My wife is making seafood gumbo, and there is no better gumbo on earth than hers. Sure, I’m biased. And yes, most husbands wholeheartedly believe their wife’s gumbo is the best. But in my case it’s true.

A few years ago I wrote a column about gumbo and received a truckload of messages from Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic people who were unfamiliar with gumbo.

I was surprised especially to receive messages from people who had never heard of gumbo. Like the guy in Akron, Ohio, who wrote:

“Gumbo? You mean the flying elephant movie?”

You have to worry about some people.

Well, I’m no gumbo authority, so I won’t even attempt to define this dish from a culinary point of view because: (a) gumbo enthusiasts are fanatical nuts, almost to the point of being confrontational and aggressive, and (b) I am married to one of these people.

Here on the Gulf Coast, gumbo varies by region, many will claim their wife’s or mother’s version is the best.

My friend Brent, for example, swears by his wife’s gumbo. But I’ve tried it,

and it left me unimpressed.

Basically according to Brent, the way his wife prepares gumbo for her large family is she gathers all the leftovers in the fridge: chicken, sausage, expired hotdogs, three-year-old lasagna, past tax records, nine-volt batteries. Then she lets this simmer all day, adds hot sauce, and serves it with a side of Pepto-Bismol.

Then you have my friend Bill, in Metairie, Louisiana. His wife’s gumbo is thicker than commercial masonry adhesive. Also this gumbo is VERY salty.

Salt, you should note, is a powerful laxative when consumed in high quantities. Look it up.

Bill’s wife’s gumbo is so salty—this is a true anecdote—that at a recent get-together, after eating the gumbo, Bill’s grandmother spent the remainder of the evening in the lavatory with the door locked.

When concerned family members knocked and asked, “You alright, Granny?”…

Last night the old quilting club got back together for the first time since the pandemic. Nine older ladies gathered in Denise’s living room in rural West Virginia. They sat in a big circle, just like women did in days of yore. They had a kind of socially-distanced quilting bee.

The group welcomed a new member into the fold. Andrea, who is 14 years old. She was the youngest in a roomful of women who were all over age 70.

The first thing anyone should know about quilting is that a quilt is NOT just a blanket. The women are clear on this. Especially not a patchwork quilt. Miss Denise, who founded this group 21 years ago, describes a quilt like this:

“It’s like building a four-bedroom house with a needle.”

Miss Denise remembers her first solo quilt when she was 12 years old. She worked on it for a solid year using scrap material salvaged from her father’s old clothes. She remembers laboring on this quilt while listening to the Everly

Brothers sing “All I Have to Do Is Dream” on a record player.

“I’ve been quilting for a long time,” she says quietly.

On average, a large patchwork quilt takes about 100 hours to complete. Some quilts move quicker; others take longer. Either way, there is a lot more than just needlework involved in constructing the Great American Quilt.

Denise tells me there’s planning, drawing, gathering, cutting, arranging, sewing, fixing mistakes, binding, and constantly repouring glasses of wine.

“Yes, wine,” says Denise. “That’s an important part of our little club. I like the pink wines best. I’m Methodist, we’re allowed to drink.”

The art of quilting is believed by some to date back to 3400 B.C. And to give you an idea of just how old that is: the Sahara Desert began to form around this period.

The pharaohs used quilts. There is also evidence of quiltwork in…

It is the first day of spring, and somewhere in North Georgia, a newborn baby named Joy is drawing her first breaths. She was born late on Friday evening, only hours before springtime.

So even though, yes, this has been a year of hard times, as of right now: Joy is here.

Which is why Joy’s mother thought this particular name was perfect for her child, especially considering the non-joyful period in which the baby was born. Right now everyone could use a little Joy.

“I feel like we’re living through history,” says Joy’s mother, cradling her child, speaking to me via cellphone. “I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she is a huge joy during this time.”

And so it is that Joy will have some very big things to do in this world. She will make this universe more cheerful. She will do this by eating lots of pureed food, giggling a lot, and wearing lots of expensive baby onesies which she will joyfully fill with poop.

