The priest of this church was one of the first to EVER ask me to speak publicly. I’ll never forget it.

Dothan, Alabama—I am watching an Episcopalian choir sing. The music is good enough to bring a tear to a glass eye. One soprano has a voice so robust it makes the stained glass vibrate and the rafters shake.

The choir is singing in Latin. At least I think it’s Latin.

The Baptist churches of my childhood had choirs, but not like this. We did not sing in Latin. We sang in polyester and khakis.

Episcopalians are interesting birds. The “Piskies” do everything differently than the Evangelicals who raised me. They even have different terminology. I have trouble remembering all the definitions.

For example: a priest’s robe is a “cassock.” This comes from the ancient word, “cass,” which is literally translated: the American lead female singer from the Mamas and the Papas.

Some other explanations:

Those in the congregation are not “people,” but “laity.”

The area where the the laity sit is called the “nave.”

The short prayers between the priest and the laity are

called “suffrages.”

And the official title for the man who reads the scriptures aloud to the laity is: “Randy.”

After the singing, a woman takes the pulpit. She is middle-aged, wearing a cassock and surplice. She is not the priest of this parish, but a “curate.”

This curate’s name is Alice.

Like many Episcopalians, Alice was called into the ministry later in life. And this means she is, by default, a person with real life experience.

Lots of Episcopalian clergy enter the ministry later in life.

This is unlike the Evangelical ministers from my childhood. My friend Anderson, for instance, received a call into ministry around age three. He became church treasurer by age nine, associate pastor by age twelve, and he finally got his own Freewill Baptist church three weeks before he sprouted armpit hair.

Alice delivers a very brief sermon.…

The thing is, I don’t think we tell each other how special we are. I don’t think people get enough handshakes, back-pats, or five-dollar beer pitchers.

I’m going to say this now: I’m proud of you.

That’s it. You can stop reading here if you want. I know you’re busy. So take the kids to karate class, scrub your bathroom mirror, schedule a dentist appointment, wash your dog, live your life. Just know that I’m proud of you.

The thing is, I don’t think we tell each other how special we are. I don’t think people get enough handshakes, back-pats, or five-dollar beer pitchers.

So I’m proud of you. For not giving up. For eating breakfast. I’m proud of you for remembering to breathe. Really.

I’m also proud of Billy. He emailed me. He’s forty-nine. He’s been working in construction all his life, and he couldn’t read until three years ago.

His friend gave him reading lessons every morning on the ride to work. And on weekends. They practiced on lunch breaks.

Billy started with elementary school books. This year he read the Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

He reads aloud sometimes, during lunch break to the fellas. He said he’s been practiced reading the same stories so many times, he’s almost memorized them.

I’m proud of Leona, who had the courage to check into addiction rehab last week. She’s a young woman, and she needs someone to be proud of her. So I guess I’ll have to do.

I’m proud of her aunt, too—who is helping to raise Leona’s daughter with Down’s syndrome.

And Michael, who just asked Jessica to marry him yesterday—on Christmas morning. He squatted down onto one knee in front of seventeen family members, one woman, and her three children.

He gave Jessica and each of her children a ring.

He said, “Will you be my everything, forever and always?”

Jessica’s oldest—Brooke, age 11—got so excited she blurted an answer before anyone else.

“YESYESYESYES!” Brooke said.

I’m proud of Boyd, who got his first job as an electrician. And Lawrence, for…

Hi. How have you been? I know it’s been a long time since my last letter. I just wanted to tell you that we had a good year. Maybe even one of our best.

I don’t know. How does anyone score their best or worst year?

Anyway, I don’t have time to tell you everything, but I’ll hit the highs and lows.

For starters: we lost our thirteen-year-old bloodhound this year. That was hard. In some ways, it was almost as hard as losing you—which I know must sound ridiculous. But it’s true. I never thought I’d recover.

But eventually, we did recover. We found a newborn pup who gnawed on our hearts. Imagine pure love wrapped up in floppy skin and saliva. That’s her.

We got a second dog, too, because we are clinically insane people who can’t be satisfied with simply one destructive animal.

And in other news: your daughter had her second child last week.

Lucy is her name. Lucy was five pounds and fourteen ounces. So

now you have two granddaughters. Something tells me you would’ve liked that.

Let’s see, what else?

This year, I met and interviewed Miss Betty Lynn—the ninety-four-year-old woman who played Thelma Lou on the Andy Griffith Show. She kissed me, then asked if things were serious between me and my wife.

That same day, I met the son of Floyd the Barber. And also, I met and interviewed a few others who actually KNEW Andy Griffith.

What a day that was. You were missed.

Also, I’ve been wood carving a lot this year. It’s been eons since I’ve whittled. But we are on the road so much, and it’s a good way to unwind at the end of a long day.

You were the one who showed me how to whittle. Do you remember that? You and I would…

It’s winter in Western North Carolina. The hills are white. A ‘58 Chevy Impala rolls across gravel roads. A young girl is driving.

