Southern Folks: Thunder, lightning, bad words and politics

Bill Stamps

When I was a child, I went to school to learn, as my grandmother, Miz Lena, used to say, "'Rithmatic and writin' and all that other stuff."

But I learned about real life, at a somewhat accelerated pace, from Grand Mom.

Some of her teachings were textbook correct. Others of her lessons of life were from her self-serving interpretations of the Bible. And a few came from her country upbringing and rural superstitions.

Southern Folks

Miz Lena, unlike most women of her era, was into politics. She didn't mind making anonymous donations to judges, senators and local candidates. You'd never find her at a rally or hear her voice an opinion about a politician. She told me, "I make my picks accordin' to they's business background. How they treat people and what church they go to. That's all you need to know about 'em."

Even though she was a Democrat, President Kennedy just made it over the hump with her - him being a Catholic and all. I'm still not sure why she felt that way. I remember her saying something like, "They don't even speak American in they's church." I'm pretty sure the Latin threw her.

She told me, "Keep how much money yuh got and who yuh vote fore to yoreself. That's private. You'll save yoreself a mess a problems. 'Sides that, it ain't nobody's bizness. That's why I pay 'em in cash and on the sly. I don't need nobody walkin' off my job sites just cuz they heard I supported "Mr. So-and-So."

Once, a little rotund man, at least 50 pounds overweight, came by to pick up Miz Lena's political contribution. He knocked on the front door, standing there dressed in a blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit, sweat pouring off his brow and his white, wide-brimmed Stetson in his hands.

Miz Lena pushed open the screen door, clutched her housecoat by the lapels and glanced left and right to see if anybody was looking. She told him, "Run on around to the back breezeway. Let me go get my purse, and I'll meet yuh at the kitchen door."

As she counted out the money to the little sweating man, she issued him specific guidelines as to how her hard-earned money should be spent on his campaign. When she closed the door, she said, "Well, he should win if he don't fall over with a heart attack first."

Miz Lena built homes for a living. Some of the Democratic politicians she supported were "Deep South." A couple of them were farmers and extremely prejudiced toward African-Americans. There were stories about how some of those "good ole boys" mistreated their black workers.

At least half of Miz Lena's house-building crew were black men. In that small Middle Tennessee town, black families were acutely aware of those particular candidates' sentiments toward them. Had it been known that Grand Mom supported those politicians, there was a good chance her black workers would have picked up their last pay and never come back. The "Movement" was just starting up.

Grand Mom wrapped up her politics lesson to me by saying, "If yore in bizness, yuh need to know yuh some politicians. Ever body needs they's back scratched once in a while." I thought I understood what she meant. I definitely do now.

Miz Lena never used profanity. She explained to me, "It ain't just usin' the Lord's name in vain. They's other words that you kain't say neither." When I asked her what the other words were, she told me, "Don't you be worryin' about all that right now. They's listed in the Bible somewheres."

I told my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Houston, what Grand Mom had said about the list. Mrs. Houston seemed flustered. She, very politely, said she wasn't quite sure what Miz Lena was referring to. I remember thinking that my Sunday School teacher didn't know her Bible very well.

One of the glorious things about living in the South are the heavy, black-cloud storms that come through, the ones that make a summer day turn dark at 3 in the afternoon. Thunder and lightning - my wife, Jana, and I love it. Our dogs, Cowboy and Scout, not so much. The same with Grand Mom. Big storms made her uneasy. She took precautionary measures any time a big one poured down.

One of her no-nos was talking on the phone during a big storm. Miz Lena had a big pillared home, with three kitchens and seven or eight bedrooms, but we all pretty much lived in the den. That's where the only TV in the house was. And where, over by the TV, next to the plastic-covered chair on a little spindled arm table, was one of the only two phones. The other one was in her bedroom.

During a storm, the TV was tuned to the weather reports out of Nashville. The den's door to the outside was left ajar. The screen door was closed tight.

We would sit all the way across the room on Miz Lena's overstuffed circular couch and stare out the window. No one was to talk on the phone. If the phone rang, she'd run across the room, pick up the phone receiver and hang it right back up. Then she'd hustle back to the couch.

Miz Lena told me more than one time, "The lightnin' will come right on through them phone lines out there and explode in yore ear. That's why yore grand daddy kain't hear so good. I told him, but he just wouldn't listen. Now, yuh haf' to holler at him to come eat. Don't let me catch you talkin' on the phone when it's stormin'." I kinda thought that she was overreacting.

Come to find out, all these years later, she was right about that. I just saw something on The Weather Channel that corroborates her story. I guess, up until recently, I thought it to be another wives' tale.

A few times, I searched the Bible for Miz Lena's list of the other bad words and foul language that God forbade me to say. I never found them. Of course, the list doesn't exist.

Still, Grand Mom was right. There are words that we shouldn't and most of us don't use on a daily basis. They just sound so coarse and vulgar. It's a shame that some of our politicians never got told about "the list."

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