Southern Folks: Lessons in life from Elizabeth

Bill Stamps

It's raining, in Cleveland, Tennessee, as I begin to write this week's column. It's not that cold. A good steady rain. It'll last for a while. Sure wish this old house had a tin roof. My grandmother, Miz Lena's maid, Elizabeth, and her husband, Booker, had a tin roof on their little house on Grand Mom's farm.

Southern Folks

It was a cozy little whitewashed wooden house. It was a touch larger and nicer than the other wooden homes on the farm occupied by Miz Lena's black sharecropping families.

There was a small front yard with an apple tree grown up next to the house, a couple of old tires, painted white, with purple iris flowers growing over the sides and a big gray rock that protruded from the ground. Booker used to talk about how he was going to "take a mule and pull 'dat rock up outta here!" I don't think he ever did.

Not that Booker was the least bit lazy. Quite the contrary. He was Miz Lena's foreman. He understood and respected her. His job was to make sure that Grand Mom's farm was productive and paid attention to. He delivered year after year and was handsomely rewarded by Miz Lena for his gold-star performances.

Often, Elizabeth would do some of her ironing from her home rather than up at the big house. I really liked hanging out with Elizabeth. She ironed on a little screened-in porch right off her kitchen.

Elizabeth steam-pressed Mother Nature's perfume from the apple tree into my T-shirts and pajamas and Grand Dad's dress shirts. That's something extra the Almighty rewards you when you live in the country.

When a spring rain and a little wind would start up, Elizabeth would move her ironing inside and set up in the doorway of the living room. It was an open room with beams and a wooden floor, a heavy-grouted brick fireplace and windows all around. Booker, under Elizabeth's supervision, painted the room pink. Elizabeth sewed some curtains together from leftover material Miz Lena gave her.

Booker's special chair and footrest faced the fireplace, with an ashtray on a knee-high stand next to it.

Elizabeth's couch sat across the other side. It matched Booker's chair. Kind of a peppering of blue and gold threads. She kept her sewing box, some of her knitting stuff and a quilt-patched throw at the far end of the couch. Atop the small dark-wood chest of drawers, behind Booker's chair, were some framed family pictures, his heavily earmarked bible and the radio.

They didn't have a TV. The radio was usually on, featuring gut-bucket gospel music and very enthusiastic black preachers, broadcasting live from nearby Nashville.

Booker and Elizabeth knew the preachers all by name. I only remember one, Reverend Leslie. Sometimes, it sounded like he was talking right to me. He used to holler, "I know what you's thinkin," and then right after that, within a minute, or so, he would say almost exactly what was on my mind.

Apparently, it was what was on Booker and Elizabeth's mind, too. They'd both nod their heads, raise their hands and whisper a little amen. Occasionally, a hallelujah.

I remember the rain coming down and bouncing off Elizabeth's tin roof. Her ironing Grand Dad's dress shirts. Heavy starch. Me, at her kitchen table with my coloring books. I recall the feeling of creativity coming over me. The rain and my art. It felt like freedom. Not a worry in the world. Elizabeth was right: God always seemed to be close by.

The rain was kinda loud, but Elizabeth and I were close enough to one another that we could carry on a conversation.

From the ironing board, Elizabeth would teach me things. It didn't feel like she was actually teaching because she always had a story that went along with her life lessons. A lot of her cures for sadness or recipes for happiness came from the Bible.

I learned Psalm 23 from her, the Song of David. She didn't have to refer to her Bible. She knew it by heart. Actually, she knew the Good Book from beginning to end. Booker, too. Later in life, he became a preacher. Elizabeth sat in the front row of the church at his every sermon.

With her head down and ironing, Elizabeth raised her free hand and pointed toward me, and said, "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Now, you see, sweet boy, da' Lord, he guide you. He gonna make sure you gots what you needs. Sometimes, dat's all you gonna git. But dat's awright. You take dat. Jus' mean you gonna gits a whole lot more when you is in heaven. Does you understand?" I did.

When we got to "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures" and the thing about leading me beside the still waters, I wasn't quite sure how that applied to me. It kinda sounded like I was a horse or something.

Elizabeth said, with that huge smile of hers, "Da Lord is a shepherd, and we is his sheep, child. You know why we is sheep? Cause they is peaceful. Da Lord want us to be peaceful. So dat's what we do. Like a sheep. We is quiet, minds our own bizness, and we is good to each other. Peaceful."

I thought that was exactly how Elizabeth conducted herself. I could tell she believed everything she was telling me. Her voice was soothing. In concert with the rain. It was like she spoke in velvet words. If ever there was a woman destined to be one of God's top angels, it was Elizabeth.

She continued, with a more declarative tone, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of da' shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art wit' me."

She stopped what she was doing and smiled at me. "Sweet boy, does you know what dat mean?" I thought I did, kinda. She said, "Dat mean, if you is walkin' through a place you don't know about dat much, you ain't got nothin' to be worry about. If da' Lord is wit' you, he all you need. How you gonna git any better dan you havin' God wit' you when you is walkin' through da devil's backyard?"

Years later, trudging through the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam, that verse, with some less-than-holy additions, was recited over and over again by me and my fellow Marines. Elizabeth's description of the devil's backyard was spot-on.

In my early stages of malaria, still out in the bush, I remember hallucinating and thinking that I saw God walking a little ways in front of me. Even though I was dragging and the fever had gotten me, I felt invincible. Between God's comforting rod and staff and my rifle, I was ready for anything.

I'm not sure what her explanation of the next verse was. The one about how God prepared a table for me in front of my enemies or the cup that was running over. Whatever Elizabeth said worked for me. More than likely, that was about the time I started thinking about her made-from-scratch blackberry pies.

She wrapped it up with, "And so, child, if you can keep all dat in yo heart and yo head, then you is gonna always have da' Lord's mercy wit' you and you go up there, to heaven and live in da house of da Lord forever. For as long as they is time. Dat's all they is to it. Does you understand dat?"

I was pretty sure I did.

So, Elizabeth, if you're up there and reading this, I miss you. You meant so much to me. Thanks for taking the time to teach me good things about life. A lot of it has stuck with me. I still remember the words to David's Song. I hope you like my stories about you. Tell everyone I said, "Hey," and that I'll see them later.

And while I'm at it, thank you for all those fantastic blackberry pies. I miss them too.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at or through Facebook.