She is fifteen, not old enough to have a license. Not old enough to do much of anything except make mistakes.

And that’s why she’s leaving.

When her mother discovered she was pregnant, they had a fight. Things got heated. In a moment of fury, her mother told her, “Get outta here and never come back!” So that’s what she did.

Earlier this very morning, before sunrise, the girl stole the Chevy. It was impulsive, irrational, juvenile, and pick an adjective. She didn’t pack a coat or a change of clothes. She just started driving.

The roads are steep, covered with ice. Driving is harder than she thought. A clutch and stick shift are difficult to master.

The weather is getting worse. She cannot see where the road ends and the ditches begin.
There is a shallow bridge ahead. A guardrail. Her tires

lose traction. It happens quickly.

The car plows down a hill. It falls nose first into a creek. The whole thing happens so slowly it is almost surreal.

When she awakes, she is trapped in a car that’s filled with icy water. She is pinned inside. And maybe it’s shock, or maybe it’s because of the cold, but she passes out.

A few minutes later, she opens her eyes. She realizes she is so cold she can hardly move. She screams, but nobody is around for miles.

“This is it,” she thinks to herself. “I am going to die in this car.”

The passenger door creaks open. She sees a man plunge into the water to retrieve her. He is wearing a brown wool coat, he has silver hair.

And in her moment of delirium, she misses her late father, a man who died…

All my life, I have been a child at Christmas. Asking a blessing is typically an honor that falls to a father, or a grandparent. I am neither.

Family is all around me. Children screaming. Adults laughing, telling the same worn-out stories they tell every year. A lit tree. Bing Crosby on a radio.

We are celebrating the holiday with extended family. We do this every year. It’s a way to commune together, eat lots of food, and to try to have a good a old-fashioned nervous breakdown.

My elderly aunt made me swear not to use real names if I wrote about these people, to protect the privacy of those implicated.

Of course, she is mainly concerned about my uncle—who we’ll call “Otis.” He worries her around the holidays.

Let’s just say that Otis loves a good party. In fact, he starts practicing for Christmas around early March.

Nobody will ever forget the Christmas he stood before an in-ground swimming pool, singing “YMCA,” then did a belly flop, only to find out the pool had been drained for winter.

This afternoon, my wife and I wandered through Aunt Bea’s door carrying casseroles. We were greeted

with hugs from white-haired women who smell like Estee Lauder and wear polyester blouses.

I brought gifts for the kids, a tradition in my family. Ever since childhood, for as far back as anyone remembers, uncles and aunts have been demonstrating affection for children by purchasing heartfelt gifts that were on clearance at TJ Maxx.

Last year, for instance, I bought my cousin’s kids some patriotic tableware, and gluten-free breadsticks from the dollar bin at Marshalls. They haven’t spoken to me since.

My aunt’s house is decorated to the hilt. In her kitchen, tables are weighted with more food than I’ve ever seen.

This brings back good memories. Memories of casseroles, backyard games of Red Rover, twinkling lights. And my uncle Bill, carrying me on his shoulders, parading me through the house, asking if I’d been a “good boy this year.”

“Yeah, I’ve…

I was going to write something else. I was going to write a story about my dog, or something about winter. But I’ve changed my mind.

That’s a writer’s prerogative. A writer changes his mind all the time.

Sometimes, for instance, he changes his mind at a restaurant, mid-salad.

But today, I wanted to tell you something important. And I’m not changing my mind about this.

I hope you have a merry Christmas.

That’s it. That’s the purpose of this column. In fact, that will probably be my final sentence when it’s all over. So, you can stop reading here if you’re pressed for time.

Still, because I have a few hundred words left, I am going stretch this out. After all, if writers didn’t expound on topics, all suspense novels would only have two pages, and go like this:

“There was a guy who turned up dead. Blah, blah, blah. It was Colonel Mustard in the parlor. The end.”

And who wants to read books like that?

So

let me tell you about a kid I once knew:

There was once a kid who wanted to write. Sometimes, it seemed like he was no good at it. But that’s where you came in. You told him he could do it.

You took different forms, but you’re more or less the same person. You’re kindness. Charity. Goodness. You are every nice person that kid ever met.

You are the man in Piggly Wiggly who returned the kid’s wallet. You didn’t have to do that, but you did.

And you’re the man in Montgomery, who bought the kid and his wife a tank of gas when their credit card was declined at the pump.

You were the person who befriended the kid. You didn’t try to “help” the kid. You just let him talk.

And, you were the…

We made landfall in a world of snow, trimmed in mountainous masses of white.

DEAR SEAN:

Can you get a letter to Santa for me? Our lives really suck ever since my mom died and you don’t even want to know how screwed up my life is.

My dad is raising us all by himself with no help from my aunts or uncles or anyone and I feel like nobody cares about us, we’re basically all alone.

You probably won’t even read this cause you’re too busy, so whatever.

P.S. I’m only joking about Santa, I’m not a baby.

