Today, I gave a talk to a classroom of first-graders. We sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I taught them all the hand motions.
And I had a flashback to my own youth.
I remembered sitting on the tailgate of my father’s truck, learning to sing this song when I was 5 years old. My father taught me the hand motions to this Sunday school standard with an Old Milwaukee in his hand.
It was one of the most wonderful evenings of my life. I’ll never forget it. The crickets were out. A distant train whistle was sounding. And a grown man and his toddler were singing a children’s song beneath the starry dome of heaven, doing hand motions.
My people made me who I am. They were good people. Salt of the earth. They were men and women who taught me to live, to pray, to eat, and how to laugh at myself in dire circumstances.
I cannot remember a world without their brand of humor. And I wouldn’t want to. They were incapable of telling a story, hugging a stranger, or singing a song without humor. Always humor.
I’m talking about people like my uncle John, who showed me to play a Gibson student-model guitar purchased from a pawnshop. An instrument with the same tonal quality of mayonnaise.
And the old women who instructed me on the proper way to butter catheads, shell field peas, shuck corn, fry eggs, and pick ticks.
I am forever indebted to my father’s friend, Bud, who taught me how to say grace with unwavering reverence:
“Over the lips, and past the gums,
“Down the red alley, and past the lungs,
“Lookout stomach, here she comes.”
Here’s to the old men in my family who taught me how to identify elms, maples, oaks, and magnolias simply by looking at the leaves. Who showed us impressionable children how to respond to their wives’ instructions with honor and respect by pretending to have gone deaf.
And here’s to the old women in my boyhood who, every year, organized the annual spiral-bound church cookbook. A book that is the secret to a rich, full life.
I am forever grateful to the white-haired men of my youth, who wore sansabelt pants, outmoded horn-rimmed glasses, and hearing aids the size of Plymouth Caravelles. They taught me how to shake hands with a firm grip. How to hug with my eyes closed. And how to never tell a lie unless you absolutely had no choice.
So I offer these words unto those who reared me. This is sort of my prayer of thanksgiving.
Thank you for teaching me that Jello salad is indeed a food group. Thank you for instilling within me the belief that bacon is an inalienable right. Thank you for showing me that turning the other cheek is not weak minded, but the only way to win.
Thank you, Uncle Tommy Lee, the lay preacher, who lost 43 church members when he allowed a Black woman into his Baptist choir in 1964. Her name was Honey, she had a voice like a coronet. When she sang “I Go to the Rock,” it made your hair go all prickly.
Thank you to the old man who came to my father’s funeral, who gave me a book entitled “Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You,” at the visitation.
My thanks to you, Mister Brad, the man who took over coaching our Little League team after my father, our previous coach, had died.
Thank you to the old woman, Miss Terry, who stood behind the library counter and gave this hapless redheaded flunky a copy of “The Elements of Style” by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr. A manual for aspiring writers.
To this day, whenever any child asks how I learned to write, I tell them I haven’t yet. And I sometimes hand them a copy of this book.
To Mister Bubba, the man without a family, who lived on my street, who harbored 4,209 feral and rescued cats, who chain smoked Kool menthols all day until the Lord called him to his eternal graduation.
And to Miss Lynnette, who helped me learn to play the piano at church. Who once got the flu and asked me to fill in for her one Sunday when I was a child. And thank you to Pastor Merle, for not shooting me when I played “Hey Good Lookin’” for the call to worship because it was the only tune I knew.
But most of all, thanks, Daddy. Even though you have been gone many years, I think you’d be proud of me. Because I still remember the things you taught me, no matter how small. Thanks for your humor. For your approach to life. And for teaching me the hand motions to one of the greatest American songs ever written.
A song I desperately need to believe is true.