To My Ancestors

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.

74 comments

  1. PMc - April 6, 2022 6:45 am

    Sean Thank You, it is truly one of your best.
    Peace and Love from Birmingham ~

    Reply
  2. Connie - April 6, 2022 6:58 am

    And thank you, Sean, for reminding us all to be thankful for the things and people who shaped us, and for encouraging us all to be better humans. Much love and hugs to you and Jamie.

    Reply
  3. Anne Arthur - April 6, 2022 7:21 am

    And yes, the hymn is true.
    And, yes, he sends us those good people who shape and form our lives to become what he planned us to be. Thanks be to God for making you, you.

    Reply
  4. Friends - April 6, 2022 7:48 am

    Yours is a beautiful soul. ❤️

    Reply
  5. David Grant - April 6, 2022 9:00 am

    Wow Sean: a good un. Keep on my friend and I too cling to the promise he has the whole world in his hands.

    Reply
  6. Trudy - April 6, 2022 9:51 am

    Thanks, Sean. I, too, think of my ancestors often and miss them dearly. One day, people will be remembering you and how you touched their lives. I’m already thankful now about the impact you have made on me. Your positive and grateful attitude touches me daily.

    Reply
  7. Ashley - April 6, 2022 9:55 am

    Thank you for writing! Your words are a treasure to me.

    Reply
  8. Emily Ray - April 6, 2022 10:38 am

    Dear Sean,
    Thank the Lord for your gift of harnessing imagery and emotion with words true and honest, and your generosity in sharing them with this Southern “girl,” (67). I laugh out loud and simultaneously shed a tear as I read today’s essay. God bless you, fellow pilgrim. Emily of Alabama, a Virginia squatter

    Reply
  9. Angela - April 6, 2022 10:41 am

    Dearest fellow southerner,
    I have a feeling you are going to have to defend “jello salad”. For the record, we go with “congealed salad” around here. I wouldn’t even sniff the stuff when I was a kid, only because of the word salad. When I finally tried it as an adult… I fell in love.
    Thank you for your time and energy. I look forward to reading your articles each morning!
    Angela from Alabama 😉

    Reply
  10. Joy Jacobs - April 6, 2022 10:50 am

    I don’t know how people get through life without humor. And believe me Sean, it might not look like it but He still has “The Whole World In His Hands”.

    Reply
  11. Marcia MacLean - April 6, 2022 11:13 am

    Now that I’m much older, I too appreciate my unique family and fondly remember the adults of my childhood. I do believe “He’s got you and me, Brother in His hands.”

    Reply
  12. Lifetime Chicago - April 6, 2022 11:15 am

    I really enjoyed this. Your writing gives me ideas on who I want to write about!

    Reply
  13. Karen Howard-Goss - April 6, 2022 11:35 am

    And than you ,Sean Dietrich, for making my morning with your daily column 🙂

    Reply
  14. Donna - April 6, 2022 12:04 pm

    “A song I desperately need to believe is true.“

    Exactly what I need to believe is true. This world is so broken that it makes my stomach churn and my eyes seep. I’m beyond crying, my tears nearly on empty. I ask the Lord, if He really has the whole world in His hands (I believe He does) how He can allow the atrocities we see in Ukraine, the senseless murder of a class of first graders, and the destruction of our home planet.

    The frailty of humanity is on full display. It helps to look back and see that there always have been good people in our lives. There’s no use in trying to understand God’s plan, especially through our limited human perspective. All we can do is hang onto one another and trust that God does have us in His hands.

    Reply
    • stella Hindman - April 10, 2022 1:15 pm

      Love this reply.

      Reply
  15. Kathy - April 6, 2022 12:04 pm

    It is.

    Reply
  16. Debbie Schmidt - April 6, 2022 12:20 pm

    You say so much with simplicity and so few words. As my parents used to say, “You put the grass down there where the cow can eat it”. Thank you.

