The high-school parking lot is full. The school is plain-looking, with Old Glory flying in front. The small campus sits across the road from a cotton field

I'm watching the sun rise over Interstate 10. It's magnificent. My wife and I ride two hours until we land in Pace, Florida.

The high-school parking lot is full. The school is plain-looking, with Old Glory flying in front. The small campus sits across the road from a cotton field.

In the parking space beside me sits an old truck with Browning stickers on the back. Muddy tires.

This is Small-Town USA.

Miss Carrie gives us the dime tour. The school halls are lined with framed photos of seniors dating back to the Nixon administration. Each portrait is a history lesson in the evolution of bad American hairstyles.

“Our school's special,” Miss Carrie says. “Our staff has tried really hard to make it this special.”

She leads us into the yearbook room. There's a buffet loaded with biscuits, grits, and bacon.

Special.

My wife and I fix plates and meet the faculty. These are real folks—the sort with accents like your mama's Wednesday night Bible-study group. Some teachers have been here forty years. Other are wet behind

the ears. There's something different about this lot.

They believe in this cinderblock building.

“You're not gonna find many schools like us anymore,” says one woman. “We're old-fashioned.”

Miss Carrie shows me a plaque with student names. "I want you to see our exceptional students."

Exceptional. But not because of GPA's. These are students who overcome adversity, who help others. The kinds of qualities Pace thinks are important.

She taps the plaque. "This girl had a cognitive disorder, she had to work twice as hard as other kids. We're all really proud'a her. She deserves to be honored."

This must be heaven.

So, why am I telling you about an ordinary high school, sitting behind a plow field? You already know why. Because this is the American South. And it's precious.

Because this is a school with a hunting-fishing club that prints its…

There's a woman ahead of me at the sandwich counter. She has a son sleeping in a stroller. He's no baby. In fact, he's not even a small kid, he looks like a fifth-grader.

Freeport, Florida, 8:39 P.M.—Publix. It's halftime for the National Championship. I'm here to buy a sandwich. I just left a party at my friend's house.

Publix is quiet. I'm tired. I'm hungry. The food at the party was god-awful. My pal tried making Mexican cheese dip that tasted microwave-melted fertilizer.

So I'm here.

There's a woman ahead of me at the sandwich counter. She has a son sleeping in a stroller. He's no baby. In fact, he's not even a small kid, he looks like a fifth-grader.

She's wearing a “Roll Tide” sweatshirt.

And this makes us best friends.

So, we chat football.

While the young man at the counter makes her sandwich, she talks. She tells me she's recently moved back to town. She was raised here, but moved away when she got married.

I asked what brought her back.

"My divorce," she said. "I'm starting over."

Then, we're interrupted by her son.

No sooner does he open his eyes than he's screaming loud enough to affect the climate. He flails his arms. Cries. Kicks. She tries to hush him.

He

won't have it.

He throws a plastic toy at her. It hits her square in the face. Hard.

She doesn't react. She only looks at me and says, “He didn't mean that, it's just past his bedtime.”

Yeah.

She picks the kid up, holding him like a newborn. The boy is almost as tall as she is. His legs are limp.

Once her sandwiches are made and wrapped, her boy has calmed. She places him back in the stroller. She thanks the man behind the counter.

Then she looks at me. “I know this is weird, but would you mind watching my son while I go to the bathroom? He's finally relaxed, I don't wanna disturb him."

Absolutely, ma'am.

She walks toward the restrooms with her hands over her face.

She's only gone a few minutes. When she…

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.”

“But...”

“...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.

He

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.

Sincerely, JUST BEING REAL

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…