Southern Folks: Memorable mornings with Miz Lena

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps

It was an early Tennessee autumn morning. My grandmother, Miz Lena, had been awake for a while. She got up with the chickens. She'd had two cups of coffee with sugar and cream. In her held-tight pink housecoat and matching slippers, she'd already fast-stepped it down to the mailbox and fetched the paper.

In the kitchen, sitting by the slightly ajar window at the glass-top breakfast table, she had read the front-page headlines, the obituaries, checked the weather forecast, searched through the classifieds for bargains, smoked a couple of Salems and done her best on the crossword puzzle. She used a pencil. Some of the letters would need to be erased by Grand Dad. Miz Lena made up words. She'd get a few right and leave the rest for my grandfather to figure out after he showered, got dressed and made it to the table.

Grand Dad would put on the gray suit that Miz Lena had laid out on the bed, along with a French-cuff, white dress shirt and a necktie. Grand Mom rolled up his belt and matching socks and placed them into his shoes. His watch and cuff links were on the nightstand. All he had to do was put his wallet in his back pocket, and he was good to go.

Elizabeth, Grand Mom's longtime housekeeper, was at the stove, a checkered apron around her waist and a red scarf with white polka dots wrapped around her head. She was humming. She had one hand on her hip and a fork in her other, mashing down on the fat parts of thick, country-sliced bacon strips. Nothing ever smelled better. Coffee, the "good to the last drop" kind, was percolating in a six-cup, tin pot on the back burner.

When she finished up, she poured the leftover bacon grease into a can that sat on the back of the kitchen counter right next to the stove. I loved Elizabeth's cooking as much as I loved her.

What's not to love? Bacon and fresh-out-of-the-hen brown eggs, sunny side up, with plenty of pepper. Grits, just a little runny, seasoned with a hunk of butter. Either dark toast or biscuits, topped with Elizabeth's Maury County Fair award-winning jams. She and Miz Lena canned a bunch of strawberries and blackberries every summer. The smells of a country kitchen. Heaven.

Grand Dad came walking in, whisper-whistling, kissed Grand Mom and patted my back. Elizabeth gave him a big "Good Mownin', Mr. Adrian. Da coffee fresh. Da Lord sho nuff have made a pretty day fo us today. Yo eggs be ready in jus' a minute." Grand Dad smiled and nodded to her.

Before Grand Dad could sit down, Miz Lena was on him.

She looked him up and down and said, "Good Mornin', Honey. What happened to that blue tie I laid out for yuh?" Before Grand Dad could answer, she said, "Adrian, it don't do no good fer me to spend all my time tryin' to make yuh look presentable if yuh ain't gonna wear what I put out for yuh. Here yuh are a arkitec, and you change up on me." She meant architect. She gave him some more unsolicited advice. "And if yuh don't stop all that slouchin', they's gonna think that suit's too big fer yuh. It don't look like it fits unless yuh stand up straight."

Grand Dad, still not having said a word, gave me a wink and sat down. Grand Mom reached across the table and handed him the paper. She mumbled something about how the person in charge of the crossword puzzle section must be a drunk. She said stuff like that about anything or anybody she didn't quite understand.

Elizabeth poured Grand Dad a cup of coffee. Black, no sugar.

Miz Lena looked at Grand Dad and said, "Mr. Shirley died in his sleep last night. Heart attack. Services are at Williams Funeral Home this Thursday. I'm gonna need to be there early. I'm shore they's gonna be a big crowd."

Miz Lena loved to go to funerals. I'm not sure why.

Grand Mom started speculating on why Mr. Shirley's heart gave out. She said, "It's a wonder he lived this long. All his kids, from all them wives, always with they hands out. None but his firstborn, Teddy, has ever kept his self a steady job, and he's still pitiful. Mr. Shirley's gonna git up there and look back down at 'em all and shake his head. They'll run through that money faster than yuh can whistle 'Dixie.'"

Grand Dad, head down, gave her an "uhm-hmm." He finished up the crossword puzzle, including correcting a few of Grand Mom's guesses at the verticals and horizontals.

Elizabeth put the plate down in front of Grand Dad. She said, "Here you go, Mr. Adrian." Then she looked over at me and said, "Sweet Child, does you want what yo Grand Daddy's havin'?" I pushed for the same thing every morning. What all 6-year-olds want: pancakes or waffles or French toast.

Grand Mom said, "Looka here. Elizabeth hadn't got time to go mixin' up batter right now. We got things to do. Yuh just had waffles yesterday. They's a whole messa' kids who'd love to be in yore shoes."

Second choice: Sugar Crisp cereal. That didn't pan out either. Bacon and eggs it was.

I'd already had a little bitty glass of orange juice that Elizabeth squeezed out on that glass dish with a ridged hump in the middle. It took several oranges to make one decent-size serving. I loved orange juice. Still do. Especially hand-squeezed.

Miz Lena turned her attention to me. She said, "Honey Baby, next time I tell yuh to warsh yore hands, try usin' a little soap. Otherwise, yore just wastin my water. Did you not see the little T-shirt I set out fer yuh?" I had, but the shirt that I'd been wearing for the past couple of days was more to my liking. I had just gotten it broken in.

Grand Mom said, "Hurry up now and go warsh yore hands and hustle back. The day's gittin' away from us. Don't run in the house!" It was only a quarter past 7. I walked real fast. Sometimes I'd make a sound like a siren. Grand Mom didn't say anything. I think she thought it was funny. But she hardly ever let me see that side of her. She didn't want to blow her cover for fear that I wouldn't take her as seriously.

On my way back to the kitchen, Grand Dad and I crossed paths in the hallway. He was on his way back to change his tie.

Prince, my dog, was out on the breezeway looking in the window at me. I was sure that he was telepathically telling me to please save him some bacon. Under the table, I stuffed a strip into my zipper pocket, the very least I could do for my best friend. He ate it whole and for the rest of the day licked at my pocket.

Elizabeth, without missing a beat, began preparing Grand Dad's lunch and packed it in a Piggly Wiggly grocery bag. Ham sandwiches with plenty of mustard and mayonnaise, Lay's potato chips and some fruit. Usually a banana or an orange. And a red-and-green, plaid-patterned Thermos of coffee. Nine times out of 10, Grand Dad ate the lunch Elizabeth had prepared for him on the way to work.

He commuted to Nashville, an hour north, every day. It took that long going up the pike. Grand Dad held the title of architect for the state of Tennessee. An honored position and well earned. I sure was proud of him.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Grand Mom and Elizabeth cleared the table and were at the sink. That's where they held court. Miz Lena did most of the talking. Every once in a while, Elizabeth would say, "Da' Lord have mercy, Miz Lena."

Grand Mom was telling Elizabeth all about a new neighbor lady.

She said, "Elizabeth, I believe that woman has the biggest feet I ever seen. I reckon God must've figgered she'd need them feet to keep her from fallin' over with all that weight she's carryin'. She come up here a week ago with her little daughter sellin' Girl Scout cookies. I couldn't help it, Elizabeth. I kept lookin' down at them feet. I bought a box of mint cookies and forgot to count my change. I hid 'em behind the cereal. If Adrian gits his hands on 'em, he'll eat 'em every one. Pretty soon, he'll be needin' a wheel barrel to git his self up outta' the chair."

It went on like this all the time. I sure do miss those mornings with Miz Lena.

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