    Reply
  17. Donna - April 6, 2022 12:27 pm

    Truly one of my favorites. I can relate to many things in this story. And we all need to cling to this song, especially in these times…..He’s got the whole world in His hands. ❤️🌍🌎🌏❤️

    Reply
  18. Jan - April 6, 2022 12:33 pm

    Amen! He will never leave us or forsake us. We just have to hold on and pray …

    Reply
  19. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - April 6, 2022 12:35 pm

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  20. Marie - April 6, 2022 12:44 pm

    Yes, He does!

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  21. Suellen - April 6, 2022 12:50 pm

    Remembering those who peopled my youth. It seemed like they were always there. Life gets busy and somehow you don’t imagine that things will ever change. Then one by one they are gone. Now not just gone but long gone and the older I get the more it becomes an ache in my bones to see them all again.

    Reply
  22. Jim Duncan - April 6, 2022 12:52 pm

    These are nice memories and gave me pause to remember the people who contributed during my youth in a small Mississippi Delta town in the 1950’s,

    Reply
  23. Kenneth Walker - April 6, 2022 12:54 pm

    If you would be interested I would like to send you a song I wrote about living in the south.

    Reply
  24. Ruth Mitchell - April 6, 2022 1:02 pm

    Like you, I have a list of many I can thank for my “life’s education.” Just so you know, I’ve added you to that list for starting my days with a smile or sometimes a tear—but always a feeling. Thank you.

    Reply
  25. Robyn - April 6, 2022 1:20 pm

    Thank you Sean for just being you. We need more like you in the ole’ world.

    Reply
  26. Helen De Prima - April 6, 2022 1:20 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for this wonderful tribute to a tradition which has been lost to many kids nowadays. When families move too often, usually far from their roots, children never have a chance to experience these vital connections. My grandparents raised me and I grew up with extended family and friends of their generation — priceless! My novels always include elderly characters who enrich the narrative.

    Reply
  27. Shelton A. - April 6, 2022 1:24 pm

    It is true, Sean. God has us. It may seem like sometimes he doesn’t, but he does. God cares for us and loves us. Trust in God, have faith, especially now in these turbulent times. God has us. God loves us all. Let’s love Him back and our neighbors (even our enemies) as ourselves. God bless you, Jamie, and the pups.

    Reply
  28. Sue Adams - April 6, 2022 1:31 pm

    Touching….thank you.

    Reply
  29. Joy Dickinson - April 6, 2022 1:44 pm

    Sean, I really loved this one especially. And praise be for Strunk & White.

    Reply
  30. Cathy M - April 6, 2022 2:02 pm

    It takes a village to raise a child. Your words today remind me of all the sweet people who loved me as a child. Beyond family members . Many were friends who felt like family. I think God put many in your path after your Dad died. When I think of heaven I picture myself surrounded by everyone of them. Tight hugs and kisses. It will be glorious for sure. I pray that I live to see peace in this world that God holds in his hands. You are a treasure to me and many more. How’s B’ham feelin now? Spring is getting ready to pop and all the beauty will take your breath away. A welcome sign to you and Jaimie. We feel blessed with your presence here in B’ham❤️🙏🏻🦋

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  31. Patricia Gibson - April 6, 2022 2:04 pm

    A wonderful reminder of the great people that effect our lives! Thank you for sharing ❤️

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  32. Phil (the Brown Marlin) - April 6, 2022 2:16 pm

    It IS true, Sean, and keep that in your memory bank along with all those other great souvenirs. Thanks for another cool trip down nostalgia lane. You are a truly gifted person, and it’s so admirable of you to give credit to all those fine folks who helped bring those gifts to the surface. Preach on, Brutha!

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  33. Harriet White - April 6, 2022 2:46 pm

    I hope he’s got the whole world in his hands. I hope God saves the children who are trafficked to tunnels underground. I pray hard for the children.

