cold water. When she finished, she smelled like reclaimed sushi.

And now we’re sleeping in the same single bed.

She started the night at my feet. Midway through, she curled between my legs. By morning, I will have black-and-tan hindparts in my face.

This morning, we went for a walk through the woods to do her necessaries. But she wasn’t in the mood to do business. She saw a squirrel dart across our trail. She was gone for a few hours.

She loves squirrels, even though she’s never successfully captured one. The closest she ever came to such was when she chased my neighbor’s overweight housecat through the neighborhood. She ran the cat straight onto Mister Donaldson’s roof.

Mrs. Donaldson told me that Ellie howled for a solid twenty minutes at that cat. It took three middle-aged men and a two-story telescopic ladder to rescue the poor feline.

Ever since the incident, the Donaldsons quit sending me Christmas cards. And when I see them in the supermarket they don't make eye-contact.

This dog is going to be the death of me.

For supper tonight, Ellie rode shotgun while we drove into town. Every dog I’ve ever owned has ridden shotgun. Cody, Lady, Boone, Joe. God rest their souls.

There’s something about a dog in my passenger seat that does it for me.

Our main order of business for the evening was supper. I planned on picking up something to-go, and eating back at the camper.

I parked in town, and instructed Ellie to wait in the bed of the truck…

You’ve done things. And I’m not talking about big things—everybody knows you make the earth spin and stars twinkle. No. I’m talking about tiny things you've done.

Dear God,

It's me again. Actually, I don’t know what you want me to call you. For all I know, you might prefer to be called something Hebrew, Latin, German, or Cherokee. Anyway, one thing’s for sure: you’re older than the names people call you. That much I remember from Sunday school.

My mother called you, “The Lord.” My granny called you “Heavenly Father.” My uncle used to call you the "Big Guy."

Either way, I was raised in church, and I remember hearing a lot about you in the tiny chapels of my childhood.

I love those chapels. I remember plaster ceilings which leaked, and pews that creaked when people shifted weight from cheek to cheek.

And Sunday-school teachers who made you sound like an old Western sheriff who wouldn’t take any lip. Like Wyatt Earp, or the Terminator.

But that’s not you. Not at all.

And even though I don’t know a lot about you, I know a little.

I know that you’re the sun. You’re pine trees. You’re the sky over Lake Martin. The smell of baked apples Mother used to

cook. And prettiness.

You’re the look on a kid’s face when he or she catches a fish.

You are every blessed Andy Griffith Show episode ever made. You are Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney, Otis. You had absolutely nothing to do with Matlock.

You are guitar music my uncle used to pick. You’re popping noises from hickory logs in a fireplace. You’re salted butter. Roasted pecans. Bottled Coca-Cola. And loyalty from a friend.

You’ve done things. And I’m not talking about big things—everybody knows you make the earth spin and stars twinkle.

No. I’m talking about tiny things you've done. Like how you managed to let me find a wood figurine my grandfather carved. It’s a buffalo, and it's almost a hundred years old. I found it packed in an old box.

Then there’s the time I…

This boy behind me. I'm thinking about him. The child who speaks with his hands. Who is young, but strong. A boy who wants catfish, and wants the pleasure of ordering it for himself, by God.

Cracker Barrel, 6:39 P.M.—we are sitting at a table for our pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving meal. I am with my wife, my elderly mother-in-law, and her full-time nurse, Carleen.

Carleen is wearing her non-work clothes, her hair is fixed pretty. She is Jamaican. She speaks in a sing-song way. Every few words she calls folks “darling.”

I could listen to Carleen read the White Pages.

There is a deaf boy at a table a few feet from us. At least, I think he’s deaf. He has an electronic device mounted on the side of his head.

He’s using sign language with his parents. His parents sign responses.

The waitress asks for his order.

His mother answers, “He’ll have catfish.”

“MOM!” he says with a moaning, “LET ME DO IT!”

It’s difficult to get the words out, but he manages.


This child is pure willpower wrapped in freckles.

The table behind us: an old man and woman. They are sipping coffee. They are every old couple you’ve ever seen.

A young man walks into the dining room. He’s wearing an Air-Force uniform.

The couple

stands. “Oh, Ben,” they say in unison.

They embrace. “I missed you so much,” says the woman.

