There was a book on her nightstand the evening she died. A novel. She was halfway finished. Chapter eleven.

The old woman was a great reader. Reading was her thing. Her tranquilizer. Her therapy. The old woman’s bedroom was littered with mass-market paperbacks. Adventure novels, romances, humor, cheesy books that no literature buff would be caught dead holding in public unless enrolled in the Literature-Persons Protection Program.

The old woman was an English teacher. But that’s not how her love of reading began. Her journey began during a poverty stricken childhood, when the only things to do were to read library books and play cards.

As a girl she did plenty of that. She played LOTS of cards. She knew every card game in the book. They tell me she was vicious at the poker table. Each of her adult children still owe their mother roughly $7,000,000.

When the old woman was a girl, she helped raise her family after her mother died. Those were very different times, she was the

oldest daughter. No, it wasn’t fair. But it’s what people did.

Still, she never quit reading. She kept up her education by visiting libraries. Daily visits. And when her last sibling left home, the girl enrolled in college, availing herself to a much larger university library.

On her first day of college, she took an English course. It was love at first sentence. The woman knew she wanted to become a steward of the most beautiful, most audibly pleasing, most confusing, hardest to grasp, most ridiculously illogical language known to man.

After graduation, she taught English in high school. She hated it. Most students were more interested in pinching one another’s butts than they were in Shakespeare. She got a job teaching at a junior college for a little while. She hated that, too. So she quit.

She got married, made a family. But she couldn’t stay away from…

I’m watching TV with my elderly mother-in-law “Mother Mary.” I’m writing this column during a commercial break. So I don’t have long.

But I just wanted to pass along an important message Mother Mary wants America to know. Here it is:

“People should have more fun.”

Currently, Mother Mary is drinking a vodka gimlet to prove what a dedicated fun lover she is. This is a woman who looks like a Methodist granny, sipping a drink powerful enough to make a dog go bald. She is a fun expert.

Mother Mary raises her glass during the commercial break and speaks words of wisdom: “F-U-N. I want you to tell people I said FUN is the point of life.” Then she giggles and adds, “Put that in your column and smoke it.”

Now, let me be clear, Mary is NOT suggesting that alcohol is the source of fun. I can already envision the emails I will get tomorrow. So please do not misunderstand, we in this household do not believe libation is necessary for genuine fun

unless of course a national championship is involved.

No, the kind of fun Mary is hinting at is much more elusive.

The sad thing is, the older we get, the more we are discouraged from fun. If you’re a young person, this unspoken message will hit you from every angle. “Quit horsing around!” people will say. Your shift supervisor is only one example.

And so far this has been the basic motto of our modern culture. “Don’t have fun!”

Maybe this is why today you see elementary-school kids on their way to class dragging heavy rolling airline suitcases that are roughly the size of the Jefferson Memorial.

Last week I asked one such kid what made his case so heavy. He shrugged and said, “I have a lot of homework.”

Homework is not fun. Homework sucks. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t do homework. They should.…

The house where I was born was trimmed in roses. It was a clapboard home, previously owned by a retired World War II veteran. The old soldier was crazy for roses.

The story goes that after returning from the War, the soldier spent weeks turning his humble yard into a Victory Garden. Over time the backyard became a veritable explosion of reds, pinks, whites, and vivid colors.

The central attractions of the Victory Garden were, without doubt, the “Peace” roses. Ivory white with crimson fringe. They were heart stopping.

And it was among these roses where I took my first infant steps. My mother was deadheading flowers. It was summer. And I was hobbling beneath dappled sunlight, surrounded by an old soldier’s Peace roses.

Of course I don’t remember much from this early period of life, except that I habitually filled my onesies with poop. But for some odd reason, I do recall Peace roses.

There are some things you just don’t forget.

The earliest fossilized evidence of roses dates back to

the Cenozoic Era. Your high-school biology textbook will tell you roses are 35 million years old. These flowers predate nearly everything, including the Cascade Mountains, the dinosaurs, and “Gunsmoke.”

