Once upon a time there lived a small girl. Quite small. When she was a newborn, you could practically put her in your pocket and carry her around.

Her birthmother was a drunk. The inebriated woman staggered into the hospital, had a baby and two days later she disappeared.

The nurses called the child Thumbelina. So that’s what we’ll call her, too.

Thumbelina’s little face looked perfectly scrunched up. Her hands were itty-bitty and looked like doll hands. All the maternity nurses said they wanted to eat her up.

But Thumbelina’s size did not work in her favor. It was the reason nobody wanted to adopt her. At the group home, she was often glanced over with disapproving stares, for she appeared to be underweight. The runt of the litter.

People associate small size with sickness. And not everyone adopting has room for a sickly child.

So Thumbelina began her life alone. She lived in many group homes throughout the 1950s. She moved in and out of foster care. She learned what it feels

like to be a pinball.

She was a quiet child, it seemed as though she was unable to speak. Maybe she was going deaf? Perhaps she was mute? They had her tested. No hearing troubles, the doc said. No vocal problems. She was just a natural stoic.

This, too, worked against Thumbelina. Nobody wants to adopt a sullen child who has about as much to say as a municipal fire hydrant.

One of Thumb’s great talents was art. She loved to draw. You could put Thumb in a corner with a pencil and a notebook and she would draw for many hours.

Mostly, she liked to draw countrysides, with pretty flowers. Places she wanted to visit someday. Distant lands where people were nice, and everyone loved orphan girls, even if they were smaller than the rest.

Also poems. Little Thumb loved poems. There was a time…

I receive a lot of emails, but I can’t answer them all. People have suggested I use auto-generated email responses designed to robotically thank people for messaging. But I don’t like this idea. Too impersonal.

When I was 7, I wrote the governor. Weeks later I received an impersonal form-letter with the governor’s signature, urging me to vote.

I read every email, letter and message I receive. Many of these messages are questions. So I’ve compiled the most common questions into a generic Q&A column. Let’s get started:

Q: Dear Sean, I am 1,380 years old and I have just gone through a very hard period in my life. Sometimes I read your work and I wonder what kind of advice you would have for me, specifically, during this difficult time.

A: I am the last guy who should give advice. If you knew me, you’d know I have made a shipwreck of my own life. I guarantee that my advice is not worth squat. I know some people sort of view me as

Dear Abby, but in truth I’m a fool. I am just some idiot who learned how to type.

Q: So you don't have ANY advice for me?

A: The best advice I ever received came from my mother. She told me there are three ways to achieve success in life: The first way is to be sweet. The second way is to be sweet. The third way is to be sweet.

Q: How do you find the stories you write about in your column?

A: Mostly, people send them to me. As I say, I receive emails from all over the world. Yesterday, I got an email from the prince of Nigeria. He was offering me a lucrative investment opportunity in exchange for my personal bank account number. Sadly, he never emailed back. I hope he’s okay.

Q: What kind of stories do you receive most?

TALLADEGA, Ala.— I hit town after lunchtime. I drive around the square. I pass the Ritz Theater marquee. The trading post. Tina’s Homecookin’ Restaurant.

I am looking for Court Street because I am taking a sewing class today. My appointment is at Miss April’s Fashion Girl Sewing Workshop.

I’ve always wanted to learn to sew. When I was a kid, my mother sewed everything. She made our clothes. She even added custom tags to my clothing. The tags read: “Property of Sean Dietrich.”

Mama even started sewing these tags into my underwear. Heaven knows why. I don’t want to meet the man desperate enough to steal another man’s underpants.

Miss April greeted me at the door. Her workshop was outfitted with Singer sewing machines and spools of colored thread. Fun music was playing. The whole place had an energetic, youthful vibe.

“This is a kid hangout,” Miss April says. “Girls come here after school, and I teach them to sew.”

Miss April has been teaching kids to sew for a long time. Sometimes locals buy their daughters

and granddaughters lessons for Christmas. Sometimes underprivileged girls just need something to do with their hands, and anonymous donors make it happen.

The reason Miss April teaches sewing is simple, she explains. “Because nobody knows how to sew anymore.”

Sewing is a disappearing craft in America. In fact, the skill is practically nonexistent.

Fifty years ago approximately 90 percent of U.S. women practiced the skill of sewing. Today it’s around 12 percent.

And the stats get even more dismal. One survey showed that 87 percent of U.S. households own irons, but only 9 percent use them. Another survey showed that one in three Americans can’t do basic household skills such as ironing, sewing buttons, reading laundry tag symbols, or boiling water.

Yes. Boiling water.

So why are these skills disappearing in America? Miss April knows why.

“Because a lot of schools don’t have…

On the 28th anniversary of your suicide I climbed a mountain. Not figuratively. Literally.

I hiked to the top of Mount Cheaha, the way you might have done.

I was in town for a writing gig. Traveling solo. My wife was back home, cleaning up dog poop, giving dog baths, and feeding our dogs so they could continue to make more poop.

I had an entire day to kill. So I checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Talladega. I drove into the undiluted wilderness. And I hiked a mountain.

It was beautiful. Quiet. Nobody around for miles. I arrived at the first overlook, walked to the edge and was overawed.

The world looked like a tiny train model set. Lots of trees. Tiny ribbon-like roadways, cutting through forests. Lakes that looked like puddles.

Cheaha Mountain stands at 2,413 feet above sea level. It is the highest natural point in Alabama. Which means that, at this exact moment, I was standing closer to heaven than anyone else in the Twenty-Second State. Not figuratively, literally.