Not a good Christmas,
ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-TENNESSEE

DEAR ELEVEN:

After I got your letter, I re-sealed your envelope, packed my bags, and drove to the Greyhound Bus station.

The man behind the counter wore a John Deere cap and had something tucked in his lower lip.

“Quick,” I said. “I need tickets to the North Pole.”

He spit into a foam cup, then laughed. “What fer? You’ll get reindeer poop on your shoes.”

“It’s an important delivery.”

“Well, dream on, pal,” he said. “The North Pole

isn’t even dry land, it’s in the epicenter of the Northern Hemisphere, situated in the Arctic Ocean, amid subarctic waters that are permanently covered with constantly shifting, cavernous, and treacherous sea ice.”

“How do you know all that?”

“I graduated from Auburn.”

“I’ll take one ticket, please.”

He flipped through his big book. “Closest I can get you is North Dakota.”

So, I rode for several hours, thinking about my life. When my father died, our life was pretty screwed up, just like yours.

When money was tight, Mama took a job throwing newspapers. One Christmas, I wanted a guitar; my mother worked overtime to buy it so I could learn to play Hank Williams music.

My Greyhound arrived in Saint Louis. I switched busses at the depot. My driver’s name was Moe.

As…

Alabama—there is a chill outside this morning. It's cold. Even my bones are cold.

I’m in a hotel elevator with two big, black men. Very big. I'm talking six-nine, maybe. They must be four-feet wide, wearing size-fifteen boots. They’re carrying luggage.

It’s not every day you ride the elevator with two NFL defensive-tackle lookalikes.

I ask if they're famous.

They laugh.

They aren't famous. But, they ARE biological brothers who had never met one another until a few months ago.

“I’m from Cali,” says one man.

“I’m from Birmingham,” says the other.

Their mother gave them up for adoption thirty-eight years ago. They found each other on the internet. Then, they tracked down their birth parents.

Their biological mother lives in Atlanta. Their father is deceased. They visited his grave yesterday.

“It was emotional, man,” one brother says. “You don’t think a dude you never met will mean that much to you, but… He was my dad.”

“Yeah,” the other adds.

Yeah.

Today, they’re going on an old-fashioned road trip together. They’re heading to Georgia to meet their birth mother before Christmas. She has no idea they're coming.

One brother says,

“I’m ready to facilitate healing to my family.”

I ask if he'd be gracious enough to spell “facilitate” for me.

We say goodbye, they waltz through the lobby. Every eye is on them because they are giants.

In the breakfast room of the hotel: a family. The back of the mother’s T-shirt reads: “Autism is not a disease.”

They are eating. The oldest boy screams at his younger brother. He is pitching a fit, making a scene. Hands flail.

The room gets tense.

She snaps into action.

She says, “Oh my! Would you look at this? It’s past nine, and you haven’t fed your toy frog.”

The kid furrows his brow.

“I did too,” he says. “Fed him this morning.”

“Interesting,” she goes on. “Then WHY did he JUST…

My life has changed considerably since that night. So have I. And I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but it’s because of my ice-cream eating bride.

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet: two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence.

Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married.

Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s sober. You know the

rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulls the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then: the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk.

My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

I handed him my remaining wad of cash. “How much will this buy?”

He thought about it. “How’s ten minutes sound?”

We covered ourselves with a blanket. He carted us through the streets. We saw hotels where…

A nice restaurant. I’m playing Christmas music on an accordion with a band.

I play accordion because my granddaddy played it before me. This instrument is in my lineage. And it’s in our history as a civilized race.

And thusly, I believe that as long as we have young accordionists, there is still hope for humanity.

A few children approach our stage.

“WHAT KIND OF INSTRUMENT IS THAT?” asks the redhead.

“It’s an accordion,” I say.

“WOW! IT’S SO HUGE AND DORKY LOOKING!”

“That’s not very nice...”

“IT SOUNDS LIKE A DYING TOAD!”

“NO,” says another. “IT SOUNDS LIKE A CAT GETTING RUN OVER BY A CAR!”

“Hey kid,” I say. “Santa told me you’re getting nothing but underwear and deodorant this year.”

This kind of accordion shaming is nothing new. I’ve been ridiculed since my childhood. I have heard all the classic jokes.

Such as: What do you call a successful accordionist? A guy whose wife has two jobs.

Or: What are the first words an accordionist says after he knocks on your

door? “Pizza delivery.”

But I don’t care. When I play accordion, I play for my mother’s father—the man who fought in Europe, and won a Purple Heart for his valiance. He was a farmer, a storyteller, a wood carver, a musician who could sing in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Cajun.

And when he played “Lady of Spain,” it was magic.

Of course this can be embarrassing to admit at, say, dinner parties. Like the party I was at a few nights ago.

The attorney sipping gin remarked: “I’m learning guitar, I got one for my birthday this year.”

“Yeah,” added the thoracic surgeon. “I played a little saxophone in high school band.”

“Well,” I said. “I play the accordion.”

They laughed softly. Then, one man handed me his glass and said, “I’ll take…