Roses were a big deal in ancient China, ancient Greece, and pretty much everywhere else too. In ancient Rome they were the flowers of the gods, a concept later inherited by ancient Christians. There’s a reason they call it “praying the Rosary.”

I tell you all this not to bore you until you experience brain death, but because this particular flower is intertwined with the history of our species.

Americans have been obsessed with roses for generations. When colonists came to these shores, one of the few luxuries many immigrant women brought with them were clippings from heirloom roses back home.

Although those colonists were in for a treat because this continent was already doing just fine in the…

I recently read an article that said, “the days of backyard barbecues are over.” Another heartbreaking item said: “The pandemic killed potlucks.”

Say it ain’t so.

As a boy I was a perpetually chubby redhead with rosy cheeks and a T-shirt that never quite covered his belly. My favorite place in the world was a covered-dish supper at the Methodist church, Baptist church, holy roller church, or any congregation where people pronounced “Lord” as “Lowered.”

Oh, I miss tiny potlucks held in old community halls. When I close my eyes, I can still see linoleum floors, water stains on the ceiling, and I can still hear 50-some people talking over each other.

I can see the card tables, draped in red-and-white gingham. I see crockpots of chicken and dumplings, Mrs. Martin’s Chicken Divan casserole, and Mrs. Wannamaker’s godawful ambrosia.

I could talk about the food all day, but I won’t. I’ve already covered potlucks in approximately 126,498 columns. Because I am smitten with them. Also, because there is a lot more to potluck than

mere food.

Such as the seating arrangements. Have you ever noticed how people find their seats at a church social? It’s a beautiful process. There is no class hierarchy, and no seating chart at a potluck. Everyone just finds a chair.

Nine-year-old girls sit next to 89-year-old men. A young widow sits next to the preacher’s wife, who sits beside a construction lawyer, who sits beside a pipe welder, who sits beside a random fourth-grader, who sits beside an elderly man who once did time in Draper, who sits beside a chubby redhead whose T-shirt doesn’t cover his belly.

That’s what I miss.

I also miss the way people made money trees for special occasions. Have we forgotten money trees? A money tree was for when someone got married, graduated, or retired. It was a barren hickory branch, standing upright with clothespins on its twigs. People…

They were good together. That’s what everyone said about them. Their schoolmates said it. Their friends said it. Their parents even said it: “Those two are so good together.”

And they were. It was the 1940s, a different world. Girls wore ringlets. Boys pulled their slacks up to their sternums. Teenagers went to dark dancehalls, traveling in packs, necking in the backseats of Buicks, Plymouths, and Packards.

Our two lovers began as dance partners, and friends. Then Uncle Sam shipped him to France to fight a War. She wrote him every day. Sometimes three times a day. She prayed for him every night, every morning, and moments between.

Then the War was over. Young men were coming home, but everything was so bizarre. Many men seemed haunted; others had crippling shellshock.

He was one of the latter.

From the moment she greeted him at the train station he was quiet. Withdrawn. He was no longer interested in dancing. He never spoke of what happened, but it was spelled on his face. It was beneath every word

he said.

Oh, but they were still good together. And more importantly, he truly needed her. She was balm to him.

Often in the mornings he would simply appear on her porch, dressed in tan pants, crisp white shirt, hands thrust in his pockets. He was a tall glass of water with a forlorn face.

Most times he wouldn’t knock on the door, but just stand in her yard for hours, his back facing her house, gazing at the street, counting cars, waiting for his gal to awake.

She’d awake, peek out her window, and find him silent on her steps. She would trot outside wearing her robe.

“What on earth are you doing here so early?” she’d say. “Are you alright?”

He’d look at her with heavy eyes. He’d simply say, “I went for a walk and ended up here.”