And I thought of you. I thought about the day you left us. I thought of your red hair. Your freckled skin. And the way you smelled when you would hug me.

You smelled like Speed Stick Musk deodorant. After you died I started wearing your deodorant brand, just so I could smell you all day long.

Then one day, the supermarket quit selling your particular scent. They only sold Speed Stick “Regular,” or Speed Stick “Ocean Surf,” whatever that is. And you were gone forever.

Many years later, I was wandering through a Dollar General when, by chance, I found Speed Stick Musk on a shelf. I didn’t even know they still made it.

I bought it. When I got to the parking lot, I removed the lid and smelled it. I wept like a child.

Now it’s the only scent I wear.

Today on…

There she is. She is seated by the door of the gas station. Her hair is slightly graying. She could be in her mid-thirties. Maybe late fifties. There’s no way to tell. There is a large backpack beside her.

She doesn’t ask for money. She doesn’t tell anyone a sad story. She isn’t panhandling. She’s just sitting there. Drinking blue Gatorade.

She is lean and wiry. Maybe ninety pounds. There are tattoos on her neck. Multiple piercings in her ears.

“I’m just passing through Birmingham,” she says. “I’m going to see my daughter, up in Chattanooga. She just had a granddaughter last week. First granddaughter I ever had.”

The woman has a cellphone. Which is a minor miracle to me. How can a homeless person have a mobile phone? Where does the phone company send the bill? How does this woman pay the bill? Where does she charge the battery?

On her phone is a photo of her new grandbaby. And I am struck because she looks happy and healthy. Like an ordinary baby. Nothing like her grandmother.

“Pretty, ain’t


“Yes, ma’am.”

“Her name is Anne with an E.” The woman looks at me. “Anne is my name.”

She is smiling with her few teeth. She looks pretty beneath the tiredness. And in a word, that’s how homeless people always look to me. Tired.

I’ve spoken with many on skid row. Homelessness is a full-time job. Your whole life is work. Everything is up in the air.

Where are you going to eat? What about a bath? Do you go to the church shelter and use their facilities? Or does that make you sorry trash for abusing the kindness of others?

Where will you sleep tonight? Will you sleep at all? Is it even possible to sleep outdoors in the middle of a city where violence and gunfire is becoming as common as bird chatter?


We are interrupted…

She is 9 years old. Her hair is the color of wildflower honey. She has a cherub face. Her name is Luxe, which is Latin for light. Her mother chose this name as soon as she knew she was pregnant.

Luxe has aplastic anemia.

Aplastic anemia can be serious. It means your bone marrow doesn’t make enough red blood cells. One of the symptoms is easy bruising. Another symptom is that infections last way too long.

If you have aplastic anemia, there are medicines that might help you. But your main treatment option is a bone marrow transplant. Which is a frightening procedure.

Especially if you are a 9-year-old like Luxe.

A lot of people don’t know exactly what a bone marrow transplant involves. People, for example, like me.

So I called a Methodist University Hospital doctor in Memphis to explain the procedure. The doctor was glad to talk to me on his lunch break.

“Bone marrow is life,” he said. “Marrow comes in two colors. Red and yellow. It fills the cavities of your bones, and it has a

big job. Red marrow makes your blood. So it’s pretty important stuff.”

Bone marrow is spongy, he tells me, like jelly. Just imagine spreading jam on toast. That’s the consistency. And chances are, if you need a marrow transplant, you need it yesterday.

“A marrow transplant is a huge undertaking. Especially for kids. There’s a conditioning period of about ten days.

“The immune system has to be totally suppressed so the body doesn’t reject new marrow cells. This usually involves intensive chemo and radiation.”

At minimum, you’re looking at nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, organ damage, and a host of other serious side effects I won’t mention.

Things no child deserves to suffer.

“Some people recover in three months. Some people take twelve months or longer. Everyone’s different. But it’s a big deal, and it’s not easy.

“There’s a lot…

Mobile, Alabama. Morningtime. I was meeting someone important.

I pulled into the parking lot of Toomey’s Beads & Bulk Mardi Gras Supply on Macrae Avenue. Which is the kind of store you will not find in any city but Mobile.

Toomey’s is a 70,000 square-foot warehouse that represents one of the largest Mardi Gras supply inventories in the nation. Which is only fitting because Mobile is the official birthplace of American Mardi Gras.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras bash is the oldest official Carnival celebration in the United States, started in 1703, shortly after the birth of Dick Clark.

But I wasn’t at Toomey’s to buy supplies for Fat Tuesday. I was here to meet Oscar.

At 11:30 a.m. Oscar arrived. The SUV pulled in. Oscar was accompanied by his handler, Andi.

Andi stepped out of her vehicle and opened the back door. Oscar was on a leash. His tail wagged. His entire backside was gyrating.

The easygoing bluetick hound came stepping out of the backseat. All legs.

He was your quintessential bluetick. White,

with salt-and-pepper ticking. Velvet black ears long enough to qualify as safety hazards. A nose the size of a regulation tennis ball.

A collar around his neck was labeled, BLIND DOG.

“Oscar can’t see,” said his handler. “He has no eyes.”

Oscar’s face is beautiful. Classic hound. Except there are no twinkling brown eyes looking at you. They were surgically removed because of congenital glaucoma.

This is why he walks with a unique gait. He lifts his front paws carefully. Gingerly. Every move he makes is with extreme care. He uses his nose to guide himself.

I could see him taking in his surroundings, using only his sense of smell. Muzzle aimed upward in the air. Testing each scent in the wind.

“His nose is how he sees,” said Jenn Greene, his mother and rescuer. “He can see everything with his…