Meanwhile, over on the

Kansas-Oklahoma line, the first day of spring will be greeted by Mark and his son, Patrick. They are taking a fishing trip. They are visiting Mark’s family pond, which has been around since the late 1800s, fed by a large creek.

“The fish rarely bite there,” says Mark. “But that’s not why we go.”

Mark remembers fishing here with his father as a child. And, he also remembers taking his father fishing here shortly before the old man died from prostate cancer 12 years ago.

Mark himself was diagnosed with cancer last year and it has been a familiar, arduous battle. Treatment after treatment has weakened him. But unlike his father, Mark is winning.

“All I could think about when I was in treatment,” says Mark, “was taking my son fishing. It’s everything. That’s why we’re going.”

Now let’s go to Virginia Beach for a…

One of the first things you learn when you become a dog-person is that normal people look at you funny when you talk about your dog too much.

This is usually because these people have normal healthy lives, with real kids, real jobs, and retirement plans.

Well, I never had any of those things. I spent adulthood working crummy jobs. I don’t have kids. And retirement is a three-syllable word used in Charles Schwab commercials during baseball games.

The highlight of my workdays was coming home to find the silhouette of a bloodhound in our front window. Her name was Ellie Mae.

In her heyday, Ellie was obsessed with a cat in our neighborhood named Dexter. Dexter was born of Satan and had eyes like the kid from the movie “Poltergeist.”

Dexter would torment Ellie by visiting our backyard and sitting right in Ellie’s food bowl as if to say, “Look! My butt is on your food! How do you like that?”

And thus, Ellie became transfixed with Dexter and his feline butt. Ellie

would sometimes spend entire days at our window, keeping track of all the illegal activities Dexter committed in our yard. She would turn circles, whimpering.

Dexter would make eye-contact with Ellie through the glass. He would stare her down until she hurled herself against our window hard enough to shatter it.

Dexter was a professional competitor when it came to games between canines and felines.

There was the time, for instance, when I drove to the bank. Ellie came with me. She waited in my truck with the engine running. I ran inside. I was writing a deposit slip when the teller pointed out the window and shrieked.

“Your truck!” she hollered.

My vehicle was rolling into a flower bed.

I sprinted through the parking lot and when I reached the truck, I realized that my crazed bloodhound had knocked the gearshift out of park. She…

I was a young man. Four of us guys walked into an average Florida Panhandle Waffle House before sunrise. We did this every morning before heading to a construction jobsite.

Our routine never changed. First we visited the gas station to buy newspapers, scratch-off tickets, and Gatorades. Then we went to Waffle House. And we did most of this in silence because that’s just how guys are.

Guys aren’t big talkers. Especially at breakfast. They keep conversations to a minimum in the mornings.

Many women, of course, manage to discuss every biographical event since middle school. Whereas most males use two-word sentences to discuss the importance of a strong bullpen, then they clam up until their next birthday. Like I said: that’s how some guys operate.

Our waitress was young, lean, a happy person. There were traces of tattoos climbing her neck, and she had a sweet face. She couldn’t have been taller than five foot.

Four of us piled into her booth. She doled out silverware and menu-placemats. She took our beverage

orders then announced, “Four coffees, coming up.”

Old-school waitresses are a dying breed, but Waffle House never seems to be short on them. I have traveled a lot during my halfcocked career as a writer; Waffle House always has great service.

Elsewhere in the world, food service workers are not always so amiable. And believe me, I am not being critical because I once worked in food service.

I’ve worked kitchen duty, manning fryers, scrubbing flat-tops, washing stacks of filthy dishes that were roughly the same height as the Space Needle. I’ve also worked front of the house—bussing, refilling glasses, and serving customers who INSIST on having their salad dressing served “on the side” only so they can dump the whole thing on their salad three seconds after you deliver it.

