I’m walking around someone’s musty garage, wearing a surgical mask, browsing junk that’s for sale. I stopped here because I cannot resist yard sales. Half my house is secondhand refuse.

We have so much junk that my garage, for instance, qualifies as one of Earth’s great natural landmasses. It contains half the stuff in the known solar system, including armoires, radios, Mel Torme records, crockpots, sombreros, and fondue pots.

And books. I’m big on used books. I own millions. Maybe gajillions. I place these ratty books all over the house so people will see them and think I’m smart. Visitors pick up old books and say, “Huh. Is this book any good?”

And even though I’ve never read it, I will always say, “Meh.”

This makes me appear cultured. I learned this from my father. Who was a professional junk shopper.

One time my father and I were on a walk through a neighborhood when he saw a man’s garage open, with all sorts of knicknacks. My father became sweaty and his pupils dilated. My father worked in junk

like some men worked in oils or clay.

“Look at all that junk,” he said.

In a few moments we were digging through boxes in some guy’s garage.

Finally he asked the old man, “How much for this porcelain kettle?” My father, who was no shrinking violet, didn’t even let the man answer. He said, “I’ll give you two bucks.”

The man stammered and hesitated but eventually accepted.

My father removed the cash and it was only then we discovered this was no yard sale. This guy was simply organizing his garage.

So my father did the decent thing. He asked the man to gift wrap his kettle.

We did this every Saturday. It would always go the same way. He would wake me up at 4 a.m., he’d cook his signature breakfast of blackened potatoes and carbonized bacon, and away…

Mara, you are going into surgery today. Your mother told me that this might be one of the last things you read on your phone before you visit the operating room.

So before I write anything else, I want to say something important. Even though this is an overused phrase, and you’ll probably think I’m just throwing it around, I’m not. I actually mean this: God be with you.

In the letter, your mother told me how terrified you’ve been after you got your diagnosis. What if something goes wrong with treatment? What if you don’t wake up from surgery? You’re worried about these things.

So I wanted to write and tell you that, even though I am a novice at life myself, I know one thing: it’s all right to be scared.

This life scares everyone. Big and small. Old and young. The brave and the weak. It especially scares me.

This is a poor example, but I remember when I was about to start second grade. I was very scared. We had this

teacher who seemed like the world’s most cantankerous, hateful, mean old biddy.

I tried very hard not to be afraid when it was time to go into her class. But the more I tried not to be afraid, the more I dreaded second grade.

Sometimes I would lie awake staring at the ceiling in a panic, thinking about how I would be subjected to the wiles of this madwoman.

She was a short lady, with silver hair, cat-eye glasses, and she barked at students like they were members of a military regiment. Whenever I passed her in the hall she would lock eyes with me, curl her lips, and I would swear I heard a low growl.

The morning before the first day of school I tried faking a terminal illness. When that didn’t work, I finally decided that I would run away. Yes. That’s…

I bought a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store today. The box features an ornate cathedral with red roses and blossoming foliage. The cathedral is in Germany. The puzzle cost two bucks.

My mother and I used to do jigsaw puzzles. Big puzzles. We did them together. I was no good at jigsaws, but she was an expert.

Long ago, puzzles cost seventy-five cents, and provided hours of distraction. We needed distractions back then. We welcomed anything that took our minds off my father’s untimely death, and the gloom that came thereafter.

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

Once, she took us to Branson. She took me to see a Dolly Parton impersonator. The show was spectacular. After the performance, the woman in the blonde wig hugged me so tight she nearly suffocated me with her enormous attributes.

When my mother saw me locked with the buxom woman, she shrieked and started praying in tongues. She yanked me by my

earlobe and drug me away. And I have been a lifelong Dolly Parton fan ever since.

Anyway, my mother loved doing things with her hands. She made large quilts from old T-shirts, she gardened, she did puzzle books, anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, she knitted, crocheted, and painted.

She played cards with me, sometimes checkers, and she was a Scrabble fanatic. But jigsaw puzzles. Those were our thing.

My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing:

“We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.”

The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift through twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges.

We’d place pieces into piles, then link them together. Piece by piece. Section by section. Mama and I could spend a…

DEAR SEAN:

I think I speak for many when I ask: What is a church lady? It is a genuine question, I read your recent column about church ladies, and while I understand the the two words, I do have a question. Is there a difference between a “lady who goes to church” and a “church lady?” Or are these the same thing? Is a church lady the one organizing the flowers or something? Please advise.

Sincerely,
CARL-IN-CALIFORNIA

DEAR CARL:

With everything going on in our turbulent world, I want to stop and personally thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I’ve been getting a lot of unsavory emails lately from some people who seem upset about life in general. But your message took me back in time, it reminded me of matronly church folks in cat-eye glasses making coconut cream cake.

To answer your question: Yes, church ladies are their own breed. If you ask me, a proper church lady is not one who merely arranges flowers. A

church lady has been chairwoman of the flower-arranging committee since 1938. She also prints the bulletins, runs the prayer emails, and manages to find time to change the oil in the pastor’s Chevy every 3,000 miles.