So her mother…

Happy birthday, Noah. I’m sorry you’re in a hospital. And I’m sorry your party is a small one.

Although if you ask me, small parties are the best way to go. Little birthdays are WAY more fun than huge parties. They are more mellow, more meaningful, with less expectations. Any older person will tell you this.

These days, of course, many kids your age have birthday parties that are miniature versions of Woodstock. Some parents throw big todos, some even hire event decorators to orchestrate party “themes.”

One family on my street, for instance, turns their kids’ birthdays into elaborate events that are on the same scale as your typical papal installation. Last year’s theme was Disney. Our neighborhood turned into an amusement park.

Cars lined the street. Kids in their Sunday best carried large gifts. There were THREE bouncy castles in the yard. Armies of dads grilled ribeyes. Loud music played. There was a magician, and one frightening middle-aged professional clown with a voice like a tuba.

I’m not being critical, Noah, but after

parties like that, your average adult party will reek by comparison.

Someday you might find yourself celebrating your birthday with a flat tire, stuck in a desolate truck stop, drinking cold coffee that tastes like carbonic acid. Before the waitress even takes your order she will further ruin your day by saying: “Sorry, hon, but we’re outta bacon.”

Not that this has ever happened to me.

So enjoy your easygoing day. Sure, there’s no mind blowing euphoria, but all those feel-good neuro chemicals swimming around in your brain would only leave you in a stupor tomorrow.

I’m not kidding, either. Have you ever noticed how immediately after Christmas morning life stinks? What kid doesn’t know the personal anguish of the post-Christmas blues?

All that holiday hype can be a recipe for disaster when you think about it. There are whole months of excitement, build-up, singing,…

The email came last last night. A 14-year-old named Alessandra sent me a message containing only four words—four words. After reading her message, I wore a large smile because I needed those four particular words.

Yesterday I looked over my pre-pandemic photos because my phone began throwing old memories in my face. And do you know something? My life was once so full.

Before the virus, I was traveling, doing fun stuff, eating at restaurants, going to ballgames, dancing the Mashed Potato with officially licensed team franchise mascots while holding a 24-oz beer can. Those days are over—at least for now.

On my phone I saw photos from the work trip my wife and I took to New York a few years ago. What a trip it was. I couldn’t believe how wonderful the tomato pies were, or how the cab drivers cheerfully drove upwards of 120 mph on sidewalks.

There were photos from our visit out West. My wife and I were posed beside various mountains, canyons, and rust-colored hillsides.

I have photos taken in Texas. We pulled over at a barbecue joint. There were no structures around for miles. Only a tin shack on the plains. A waitress came to our table, she had no menus, she simply said, “Food or beer?”

“Both,” we said.

And that was that. When our mountain of brisket arrived, it came served in zinc motor-oil pans. The beer was so cold it hurt your teeth. “Welcome to Texas,” the waitress said.

We have photos from our extensive travels through Alabama. Alabama is the state that adopted me when nobody else would. And although I am not a native son, the Yellowhammer State lies a few dozen miles from my hometown, and our preachers often quote Bear Bryant from the pulpits.

So I miss seeing the U.S. I miss the way things used to be before we humans had so much fear to…

Yesterday morning you asked if I thought you looked old.

You stood before our bathroom mirror, brushing your hair. I answered, “No, of course you don’t look old, honey.” Then we dropped the subject.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Which is why this morning I am writing to you, while sitting on our little porch, attached to our little house, tucked in these woods.

I’m a middle-aged man, watching Floridian fog move through our forest. The mist looks like a poem to me. Long ago, before the Age of Real Estate Development reached these woods, I used to watch deer high-step through this wandering fog.

Have you ever watched a doe graze at daybreak? A doe moves like she is made of pure imagination. She is confident. Wise. Half spirit, half muscle. One flick of her mighty thigh and she is in the next county.

But she is also gentle and humble at heart. And within the presence of such beauty I usually pause my breath.