I read somewhere that one one out of five food service workers develops a drug or…

DEAR SEAN:

My 49th birthday was spent in the hospital where I was diagnosed with stage four neuroendocrine carcinoid tumors that had invaded multiple organs.

I have survived this ugly disease for 20 months now. I have good days and bad days. Some days I'm happy; some nights I pull the covers over my head and cry myself to sleep.

I find myself feeling alone and struggling. Not struggling with how to die with dignity, but with how to find the purpose to live the last part of my life for however long that may be. What do I do? Where do I go? How do I fill my final days and nights that are passing too quickly? I figured if anyone could share some heartfelt words it would be you.

Sincerely,
LOOKING-FOR-MY-FINAL-PURPOSE

DEAR LOOKING:

I am the wrong guy to talk to. I have no words because I am severely unqualified. In fact, I am so inept that in many circles I used to be known as “Critter,” and any guy

bearing such a piteous nickname probably knows jack squat about life.

You know who I wish you could talk to? My friend Martin. Sadly, Martin is no longer alive. Martin would have known just what to say here.

Oh, you would have loved Martin, which was not his real name. He was a mess. He was loud, outgoing, sturdy-built, with a unique New Jersey accent. He was the main attraction of every party.

And I’m not exaggerating because whenever people invited me to parties, I often realized it was only because I could bring Martin.

These people would always remind me, “Hey! Don’t forget to bring Martin!” Which made me feel about as interesting as underprepared bratwurst.

Years ago, Martin had skin cancer that moved from his shoulder-blade region to his organs. He went through the medical care gauntlet. This drew out for months, then years.

One…

It was an accident. That’s all it was. I am not getting old.

I wasn’t particularly tired yesterday, but something came over me. I was on the sofa, eating lunch, watching a spring training ballgame, sipping iced tea, drowsing off.

The next thing I knew, I awoke two hours later, disoriented, covered in iced tea, ice cubes melting on my chest, and I was drooling.

My wife found me. She looked shocked. She said, “Were you just taking a nap?”

“A nap?” I said. “Don’t be silly. Naps are for old people, I’m too young for those.”

“You were napping.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were.”

“No. I was practicing mindfulness.”

I have my dignity to preserve.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother once saying, “You know you’re getting old when you fall asleep and spill food on yourself.”

That’s never been me. I was a fast-moving kid with a taste for danger, always looking for international thrills.

My bicycle had baseball cards on the spokes, and I knew how to beat the Jacob’s Ladder game without even trying.

I knew

the rules to Texas Hold’em, and played for high stakes behind the fellowship hall with Jay Ray, Ed Lee, and the janitor, Mister Stew. To this day, Mister Stew still owes me nine hundred thousand dollars.

Who has time for naps? Not me.

Growing up, I strapped a transistor radio to my bicycle handlebars and rode gravel roads, listening to “Hit the Road Jack” until the speaker popped.

I had dirt beneath my fingernails. I could climb any tree. I was raw energy. Everyone knew this about me.

Case in point: when I was seven, I was in the school production of Handel's Messiah, and the teacher had to write brief biographies about the soloists in the bulletins. She wrote about me: “Sean Dietrich makes enthusiasm seem like an inadequate word.”

Those were her exact words.

Miss Mary is my notoriously chatty mother-in-law. Although these days she remains pretty silent. Elderly people often do. Most days she spends her idle hours gazing out her family-room window, seated in a wheelchair, sipping from an insulated cup, in perfect quietude.

Today is no different. Our silence is only broken by the occasional sounds you often hear in an old woman’s house. A cat meowing. The faint music of Perry Como on the hifi, singing “For the Good Times.”

Mary’s hair is carnation white. Her eyes are brown. Today she wears a cashmere blouse that is only for visitors.

It’s almost hard to believe this woman can be so silent. Twenty years ago I remember this woman frequently telling her life story to various cashiers in the Piggly Wiggly. But today, however, the act of talking takes a grandiose effort. The late stages of COPD are not for wimps.

So we both remain quiet in Mary’s living room.

A cat purrs.