In my childhood, church ladies were the ones who hugged you so often that your shoulderblades hurt. They were dedicated affection rainmakers. They left lipstick traces on your cheeks. And after one hug, you’d smell like bath powder all week. They were church ladies.

And each day we lose a few more of them.

So earlier when I used the term, I’m sorry I didn’t pause to consider that some might not be familiar. I suppose this would especially be true if you were a fortunate kid who didn’t HAVE to go to church, but were allowed to stay home to watch cartoons, shoot craps, hijack cars, and rob liquor stores.

But…

Marty passed away a few days ago. He went quietly. It happened in the vet’s office. There was no suffering, no pain, he purred until the end. Rebecca Scholand was holding him during his final moments. Hers was the last face he saw.

“Marty was a good cat,” Rebecca says. “He was king of the mountain. That’s what we called him.”

Marty’s mountain happens to be Mount Washington, in New Hampshire. The highest peak northeast of the Mississippi. Marty lived out his entire 12 years at a weather observatory, perched on the summit of the most topographically prominent feature in the Northeastern United States.

This is not your everyday mountain. Mountain Washington stands surrounded by the 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. On a clear day, views from the summit extend into Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Quebec, and the Atlantic.

The world looks different at 6,228.8 feet. Very, VERY different. In fact, it doesn’t even look like Earth. Sometimes it looks more like a cross between the North Pole and rear end of the moon.

“Marty loved it here,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca is Summit Operations Manager for the observatory, and she’s been working alongside Marty for a decade. She remembers when he was just a little kitty.

“I lived at the observatory on rotation for four years. And when I first got there, I’ll admit, I wasn’t a domestic cat person. We had barn cats growing up, that’s not the same thing. But Marty changed all that. We became friends, and Marty made that place feel like a home.”

It’s hard to fathom how anyone could feel homey on top Mount Washington. This mountain is where the world’s worst weather occurs—which is not a figure of speech but a meteorological fact.

It was here where the oldest record for the nation’s coldest temperature was set in 1885, when the thermometer dropped to a whopping 50 below.

The mountain also holds…

On a November day 157 years ago:

The little Pennsylvania hamlet is thumping like a bass drum. Out-of-town visitors are everywhere. They wear their Sunday best—stovepipe hats, frilly dresses, and buckled boots.

Rumor has it that the President just arrived by train. As in: the actual President. This truly is quite a day.

Roughly 15,000 spectators are gathering in a field around a small platform stage, which is now filled with important men in black suits. This land is being christened as a cemetery today.

But don’t look around this pasture too intently, it will chill your blood. And, for heaven’s sake, plug your nose. Rotting human corpses still litter this field by the scores. The stench is overpowering, and the visuals are even worse.

Only three months ago the Battle of Gettysburg happened upon this dirt. A conflict that resulted in 51,000 casualties. After the fight, some 8,000 human bodies were left unburied here, baking in the sun.

Locals have been dealing with carcasses for months now. At night the bonfires

can be seen all over the county.

As far as the nation’s political climate goes: America hates each other. In ways you cannot fathom.

People who once shared pews on Sundays are ramming bayonets into each other. Biological brothers are killing one another. Next-door neighbors are standing toe-to-toe on battlegrounds. About 750,000 will die before this war officially ends.

The keynote speaker today is Edward Everett. He is a ball of fire. He has a shock of white hair and a face that looks like he’s dealing with moderate to severe constipation. Organizers planned this whole shindig around his busy speaking schedule because he’s famous.

The President is also attending. He might say a few words.

The ceremony is madness. Crowds are milling in clumps. The fetid battlefield is nothing but cannonball divots and stink flies. This is an eerie place to be. Human remains are scattered everywhere.…

DEAR SEAN:

My mom read me what you wrote about Santa last week and I’m not sure about him. Just being real. ‘Cause if people with the fake beards go play him at the stores then that means he’s not real, so he’s not, right? My mom told me to write you about it.

My parents are divorced this year. My dad has a beard too. My mom just bought me a fruitcake at Walmart and it’s yummy. I never had fruitcake till she got it, and I’m ready for Christmas this year! Sometimes I get sad but I really like your stories.

Please write back,
ALMOST-NINE-IN-CHARLOTTESVILLE

DEAR CHARLOTTESVILLE:

I agree with you wholeheartedly on the fruitcake. It’s delicious. But—wait a second—it’s too early for Christmas!

Still, because of this pandemic I think almost everyone is ready for a little “Fa-la-la-a-la” right now. So I totally get it.

You're lucky to be spending the holidays in lovely Virginia. And even though Christmastime is a ways off, I wish I were spending it there, too.

Once, I

spent the holidays in that general region when I was younger than you, which is why your letter hit home with me. I’ll never forget it. We were temporarily staying with my aunt in a tiny fleck-on-the-map town in North Carolina.

It was a tough year. My mother was thinking of leaving my father, we were there sorting out our lives. There were heavy feelings in the air. It majorly stunk.

