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: Celebrating the Fourth of July in the country
- Southern Folks: Rain brings back memories of rainy days
- Southern Folks: Looking for a feeling right as rain
- Southern Folks: My father, the SOB (sweet ole Bill)
- Southern Folks: Doing hard time with Miss Swann
- Southern Folks: Life, God and the world according to Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Remembering all our heroes on Memorial Day
- Southern Folks: Miss Juanita was a legend in her own mind
- Southern Folks: Gene Autry, the singing cowboy
- Southern Folks: OK, God, this is your last chance
- Southern Folks: Mr. Elvin was a quiet man
- Southern Folks: Saturdays made better with Green Stamps
- Southern Folks: Old Battle Axe, her dog and the Golden Rule
- Southern Folks: Praying and flying and Mrs. Silva's birds
- Southern Folks: Beans, Ole Tom and well-dressed scarecrows
- Southern Folks: Telephone party lines always rang up a good time
- Southern Folks: Good manners make good neighbors, even the scary ones
- Southern Folks: The orphans in my life taught me plenty
- Southern Folks: Family tragedy from 1968 still haunts
- Southern Folks: Everyone called him Doc Dean
- Southern Folks: Blue ribbons from the county fair for me and Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Miz Lena's younger brother, Watt
- Southern Folks: Scrapbooks, pictures and memories
- Southern Folks: Old-timers and the twins
- Southern Folks: I knew an old woman who lived in her shoes
- Southern Folks: Mama Sue ruled the roost, without ever raising her voice
- Southern Folks: The formula for a full life
- Southern Folks: Facts, fiction and fibs about the holidays
- Southern Folks: Two days before Christmas
- Southern Folks: Mrs. Freeland, my favorite customer
- Southern Folks: In loving memory of Magic Man
- Southern Folks: Memorable mornings with Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Be happy for what you have
- Southern Folks: Thanksgiving with Stumpy and the boys
- Southern Folks: Thank you, Jesus, for cold water
- Southern Folks: Autumn, miracles, magic and crawdads
- Southern Folks: Remembering Sundays with Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Mr. Glassman was a grump
- Southern Folks: I'm a Mormon, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic
- Southern Folks: Lessons at the table with Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Sleeping in Elizabeth's bed
- Southern Folks: Chewing the rag with Mr. Remus
- Southern Folks: Remembering sweet, soft Southern summer nights
- Southern Folks: Sometimes the Lord understands why you lie
- Southern Folks: Thunder, lightning, bad words and politics
- Southern Folks: Growing faith through God's hidden treasures
- Southern Folks: Military academy and the power of prayer
- Southern Folks: I was raised to appreciate 'country simple'
- Southern Folks: Learning patience with a blackberry pie
- Southern Folks: Good people live in small Southern towns
- Southern Folks: Time to start carrying a big stick
- Southern Folks: 'You gotta do what the Bible says'
- Southern Folks: Celebrating the Fourth of July in the country
- Southern Folks: Never try to pull one over on a Southern woman
- Southern Folks: Blind Remus
- Southern Folks: Up on the hill under a tree
- Southern Folks: My friend Calvin was a precious child and a nice young man
- Southern Folks: Thinking about Duffy on Memorial Day
- Southern Folks: Watching TV with my grandparents
- Southern Folks: The Lord works in mysterious ways
- Southern Folks: Hard country love good prep for Marine Corps
- Southern Folks: Thank you, Lord, for roadkill
- Southern Folks: God is colorblind
- Southern Folks: The Lord doesn't look the other way
- Southern Folks: Grandparents' farm sits just below heaven
- Southern Folks: Lessons in life from Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Memories of spring on Miz Lena's farm
- Southern Folks: A salute to Mr. Jenkins, the first war hero I ever knew
- Southern Folks: Baptism, Miss Mama and thunderstorms
- Southern Folks: Wedding receptions, pigeons and chuckles
- Southern Folks: Always a chance of rain
- Southern Folks: Skeeter the coon hound's great escape
- Southern Folks: Ghost at the grocery store
- Southern Folks: Willie and his wife vs. a mess of crazy people
- Southern Folks: Karma - country style
- Southern Folks: No time for crybabies
- Southern Folks: In search of the silver lining
- Southern Folks: Into the weeds with Ole Tom
- Southern Folks: Miss Bobbie and David and Goliath
- Southern Folks: My favorite Christmas memory reminds me to be grateful
- Southern Folks: Christmas fruitcakes and TV dinners
- Southern Folks: Dining out with Miz Lena over the holidays
- Southern Folks: Dressing up for the Lord and lessons in love
- Southern Folks: Memories of a southern Thanksgiving
- Southern Folks: God's secret
- Southern Folks: A belated happy birthday to the Marines and happy Veterans Day to us all
- Southern Folks: They called him Angel
- Southern Folks: Sunday lunch and Monday leftovers...perfection
- Southern Folks: 'Genies don't work as good as God'
- Southern Folks: Miz Lena had a remedy and an answer for everything
- Southern Folks: Tap dancing straight to a refund
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.