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  34. Carole Moormann - April 6, 2022 2:48 pm

    Oh wow Sean. Thank you for
    Reminding me of
    All the things I have to be grateful
    for from
    All the people who have touched my life, past and present, alive and crossed over.

    Reply
  35. Sonya Tuttle - April 6, 2022 3:46 pm

    I believe!! HE does have the whole world in HIS hands. Sometimes it is a terrible mess…but there is a question of choice. We all have that power, but there is an evil being that tempts weak people with poor choices. I still pray for those weak folks in our family who have made poor choices. Looking forward to the next life when we will meet all our loved ones who helped us make good choices.

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  36. Slimpicker - April 6, 2022 3:51 pm

    Reminds me of a great song by Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”.

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  37. Adrienne Possenti - April 6, 2022 4:15 pm

    The words to the song are truly true. Not a doubt in the world.

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  38. Naomi Smith - April 6, 2022 4:54 pm

    Thank you for the reminder that God has indeed got the whole world in His hands.
    We are all “woven” by the people we come in contact with. I’m thankful for the weavers that were around me as a child. We only see the underside of our tapestry. And it is sometimes a mess. But God sees perfectly from above, so He can direct our path.

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  39. Moody Jim - April 6, 2022 5:24 pm

    Sean, there is no doubt in my mind that He definitely has us all in His loving hands.

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  40. Cindy - April 6, 2022 5:29 pm

    Thank you Sean. He DOES have the whole world in his hands – of that I am sure and grateful for!

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  41. MermaidGr@mmy - April 6, 2022 5:30 pm

    Oh, Precious Sean, your daddy is definitely proud of you. He’s with Mr Bubba and all the other saints, cheering you on. Pointing at you and saying, “That’s my boy! That’s my son! My Sean”. There are some who disagree with me about exactly who is in Heaven. But I know, for sure, that his sickness did not keep him out, and he’s taking care of Thelma Lou and all the others who crossed the 🌈 Bridge

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  42. pattymack43 - April 6, 2022 5:43 pm

    Never doubt, Sean!! It is, indeed, true!! He is sovereign over the whole world!!

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  43. Susie Flick - April 6, 2022 5:55 pm

    Your words on any day, in so many ways bring back memories of my wonderful childhood and all that have impacted me in my 70 years. Thank you so much!

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  44. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 7:34 pm

    Don’t you just love wonderful memories of life, Sean? I do, especially the ones of my people. Thank you, Mr. Dietrich, for teaching your son well. Today, I’ve needed desperately to believe that God’s Got This (my family’s “THIS”…He knows what it is). Thank you, Daddy and Mama and Aunts who helped raise me. And Sean, we know they loved us and gave us the gift of humor, too…our Daddies did that.

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  45. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 7:46 pm

    Don’t you just love wonderful memories of life, Sean? I do, especially the ones of my people. Thank you, Mr. Dietrich, for teaching your son well. Today I’ve desperately needed to believe that God’s Got This (my family’s “THIS” – He knows what it is). Thank you, Daddy and Mama and Aunts who helped raise me. Sean, we know they loved us, don’t we. And my daddy, most of all, gave me the gift of humor.

    Reply
  46. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 7:49 pm

    I’ve tried to post my comment twice, so I guess I’m banned, huh??….will try again later….

    Reply
  47. linda - April 6, 2022 7:51 pm

    My previous two comments wouldn’t post….trying again.

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  48. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:01 pm

    Don’t you just love wonderful memories of life, Sean? I do, especially the ones of my people. Thank you, Mr. Dietrich, for teaching your son well. Today, I desperately needed to believe that Gods’ Got This (my family’s “This”…He knows what it is.) Thank you, Daddy and Mama and Aunts who helped raise me. And Sean, we know they loved us and gave us the gift of humor, too.

    Reply
  49. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:07 pm

    My comments won’t post today. It says unknown or deleted user.

