Southern Folks: I was raised to appreciate 'country simple'

Bill Stamps
photo Bill Stamps

My family was poor when I was growing up. As poor as we were, living with my mother all those years back, we didn't have it as bad as some of the Tennessee families I grew up around. My grandmother, Miz Lena, used to tell me, "Honey baby, count yore blessin's. They's a whole mess a people out there who don't have nothin' but prayers and theys love fer one another."

I've spent the night with country kids who had no running water in their homes. They lived in houses set back from dirt roads with split-rail and barbed-wire fences stretched across their pastures. Mostly old wooden houses with tin roofs, beat-up mailboxes and front-porch swings. Inside, high ceilings, creaking wooden floors, big kitchens and blackened fireplaces.

The kind of homes that, during winter, you run from room to room closing the doors right behind you to keep the cold from following you. In the summer, the coolest you got was to stand in front of a floor fan that blew slightly less than warm air back at you. Either that or go skinny-dipping.

Families got their drinking water from a spring or pumped it up from a well. You had to give those well handles three or four primer cranks before the water poured out. There was plenty of it, but none to waste. Country people respect water. Without it, there's no farm. Country simple.

There would be an oak bucket sitting on the table back in the kitchen with a dipper next to it. The dipper looked like a tin cup with a long handle, light blue-and-white speckled. Everybody used it. Dip down into that cool spring water and gulp the freshest and tastiest that God ever made.

When it rained, some of the girls set out wide pails on the back-porch steps and collected some of the downpour. The Almighty always gave them enough heaven-sent, rumbling, dark-cloud water from which to wash their hair - long waves of chestnut, blonde and auburn hair cleansed and softened to perfection. A real and natural beauty enhancer endorsed by God.

Those country kids took baths in large aluminum tub buckets. Often, two kids at a time. The tub sat out on the back screened porch in the summer and in the kitchen, next to the potbelly stove, in the colder months. They filled the buckets with water heated up by stoking the stove with quarter-cut firewood that one of the older boys or Daddy split up.

In the hot months, it wasn't too hard for Mam-Maw, their mother's mother, to convince the kids to take a bar of Ivory down to the deep end of the creek and "warsh off." Not that Mam-Maw had to take any time to reason things out or negotiate anything with the kids. Her word was final with no options. She was strong as concrete. Country simple.

Most of the time, Mam-Maw let her daughter deal with the kids. She'd listen to their conversations and make little mutters. Ask her what she said, and she'd tell you. Mam-Maw sometimes wore the same cotton dress for a week straight, hair pulled up and those square-toed shoes that grandmothers wear.

Every once in a while, you might be able to talk Mama into or out of something, but don't try that with the Queen. Get on her wrong side, and you could kiss it goodbye. Talk back to her, and she'd whip you like the "Good Book" told her to.

Pray she didn't start talking to you while the whoopin' was in progress. It lasted longer. When it was all over, it might take a while before you could sit down without wincing. A couple of "learning sessions" with Mam-Maw, and you saw the light. From there on in, you asked "how high" when she said "jump!"

Respect your elders. That's all. Country simple.

Another thing, don't take off running from Mam-Maw. Even if you lay out till dark, old as she was, from all the way up in her bedroom, somehow, she'd hear that click on the back-door knob. She'd deal with you in the morning. You'd pray a little extra that night.

Back at the creek, it was just one bar of soap and just one towel for all the kids. If all the terrycloth got used up, just laid it out to dry and went back swimming. The country way of thinking was soap and water made for a clean kid. Even if you did show up at the dinner table smelling like white soap, bluegill and perch.

You could take a little longer down at the creek. But not too long. There were assigned chores for each of the kids. From the time they entered first grade, they all chipped in. The little ones helped their older sisters hang the wash or pulled brown eggs from up under the laying hens.

When a boy's back got a little stronger, he joined his father in the fields. He got taught farming, the how-tos of getting the most out of your land and the day. A good day's work by the boy garnered a "job well done" pat on the back by Daddy. To a young man growing grit, a proud and approving father was 10 times better than any kind of a trophy or diploma. Still true. Country simple.

Usually, a scrub board was close by. Some people call them washboards. They're wooden with metal horizontal grooves, sort of shaped like the signs that politicians stick in your yard. You submerge the washboard in the tub, dunk a pair of jeans or drawers in the water, soap them up good and scrub the dirt out. Turn them inside out and hang them on the line in the backyard. Ole Sol and what wind there was took care of the rest.

A little wooden building, just past the clothesline and before the fence, welcomed the entire family, one by one, to have a seat and contemplate life. When the toilet paper ran out, there was always the Sears and Roebuck catalog over in the corner. The earmarked and carefully saved lingerie section was a bonus for the boys. Country simple.

It didn't matter what you did last night or how late you stayed out, the whole family was up with the sun and getting ready for church. The early sermon. Everyone in their Sunday best.

Kids all dressed and hair done. Daddy and a couple of the boys wiped down the car. Breakfast dishes were left in the sink. They'd clean them in time for early supper. Load up and you'd be on your way to weekly salvation. Mama, in the front with her husband and a few of their younger children. Mam-Maw, her zip-up Testament in her lap, sitting in the middle of the backseat with the older kids on her either side.

After church, they'd pile in and head back to the farm. Light chores till Mama hollered from the back door. A big afternoon meal, potatoes and beans mixed with all the week's leftovers. A few more chores, and it was bedtime.

Daddy was first in to say goodnight. Boys got a pat or a nod. He'd kiss the little girls' foreheads. Mama was next. Kisses for all. Mam-Maw came in last.

Anybody who had done anything wrong that week was forgiven. Mam-Maw would sit on their bed and tell them how much she loved them and how she thanked Jesus, every night, for each of her grandchildren. Mam-Maws have a strong relationship with the Almighty because they're older. They've known God longer.

As soft as Mam-Maw was to them, the kids knew that if they messed up, they'd have the devil to pay all over again. But, most importantly, those kids knew they were truly loved .

Consistency. Courtesy. Respect. Water. Country simple.

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