Somewhere in North Carolina. Morningtime. I heard loud salsa music in our hotel hallway. I could hear it through the walls, rattling all 12 of my molars. I exited our room to see a girl outside one of the open rooms. She was maybe 11 or 12. Bronze skin, eyes the color of Folgers. She wore ratty clothes and her shoes were old. She was vacuuming, singing with the music.

“Morning,” she said as I walked by.

“Hi,” I said, speaking over the din of the Tijuana Brass.

Inside the open room was another maid, older, wearing a gray hotel uniform. The woman barked something at the child in Español. I had no idea what the woman was saying, but I know the tone of an aggravated mom when I hear one.

“Turn it down!” the woman finally said in broken English.

The girl ignored her mother and turned to me. “Do you have everything you need, sir?”

I nodded. “I’m good, thank you.”

“Is the music too loud?” the mother asked me point-blankly.

The girl looked

at me. The mother looked at me.

I felt like was about to be be executed.

“No,” I lied. “It’s not loud.”

I bid them goodbye as they argued in rapid-fire Spanish behind me.

I walked through the hotel hallway, on my way to peruse the dregs on the continental breakfast buffet. I was hoping to find at least one strip of bacon that wasn’t the same grit and texture of a Goodyear all-season tire.

On my way, I passed the hotel’s laundry facility. I could feel the humid heat blasting from an open doorway. The industrial machinery was churning loudly. Latino music was blaring from this room also.

Inside the laundry room were four or five young maids, cramming a few metric tons’ worth of bedsheets into washing machines. Two of the women were dancing while working. Others were singing along.


Nobody knows when it started. But it did. The first jar of pickles to appear on Aunt Bee’s grave in Siler City, North Carolina, showed up in in 1989, the year she died. Legend states that the pickles were probably homemade. Although some claim they were store pickles.

Since that fateful day, nobody has found a good reason to stop leaving pickles. Pickles show up by the hundreds. Maybe even thousands. From all over the United States.

“I think it’s just a form of respect,” says Billy, age 73, from Bentonville, Arkansas.

Billy traveled 840 miles to Siler City in his 2007 Ford Ranger, which is more rust-colored than green, to deliver a single jar of Kosher Dill Snack’mms to the grave of Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“She was America’s mom,” says Billy. “She was my whole childhood.”

The pickles are a salute to season two, episode 11, “The Pickle Story.” In the episode, Aunt Bee makes pickles that taste so bad they could

take the paint off navy ships. “Kerosene cucumbers” they were called in the episode.

“That’s my favorite episode,” says Billy.

“Mine, too,” says Billy’s brother, Roger, who is busy taking Billy’s picture with his phone camera. Roger is 80 this year. He is vaping. His flavor du jour is tropical cherry, and he is puffing so frequently that we are all able to enjoy this flavor with him.

“Best show ever,” says Roger between puffs. “Period.”

Billy and Roger have visited this cemetery twice before. And they say that each time they come, there are multiple pickle jars sitting on the gravemarker.

“Sometimes there are ten or twenty of’em,” says Billy. “Depending on if it’s tourist season or not.”

The Oakwood Cemetery is a nondescript burial place, nestled within the black gums and post oaks of the Old North State, with headstones stretching back toward the horizon.…

The sun is lowering over the trees on the horizon, and the sky is lit orange here in Birmingham. The world is filled with daylight. The birds are chattering.

Opening Day of Major League baseball is here. Hallelujah. Tonight, the Atlanta Braves will face off against the Cincinnati Reds. But right now, I am catching a game between two Little League teams in the park near my house.

It’s an unofficial matchup. These kids are young, they’re just practicing, and they’re still unclear on the rules of the game. But they’re trying. God love them.

A child hits a ground ball.

“RUN!” the parents in the bleachers cheer.

The kid drops the bat. He sprints straight toward the pitcher, runs over the mound, leaps over second base, and keeps going until he collides with the centerfielder. And I love it.

When I was a boy, my father and I listened to ball games on his Philco radio, or watched them on an old Zenith television. Almost every night of the summer we kept a scorecard

beside the wooden radio and a bag of parched peanuts nearby.

When we weren’t following baseball, we were playing catch. When we weren’t doing that, we were at Little League games, like this one. When we weren’t doing that, we were in church daydreaming about Glenn Hubbard.

Of course, my childhood baseball career was cut short. My father died in a terrible way. It was the kind of death that makes everyone in a small town gasp when they read it in the papers. It was though someone had erased the sun.

And something else bad happened on the same day of his passing. And I mean the ACTUAL DAY of his death.

It was an announcement on the national news. The commissioner of Major League Baseball stood at a podium and proclaimed that there would be no World Series that year.

It was the…

The letter came via snail mail. The author is 39 years old. I will call her “Ashley” because that is her name.

“Sean, I have a book that I want to write, but I don’t know how to get started or what I’m even doing. What’s wrong with me? When will writing get easier? I don’t know what I’m doing. I want to branch out and be a writer someday, but I don’t know how to get off the ground. My writing sucks. I suck. Help me.”