    Reply
  50. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:18 pm

    I’ve had problems with leaving a comment today. I’m trying again…but this is not the original comment for your post!

    Reply
  51. MAM - April 6, 2022 8:31 pm

    Linda Moon. I’ve had the same problems, but they do ultimately post, and I’ve repeated, too. But Sean, God DEFINITELY has the whole world in his hands. A lot of things happen to wake us up to the REALITY that HE is in charge and taking care of all of us, especially if we listen to what he tells us, which he does everyday all day long, but our listening skills aren’t always finely tuned enough. God IS with us.

    Reply
    • Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 10:06 pm

      Mam, the last one still didn’t post…tomorrow is another day, so I’ll call my tech son-in-law for help. Thanks! Do you know why it keeps saying unknown or deleted user?

      Reply
  52. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:35 pm

    My comments won’t post today….it say Unknown or Deleted User.

    Reply
  53. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:35 pm

    Is my post commenting?

    Reply
  54. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:37 pm

    My comments won’t post today.

    Reply
  55. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:42 pm

    my earlier comments won’t post

    Reply
  56. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:52 pm

    I’ve been trying to comment today, but it won’t comment onto the comments page.

    Reply
  57. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 8:57 pm

    my comments won’t post, I’ll try again tomorrow because it says unknown or deleted user

    Reply
  58. Kaye Stephens - April 6, 2022 9:06 pm

    We lost many choir members because they stood up for the gay man with a beautiful voice when the preacher said he was not welcome in choir! He sang once a year with us in the Christmas cantata. He grew up in the church.

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  59. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 9:08 pm

    llll

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  60. Karen Holderman - April 6, 2022 9:19 pm

    You and I have had some wonderful folks in our lives. Thank you for sharing yours with all of us.

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  61. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 9:55 pm

    Well…..the Norton Virus apparently hacked in, finally left ….but not until it had made me post too many times & sound like I’m totally whacko! I apologize!! Thank you, MAM, for the good advice! And I’m only a tiny bit whacko…not totally.

    Reply
  62. Linda Moon - April 6, 2022 10:11 pm

    Thanks, Mam.

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  63. christina - April 7, 2022 12:04 am

    I’m pretty sure your daddy is beaming with pride and joy!

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  64. Debbie g - April 7, 2022 4:50 am

    You are on my sweet list of people who have influenced me to be a better person
    Thank you and love you Sean and Jamie and love to all

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  65. Janet Wallace - April 7, 2022 12:15 pm

    Thank you! I love, love, love this story! You made me feel like I was right there as it was happening.

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  66. Laurie - April 7, 2022 1:22 pm

    My mother passed away this morning. I needed this, thank you.

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  67. Debbie - April 7, 2022 1:27 pm

    After reading this, I ordered a copy of Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

    Reply
  68. Mary Hicks - April 10, 2022 3:19 pm

    There is that love between a father and a son that I love to read about. I know he is so very proud of you because of how you help and inspire people everyday with your writing. I also hug with my eyes closed. I think it is a God thing. Thank you, Sean, for sharing this writing that I can see in my mind and in color!! God bless you and Jamie!🙋💖

    Reply
  69. Judy O’Casey - April 11, 2022 1:55 am

    Thank you Sean, how did you know this was just what I needed?

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  70. Alyce Black - April 11, 2022 8:43 pm

    The paragraph about Honey gave me hard shivers and I am an 83 year old lady. Such beautiful wording. I believe I can hear her singing.

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  71. Esther Howard - April 12, 2022 12:33 pm

    Thanks, Sean. Another great one. I’m going to share this one with some loved ones I want to thank. This is the perfect lead in.

    Reply
  72. Beverly - April 13, 2022 12:08 pm

    This one is a part of my morning devotional today. I’m thanking God for being in control of my life and that of fellow believers, even when the world seems to be falling apart. Today I will teach toddler grandchild “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”!

    Reply

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