“I missed you, Mom.”

On my other side is a Mexican family. Three kids, two adults. The woman is in a fast-food uniform. The young man is in boots, dusty clothes.

When food arrives, they hold hands. They bless their plates in majestic Spanish.

The only word I understand is “amen.”

Across the restaurant: a table filled with young women. They wear matching red-and-gold jackets, “FSU” is embroidered on their backs. They are loud, excited, drinking their weight in sodas.

Several middle-aged ladies come through the doors, led by a hostess. The college girls shoot to their feet.

“Mom!” I overhear the girls say.

And if there's anything more beautiful than mothers and daughters reuniting, I…

Her infection got worse. Doctors gave her a few weeks to live, tops. Her family camped in the waiting room. They survived on vending machine food and coffee. They said their goodbyes. But the tide shifted. Doctors couldn’t explain how. She beat her sickness with flying colors. 

The Winn-Dixie is crowded. Not Black-Friday crowded, but T-minus-two-days-until-Thanksgiving crowded.

I’m buying sweet potatoes for my wife. She’s making a sweet potato pie which she’s been perfecting for eighteen Thanksgivings in a row.

I could eat my weight in sweet potato pie.

When they lay me down, they will write: “Here lies Sean. Ate too much pie. 14 ft. boat for sale.”

In line ahead of me: an elderly woman. She is little, and has curly white hair. Her cart is brimming with food. Her grandson is pushing another loaded cart. They have enough food to survive the second coming of Conway Twitty.

She notices my sweet potatoes.

“You can cut in line,” she offers. “You only have a few things, we have TWO carts.”

Granny and I make friends. I learn that she's cooking Thanksgiving feast for forty-some people.

Her family is coming into town from all parts. Her cousins from Oregon, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. She’s even invited folks from church.

She’s throwing a hootenanny. A shindig. A fracas. A hoedown. A knee-slapping plate-polishing party. Whatever you

want to call it, it’s serious.

“This ain't JUST Thanksgiving,” she says. “It’s a celebration that I’m alive.”

Last year, for ten months, she had pneumonia. She got so sick she went into a rehab facility. Doctors said the infection would likely kill her.

“My preacher laid hands on me almost every day,” she says. “He’d pray the same thing...

“‘Have I not commanded thee, be strong and of good courage, and neither thou dismayed, for the Lord is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’”

She has repeated these words to herself for months, even when she was sleeping.

She had visions while in her hospital bed. She tells me she saw a white light, shaped like a body, sitting on a golden chair.

“The Lord told me: ‘Darling, I ain’t ready for you to be here in Heaven yet.…

Friends. May you live a real life. May it be a warm life. And during this holiday week, I hope you smell the aroma of something fatty in the oven.

David drove across two states to buy hunting dogs for his son. His son was born blind. He has never been hunting, never worn orange, never touched a rifle.

A few months ago, that all changed.

David’s friends invited them coon hunting in Oklahoma.

“Found out that coon hunting ain’t like some other kinds of hunting,” says David. “You don't just sit, you follow dogs, basically. That’s almost all there is to it.”

David took his son hunting for the first time. They followed howling animals through the woods. He held his son’s hand, marching through underbrush.

David says, “First time I heard my son say, ‘I can hear the dogs, Dad!’ It almost made me break down and...”

For months, it was all his son talked about. He kept asking for an encore hunt. David decided to do something about it.

He drove north to buy trained hounds. They cost him a small fortune.

Tomorrow, David will surprise his son with two brand new family members—of the long-eared variety.

“You have no idea, hunting with my son makes me feel like a good


Tomorrow morning, Jace is going to ask Brittany to marry him. He’s been planning the proposal for months.

They’ve been together six years. She’s helped raise his kids. She’s been his greatest love. His cheer-section. A best friend.

If she says yes, he’s taking her to the mountains—no kids, no pets. Just two lovers at high altitude. He will convince her that this trip is for celebration, but there’s more to it.

“I got family and friends on standby,” Jace says. “We’re gonna do a surprise wedding in the woods.”

It will happen like this:

They’ll leave their rental cabin, on a leisurely walk. They’ll follow a dirt trail until they happen upon a preacher, a small crowd, and a scenic overlook.

“She always wanted a simple wedding, without dresses, or flowers and big stuff.…