Nearly twenty years ago, I remember

feeling that same way when I met you. I felt almost breathless when we sat on a beach together, watching the Gulf at dusk until our lower backs were sore and sand had painfully worked its way into the crevices of our youthful butts.

But we refused to leave the shore until the moon came out. Why? Because leaving meant we would be apart, and it would be hours before we would be reunited. I tell you I couldn’t stand it.

So we sat. We leaned against each other. I recall the way your shampoo smelled. And your perfume. Also, I will never forget how you rested your head on my shoulder, making me feel strong.

Of course I’m not strong. That’s the irony. Nobody knows a guy’s weakness better than his wife. You’ve seen my worst. You have watched me play the fool. You…

I have never been to Montana, but I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve always wanted to witness the acclaimed sundowns. They tell me one Montana sunset can cause people to spontaneously believe in heaven.

I almost had a chance to visit the 41st State as a teenager. I was supposed to help my friend’s uncle work on his cattle ranch. Sadly, his uncle passed away before I got the opportunity.

But I wish would’ve visited. I know exactly what I would have done. I would have spent every evening sitting on a log, watching the sunsets over the windswept plains. Or walked the famous Going-to-the-Sun-Road at dusk.

A few years ago, Montana residents reported that the sky was having some highly unusual sunsets. In some regions, the skies were turning electric purple and indigo. This mystified many, including multi-generational Montanans and meteorologists.

(Cue “Twilight Zone” theme music.)

Finally, science discovered the reason for these sunsets. The answer lay across the Pacific Ocean with the Raikoke volcano, between Japan and Russia, and the Ulawun volcano in

New Guinea.

Both volcanoes had recently erupted, sending volcanic material 60,000 feet into the stratosphere. When volcanic aerosols drifted into the stratosphere above Montana, they scattered blue light particles, which mixed with the reddish sky colors to produce deep purple sunsets.

The effect was heaven-like. No wonder they call it the Big Sky Country.

Montana is also where an old man named John once lived. You’ve never heard of John, he wasn’t famous.

At the start of John’s adult life, he was your average Montanan. He had an okay job, three happy kids, loving wife. Theirs was a good life. They attended a clapboard church. The family was a tight-knit one.

John’s wife died at 39, leaving him with three children, and it was like having his limb amputated.

John’s adult son recalls, “My dad became old overnight. His hair literally went white in a…

When I was 4 years old, my mother took me to get my first library card. There are many childhood memories I’ve forgotten, but I’ll never forget Mama hoisting me to the library counter so I could autograph that card.

Of course, I couldn’t spell at that age, so my name came out looking like drunken Mandarin. But the card served me well over the years.

I grew up in libraries. I lived in them. I never quit visiting them. They were my safe haven. They were a place free of judgement.

When I worked construction, I was the guy who visited the library on lunch breaks. I would check out stacks of 10 sometimes 15 Louis L’Amour books.

A library was the only educational institution where blue-collar guys like me weren’t embarrassed about our low pedigrees and decades of bad grades. This is why, to me, libraries are the greatest institution.

All mankind’s children are welcome at the library to partake in ideas, knowledge, classic literature, and above all, free Abbott and Costello DVDs.

No entrance exams, no tuition, no standardized tests. It’s enough to make you believe in God.

Over the course of my life, however, I lost touch with the library. I attended community college as an adult, and eventually quit construction. I became a halfwit author, I got writing gigs, had back surgery, I got married, got a mortgage. Life got in the way.

Until the pandemic.

Suddenly I was at the library again. The Walton County Library system became a safe haven. In fact, it was one of the only places I felt comfortable visiting during lockdowns.

One reason is because librarians are obsessive compulsive about sanitation. They sterilize each book like they’re prepping for neurosurgery. And they always take visitors’ temperatures with their little Star Wars laser thermometers.

Throughout this pandemic I’ve gotten to know the library workers from a distance.

There’s the employee…