Let me start by saying that I don’t normally answer writing questions here, for two very important reasons: (1) when you write a column about the professional craft of writing, your credibility can be utterly destroyed if you have so much as one typo, and (2) i’m not grate with speling

Furthermore, I too suck at writing.

To my knowledge, I have never read anything I’ve written and said to myself, “Wow, that doesn’t suck.” Normally I read my own work, wad up the page and I say, “Make mine a double

on the rocks, please.”

But I have some very good news for you. There is a secret I’ve learned in my time as a fledgling professional writer, and this little tidbit has helped me immensely:

Everyone else sucks, too.

SSSSSSHHHH! Don’t tell anyone!

The professionals really don’t want you to know they suck. Many writers spend a lot of time, energy and money trying to convince people they don’t suck. But them’s the facts, ma’am.

And the fact is, everyone sucks equally. Because we’re human beings. Sucking is what we do. We’re experts at sucking. Sure, occasionally one of us humans might accidentally crank out “War and Peace.” But eventually, we’ll go back to sucking again. We always do.

Even many classic works of literature suck, going by the general consensus. If you don’t believe me, just ask an auditorium of…

Today, I gave a talk to a classroom of first-graders. We sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I taught them all the hand motions.

And I had a flashback to my own youth.

I remembered sitting on the tailgate of my father’s truck, learning to sing this song when I was 5 years old. My father taught me the hand motions to this Sunday school standard with an Old Milwaukee in his hand.

It was one of the most wonderful evenings of my life. I’ll never forget it. The crickets were out. A distant train whistle was sounding. And a grown man and his toddler were singing a children’s song beneath the starry dome of heaven, doing hand motions.

My people made me who I am. They were good people. Salt of the earth. They were men and women who taught me to live, to pray, to eat, and how to laugh at myself in dire circumstances.

I cannot remember a world without their brand of humor. And I wouldn’t want

to. They were incapable of telling a story, hugging a stranger, or singing a song without humor. Always humor.

I’m talking about people like my uncle John, who showed me to play a Gibson student-model guitar purchased from a pawnshop. An instrument with the same tonal quality of mayonnaise.

And the old women who instructed me on the proper way to butter catheads, shell field peas, shuck corn, fry eggs, and pick ticks.

I am forever indebted to my father’s friend, Bud, who taught me how to say grace with unwavering reverence:

“Over the lips, and past the gums,
“Down the red alley, and past the lungs,
“Lookout stomach, here she comes.”

Here’s to the old men in my family who taught me how to identify elms, maples, oaks, and magnolias simply by looking at the leaves. Who showed us impressionable children how to…

The email arrived this morning. The message went: “Dear Sean, nobody gives a flying [cussword] about your random, unorganized thoughts on spiritualish matters. You’re not as wise as you think you are. Go to hell.”

Well, whoever you are, thanks for the upbeat letter. You sound like someone I could be friends with. Unfortunately, as it happens, I’ve already been to Hell.

Seriously. This happened last year when I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to make a speech at a Lutheran potluck. I had never attended a Lutheran church before, and I was a little nervous about it. But everyone told me that people in the Mitten State were so unwaveringly friendly they were often referred to as being “Michigan nice.”

When I arrived in the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, I was met by a Lutheran named—really—Prince.

Prince was a large, elderly man from Italian descent. He was built like a Whirlpool refrigerator. He spoke animatedly with his hands, and he wore more wrist-intensive jewelry than most televangelists. His mother nicknamed him “Prince”

because—in his own words—he was an incurable mama’s boy.

“Hey, Sean!” Prince cried in the airport, using a booming voice. “Get the [cussword] over here!”

Prince was not your soft-spoken, shrinking-violet Lutheran. He was the kind of Italian guy who, whenever he opened his mouth, chunks of ceiling plaster fell like flurries.

He gave me a hug, slapping my back so manfully that I coughed up particles of my own bronchial matter. Before releasing me, Prince looked me in the eyes and said, “You ever been to Hell?”

This is not a question I am often asked while being embraced in an airport by a Lutheran. I was wishing I had brought pepper spray.

But then he explained that there was actually a town named “Hell,” located a few minutes from Ann Arbor. And it was Prince’s deep belief that everyone should visit this town once.

Terry Taylor died recently. You didn’t know him, and frankly neither did I. He was from Waycross, Georgia. His daughter emailed to tell me that he dutifully read my columns daily.

Even when my writing sucked pondwater, Terry read it. He might have read this one, too, if he were still around.

So I’m thinking about him today as I write this. I’m sitting on my front porch, watching the sun heave itself above the rooftops of Birmingham, and I’m thinking about the brevity of life.

For example, throughout this last century, there have been five families who lived in our house before us. And most of the people who lived in this house during its 100-year existence have already inherited their eternal reward in the Great Hereafter.

Which is how old-timey newspapers used to say someone died. Back in the day, newspapers never came out and said So-And-So died. They always flowered it up. It was always: “Sister Such-And-Such was instantaneously called from this present life into the Great Hereafter,

singing at the burnished feet of the Maker of Earth, where she shall reside forevermore.”

I love the floral language of my ancestors. And I wonder what my predecessors were like before they met the Maker of Earth personally.

