Southern Folks: Dressing up for the Lord and lessons in love

Bill Stamps

When I was 5 years old, I lived with my grandparents on a beautiful farm in the middle part of Tennessee.

My parents never got along. I think they loved one another but just couldn't find a way to keep it together. They married and divorced twice, before I reached the third grade. Dad had a roving eye, and Mom had bouts with prescription drugs. They were both Gemini. It made for a confusing childhood.

Consequently, I was constantly being dropped off at the farm.

Grand Mom's maid, Elizabeth, and several other black families lived on the farm. My grandmother, Miz Lena, had a lot to do with the way I think. Elizabeth contributed greatly to my connection to God and how I love.

Miz Lena rarely attended church, except for Easter and Christmas. She spent most Sundays in the den. Drinking coffee, smoking Salems and paying bills. Every so often, she'd glance over her reading glasses at Billy Graham on the TV.

She spent the rest of the day telling my grandfather what he should or shouldn't do on just about everything.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, cooked and went to church on Sundays. She'd have her two pans of cornbread baked and a big pot of beans simmering on her stove before her church's early morning sermon. She'd cook and hum, all the while listening to the little RCA radio that blared the warnings of what doom was coming, delivered by a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher out of Nashville.

She had but two dresses from which to choose for worship services. One was light blue and the other black. She switched back and forth. The black one was also, as she called it, her "funrell dress."

It was my greatest delight when Elizabeth would invite me to go to church with her. Her husband, Booker, never went. He stayed home or went fishing. At that time, they had no children.

The only drawback for me was that I had to wear my Sunday School clothes. I could deal with the little sports jacket and slacks and even the clunky Buster Brown shoes, from Harveys Department Store. It was that dad-gum clip-on bow tie that was terribly uncomfortable. Before I would jet down to Elizabeth's house, I would have to pass Miz Lena's inspection.

She started with, "Honey Baby, you look better than that little boy in the Look magazine. Now, you take this dollar and put it in the basket when they pass it around. Looka here, don't let me hear, again, about you askin' fer change. Be shore you watch yore manners and do exactly what 'Lizbeth tells you to do. Remember, you don't run when you get up around the church. Now, git goin'. Don't make 'Lizbeth late. Tell her I said, "Hey."

Going to church with Elizabeth meant that I got to sing all day with the accompaniment of a fantastic choir and various musicians. A steel guitar, fiddle, organ, a couple of snare drums and several tambourines. Man, those black Baptists really knew how to celebrate the Lord! That little church was electric!

Elizabeth prided herself on being the first parishioner to get there. In doing so, she became kind of an official greeter. She stood alongside the preacher and welcomed the rest of the flock as they arrived. She was also the last to leave. Church went on for a while.

That didn't bother me. I loved Elizabeth and all her God-fearing friends. I'm pretty sure they didn't mind a white child, "Miz Lena's grandson," being in attendance. After all, it had been my great-grandfather, Papa Harvey, and some of his workers, who had built the church, way back when.

The church sat on the back side of the cornfields of Miz Lena's farm. Just over the fence. A "step-up" had been built, over the top. Three steps on both sides.

Usually, I could talk Elizabeth into looking the other way on some things Grand Mom had instructed me to do. But not when it came to my church attire. I was stuck with the outfit, including the bow tie, all day long. I tried to talk Elizabeth into letting me take it off. I once tried the excuse that I would be able to sing much better without the bow tie. She told me, "You is 'posed to dress up for the Lord."

Booker and Elizabeth ended up having three children. Two boys and a girl. Of all things, Booker ended up becoming a preacher and had his own church, down by Cross Bridges, not far from my grandparents' farm.

Shortly after I had been discharged from the Marine Corps and moved back to Tennessee, Elizabeth's oldest son was killed in a car accident.

Elizabeth hadn't worked for Grand Mom for a while, and I hadn't seen her for many years. I put on a suit and drove down to attend the funeral. My heart cried for Elizabeth. She so loved her children. Now, one of them had been taken from her, much too soon.

There she was, standing on the top step, at the front door of the church, white-headed and a little bent over. Doing what she always had. Greeting all those who came to pay their last respects. As soon as she saw me, she recognized me. Kind of a startled look. And then her sweet smile.

She reached for my hand and said, "I been thinkin' 'bout you, lately. I love you, Sweet Child. Thank you, so much, fo' comin'. You sho' look handsome in yo' suit."

I hugged her tight. She seemed to have gotten smaller. Maybe a little frail. Her head in my chest, I whispered in her ear, "You're supposed to dress up for the Lord." She started crying. Me too.

I'll always love you, Elizabeth. The way you taught me to love.

Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment business before relocating from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Reach him at or Facebook.