Perry Como is now singing “Papa Loves Mambo.”

Suddenly, our non-talking is interrupted when out of a clear sky Mary says:

“Oh, I remember this song.”

Then she abruptly falls silent again. I give it a few moments to see if she says anything else. But nothing.

More sounds.

The clicking of a clock pendulum.

An air conditioner compressor kicks on.

The cat whines.

“Yes,” she goes on. “I used to have a forty-seven Ford with a radio, and this song always played. The Ford was gray, like a whale. My granddaddy gave the car to me when I was thirteen—thirteen—if you can just imagine.”

She laughs privately then coughs.

The refrigerator hums.

The ceiling fan is rattling faintly.

The cat is rubbing against my leg.

“Yeah, I started driving that car at sixteen. But I could never start that dumb engine, was too tricky to crank. Needed someone to do it for me.”

Mary’s face is overcome…

I was a little boy. I was in a bad mood. My mother sent me to my room before supper.

“You march upstairs, mister,” she told me. “You go count your blessings.”

“But MAMA!” I said.

“Count’em one by one, young man, make a long list, or you don’t get any meatloaf.”

I’m thirty-some-odd years too late, but my wife is making meatloaf tonight.

So:

My wife—because she loved me first.

And boiled peanuts. Just because.

And dogs. Every dog.

And people who stop four lanes of traffic to save dogs. And people who adopt dogs. And people who like dogs. And people who spend so much time with dogs that they start to think like dogs.

And saturated fat. Pork. Smoked bacon, cured hams, and runny yolks in my fried eggs.

And cotton clothes that just came off a summer clothesline.

And the sound wind makes when it makes its way through the trees. And the smells of fall. And rain. Garlic.

Old radio shows. As a boy, a local station used to play reruns of Superman, the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, the

Jack Benny Show, Abbott and Costello, and the Grand Ole Opry. I lived for these shows.

And the girl I met in Birmingham—she’s lived in fourteen different foster homes.

The child in Nashville—whose feet are too big for her sneakers. She can’t afford new ones.

Every soul at Children’s Hospital, Birmingham. Doctors, nurses, janitors, cooks, staff, and patients.

Every child who will be fortunate enough to see tomorrow morning. Every child who won’t.

And tomatoes. Tomatoes remind me of things deeper than just tomatoes themselves. They remind me of women who garden. Women like my mother, who suffered to raise two children after her husband met an untimely end.

Mama. The woman who made me. The woman whose voice I inherited. Sometimes, I hear myself talking on the phone and I realize I sound just…

It’s hard to believe we are entering the second year of a pandemic. I can hardly wrap my head around it. I wake up every morning hoping to find myself in a different era. But it never works out.

You can’t forget about things like pandemics and simply move on with your life. Because whenever you wander into public the pandemic is waiting for you. When you watch TV, there it is. You’re reminded of COVID every time you see facemasks, sanitizer jugs, and people doing obligatory fist bumps instead of handshakes.

Centuries from today the history textbooks will call this “The Era of the Obligatory Fist Bump.” People even do fist bumps at mortgage closings now.

This has also been the era of snail mail. I personally have received more letters, emails, and postcards during this pandemic than I ever thought possible.

One of the most moving letters I received during the lockdowns was from Francie, which is not her real name. Francie lives in Virginia and had been estranged from

her mother for 26 years.

Her mother is elderly now, and lives alone. They have always had a strained relationship.

But when the pandemic hit, Francie swallowed her pride and called her mother in California only to discover that her mother had contracted COVID and was in ICU.

The guilt swelled like bile within Francie when she heard this. That same night she drove across the United States to see her mother. And on the day they brought Francie’s mother home, it was quite a reunion. When mother and daughter saw each other they broke down.

Francie says her first embrace with her mother totally melted away 26 years’ worth of grievances in a nanosecond.

Francie’s mother reportedly rose from her wheelchair to embrace her daughter tightly and say, “Oh, I knew something good would come out of this mess.”

Eight weeks later her mother died. Francie was…