But anyway, my aunt’s house was the berries. I loved it. I spent most of my time ice skating on her kitchen linoleum floor, wearing socks. I was a good kitchen-skater. I could do all the things real skaters did. Triple Axels, Lutzes, quadruple inverted double underpants-splitters, etc.

The only problem was, the kitchen had a floor heater that looked like a throwback to the Revolutionary War. It was old and rusty…

Margie answered her phone. “Hello?”

“Hello?” said a girl’s voice. “Someone told me your husband worked on old cars?”

“My husband? Where’d you hear that? Who is this?”

Margie’s elderly husband did in fact work on cars. It was a lifelong hobby, and he was pretty good at it. He found cars, bought them for a steal, then resold them. Viva la retirement.

Whenever Margie asked him why he worked on cars, he would always answer, “Why the heck not?”

“He’s not a professional,” Margie said into the phone. “He doesn’t fix cars for a living or anything, but, well… I don’t know if he’d be interested in helping.”

“Oh, okay, I’m sorry for bothering you, ma’am.”

“What was it you needed, sweetie? Maybe I can at least ask him when he gets home.”

Long silence. Two strangers. Stuck on the phone.

“Well, ma’am, my car, they say it needs a new transmission. I can’t afford to pay what the mechanic charges. And I really need a car for work.”

“Well, I guess I can take your number.”

“Ain’t got no number, I’m calling from a payphone.”

“A payphone?”

“It’s a long

story.”

“Oh, dear.”

Margie looked at her side table to see photographs of a girl she once knew. A blond child, much like the girl on the phone. A daughter who once made her house feel alive. The same little girl who grew up to be twenty-six, then overdosed.

“It’s none of my business,” said Margie. “But do you have somewhere to stay, honey? Everything you need?”

“I’m okay. It’s just, well…” Long pause. “My parents kicked me out.”

This was all beginning to feel too familiar.

“Sweetie, you know what? I’m SURE we can help you, how about my husband comes to look at the car tonight?”

The girl sighed. “No, ma’am, I work nights.”

“Oh, I see. Honey, I don't mean to pry—and you can tell…

Stand-still traffic. I had the windows open and I was breathing in the exhaust from seven thousand cars all trying to get home. There was fruitcake sitting in my passenger seat, glazed in bourbon sauce. A Mark Twain book beside it.

The cake had arrived on my porch anonymously. Along with it, a hardback book, “Life on the Mississippi.” And a card with one sentence on it: “Thank you, Sean.”

So, right there in traffic, I began eating this fruitcake with both hands.

Meanwhile, in my windshield I saw a kid riding a bicycle along the highway shoulder. He was making better time than us motorists in pickup trucks, SUVs, and sassy sports cars.

I waved at him. He waved back. The boy looked so happy compared to the rest of us, and his smile was catching. Soon, I was smiling too. I don’t even know why.

Suddenly, my smile made me hyper-aware of the madness going on around me. It was like someone had peeled open my crusty eyelids and knocked

the fruitcake from my hands. Have you noticed how loud our world is?

Through my open windows I could hear stereos blaring adrenaline-fueled political talk radio. The vehicle behind played angry-sounding music with subnuclear bass notes that rattled my molars. A guy in a Pontiac was shouting into his cellphone. It was chaos, I tell you.

But somehow, I was still smiling in spite of it all. All because of some random kid on a bike, and one anonymous thank-you package.

Then I started thinking about how much unthankfulness is in the world, and how I don’t want to be the guy who perpetuates it.

So, while a mass of idling vehicles clogged the Florida interstate system like a kidney stone from hell, I removed a notepad and began making a list.

This is a sacred practice passed down by my mother, who made me list things I…

This morning, the cashier at the convenience store told me to “Have a nice day.” She said it from behind a glass shield, while wearing a mask.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know her. I don’t know if she and I agree on life issues. I don’t know if we have the same taste in ice cream, or literature, or if she manicures her toenails regularly or just lets them grow long.

But she told me to have a nice day. And it felt good to hear that.

The irony here is that I used to hate this little phrase. It can sound so insincere. But the more I think about it, the more it’s growing on me. After all, who doesn’t deserve a nice day?

So this morning when I sat down to clip my toenails, I decided that I wanted to tell you to have a nice day. Why not? Shoot. Have two.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about a ridiculously happy day. No. Too much happiness can make you

unhappy. That kind of elation is way too much stress. And stress is stress no matter how you look at it. Even happy stress is still stress.

You can be gut-bustingly happy on the day of your wedding, but STILL be so stressed out that you consume too many Bushwhacker cocktails—as was the case in the 2002 incident when my uncle danced on top of the groom’s mother’s table.

So I wish you easiness. Relaxation. A very mellow, simple day. Like playing table tennis without gravity. Like sitting in a comfortable chair and watching goldfish. Like sailing a boat on mirror-like water.

My father used to look at smooth water and always say, “That water’s slicker than owl spit.” I loved this particular phrase and often used it to impress my Sunday school teachers.

I hope you have an owl spit kind of day. I…