I wonder what kinds of conversations happened within their little rooms. I wonder what photographs hung on their walls. I wonder about their fashions. The young women with finger-waved hair and drop-waisted dresses. Young men clad in knickers and flat caps.

One family in this house endured a Great Depression. I think about them. I think about the mother of this household, wearing her modest house dress and inch-thick nylons, trying to make tomato soup out of ketchup and water.

I think about the young girl with her bobbed haircut, her hand-me-down clothes, and her big dreams. The kid who snuck into Shirley Temple pictures because she couldn't afford a…

I have here a letter from a young woman who will remain anonymous.

“Sean, I’m in a very rough place—the man I love and was supposed to marry ended our engagement and kicked me out of our shared house unceremoniously. A lot of days, it’s hard to see the point in continuing. I don’t know what’s going to happen in my future, and I don’t really want to make it much further into the future these days… But your stories give me something to look forward to every day.”

Well, you’re in luck. Because I have a story for you. This is a story about a young woman I am going to call Becky.

I have known Becky since she was 8 years old. As soon as I received your letter I called Becky for permission to share her story.

Becky and I weren’t close, but we used to be in church choir together. Although, saying we were “in church choir” is laughable, inasmuch as Becky and I would often skip choir practice to

catch frogs in the creek and act like hellions while all the nerds were busy learning about obscure Biblical figures such as “Ehud,” and learning how to sing “shape” notes.

Becky was a tomboy. She taught me how to smoke my first cigarette. I’ll never forget it. We were sitting on a rock. She removed a carton of her mother’s Marlboros and I was terrified that we would end up in hell. Becky assured me that smokers didn’t go to hell unless they smoked more than one pack per day.

I choked and gagged and Becky laughed until she almost drowned in her own sputum.

Becky’s mother died when she was 10 years old. The woman fell down a flight of steps and died of a brain injury.

Her father turned into a shell. Immediately. And Becky became unofficial mother to her two brothers. She was…

I drove out of Birmingham a little ways to meet my friend. I watched the interstate give way to pine trees. Pine trees gave way to farmland. Farmland gave way to cattle pastures.

Somewhere deep in the sticks, my GPS went to be with the Lord.

It was Sunday morning. I found the little building just where my friend said it would be. He was standing in the parking lot waiting for me, leaning against his car, reading a newspaper.

Families were crawling out of mud-covered vehicles. Little girls wore dresses. Young men wore sport coats.

“Thought you’d never get here,” my friend said.

“I lost phone reception,” I said. “My GPS quit working.”

“Welcome phone purgatory,” he said with a smile. “Why do you think I’m reading a paper?”

We walked inside together. It was an old building. There was no microphone, only wooden ceilings, wooden floors, wooden walls, and wooden pews. America was founded in wooden rooms like this.

I have been to Philadelphia and toured the ancient wooden rooms that hosted

talks between men who were traitors to the Crown. The talks that began a nation, indivisible, with liberty and free online shipping for all. Those rooms looked like this one.

I sat in a pew. I placed my hands in my lap.

Most people in the chapel were white-haired. We sang songs from old hymnals. My friend, his daughter, and I shared a hymnal which was bound with duct tape. There were crayon drawings in the front pages from some hapless hand that doodled in this hymnal long before Calvin Coolidge was born.

After the singing, a 12-year-old girl played the violin for the “message in song.” She played “Shall We Gather at the River?”and did a nice job. Although, the girl’s mother leaned and whispered to me that when her daughter practices each evening the neighbors usually call the authorities to report a dying feline…

Fourteen-year-old Hayden from Maryland, sent me a letter asking what my favorite food is. Hayden says that her personal favorite food is apple pie with melted cheese on top.

All I can say is: Hayden, you can enjoy that pie all by yourself. Because I’d rather lick a mule between the ears than put cheese on apple pie. But then, who am I to judge? Someone wise once said: “Just because we can’t agree doesn’t mean that you’re not a complete wacko.”

Anyway, to answer your question, Hayden, my all-time favorite foods have changed over the years. When I was a baby, my mother said that I would eat entire blocks of cheddar while in my high chair. My mother, who thought it was adorable to see a child gnawing on a brick of cheese, would take photographs of me, thereby documenting the origins of my longtime childhood weight problem. But I eventually grew out of the cheese fascination and I moved onto:

Mashed potatoes.

The women in my family make

delicious mashed potatoes using an ancient family recipe:

—1 potato.
—80 sticks of butter.
—Accidental bits of cigarette ash.

Also, my mother did not whip her potatoes with electric mixers like the pagans. She had an actual hand masher, covered in rust so that it looked like a tiny tetanus-covered farm implement. I would always lick the masher when she finished. This explains a lot of my developmental problems.

Also, I love collards. And the only way to cook greens is with the ugliest, most deformed ham hock knuckle you can find.

And, bacon. I do not believe that all bacon is created equal. The bacon I like is the hand-cut kind your granddaddy would spend his hard earned money on.

Let the record show that I also love fried chicken. Throughout certain periods of my life, this food was the only reason why I remained a…