Southern Folks: Always a chance of rain

I had the greatest little grandmother. My mother's mother. When she became a woman, they started calling her Miz Lena. She was born, raised, lived and passed away in her beloved Tennessee. Her family lived way out in the country. The same women who delivered Miz Lena into the world were her neighbors and longtime friends of Grand Mom's parents, Papa and Mama Sue Harvey. Miz Lena was the first of 10 or 11 kids. More boys than girls.

Families living outside of town were in the farming business. There were a few big spreads, like Papa and Mama Sue's, but mostly little farms with some cows and pigs and chickens and a mule or two. Always a big barn and sometimes a silo. Pastures and crop fields. Usually a clear-water, tree-lined creek sliding down one side of their properties.

They built small block buildings up on the gravel-and-dirt roads that passed by their homes and ran across the flat land. A fellow in a Sealtest truck would come by in the mornings and pick up metal canisters of fresh milk the farmers had set out that same morning, just after the sun popped up.

Mailboxes, nailed to a white-washed fence post, out front. Another beat-down, dirt road that led up to their homes, built back behind small groves of cedar, maple, elm and oak trees. Just enough cover for privacy, some shade in the summer and a pinch of protection from the winds that blew down off the bluffs. Looking at them head-on, most of the houses, deceivingly, appeared to be much smaller than they were.

When the stork arrived with a brand new little one, they'd build another room onto the back of their houses. Different roof lines. If you stood back a ways from the side of the house, you got a chronological picture of their growing families. Each back-of-the-house addition, just like the rings inside a tree, marked a time and a place and told a story.

There's not much noise in the country. About the loudest you're gonna get comes from humming tractors turning earth's insides over. Moos and distant cow bells. Crickets and frogs. Birds. A mess of crows. A dog's bark every once in a while. Sometimes, an occasional city slicker's car going by, trying to get unlost.

Miz Lena told me a long time ago, "Son, if yuh git lost out in the country, stay on the road, Sooner-or-later, it'll bring yuh back to where yuh started."

Running a farm, small or large, there's always plenty to do. There's page after page of stuff that needs to be done yesterday. You'll be lucky if you can get to half of it before the sun sets. Whatever you missed gets added to tomorrow's list. It's a 365-days-a-year job. You just keep going. It's your life.

Farmers try not to pay much attention to things they can't do anything about. They leave politicking and shouting matches to those who don't seem to be as busy as are they. Talk's cheap. Men and women living by the "good book" and raising their families out in the country have always subscribed to that old saying Miz Lena often recited to me, "Actions speak louder than words."

A storm brewing, the sun blazing or freezing cold might slow him down but doesn't stop a farmer. After a quick prayer to the Lord, he licks his finger and sticks it up in the wind, looks at the sky and takes a big whiff of the morning. The local weatherman and a page in the Farmer's Almanac help, but it's what a farmer feels in his experienced gut and the message he gets back from the Almighty that determine how he's gonna tackle the day.

Aside from farming families having muscle and grit, they raise livestock, grow crops and breed common sense. It always seemed to me that you couldn't get any closer to God than being a farmer. As Miz Lena used to say, "Farmers do the Lord's work."

Their true rewards are the material results from the fruits of their labor. They planted something, and it grew. A sense of accomplishment and pride in one's self goes a long way. Further than a fat wallet. Even if they made good money, you'd never hear it from them. Miz Lena used to tell me, "Start talkin' too much about yore money, and somebody else is gonna end up countin' it."

Out in the country, nobody likes a braggart. Miz Lena used to tell me, "Little men talk big." That one has stuck with me. Most of the men, black and white, who worked on Papa Harvey's farm, had come back from the war. Quiet, strong-backed men with combat stories they could tell but chose to keep to themselves. There's something coarsely dignified about rural men of few words. They don't need praise. Just pay them for their work, so that they can feed their families, and give them their due respect.

A clear sky. Not a cloud up there. Grand Mom's got me up early. I'm going into town with her. She's got bills to pay. She didn't pay by mail. Miz Lena walked her payments into the office and right up to the counter. She'd have them write, "Paid in Full" on her bill, take it home and file it.

Nine times out of 10, she would have a question about a charge on her bill. I can still hear her, "Honey, do you think one a' yore bookkeepers here might be drinkin' on the job. I just kain't see how come my electricity could cost so much."

Grand Mom and I were already on paved road when she discovered that she had forgotten to bring her umbrella with her. She always kept one in the back seat. It wasn't there. She turned around, and we went back to get it. I was just a kid, but I thought, with such a nice day, there was very little chance it was gonna rain anytime soon. I told her so. All she said back to me was, "They's always a chance of rain." And that was that.

It didn't rain that day, but had it, Miz Lena was ready for it. That's the way of a farmer. Like that other thing Grand Mom used to say, "And to coat Benjamin Franklin, "An ounce a' prevention is worth a pound a' cure." She meant quote. It didn't matter. I knew what she meant.

All these years later, I've sat down and thought back about things that Miz Lena said to me. I've realized that my wise little grandmother taught me about life using metaphors that speak truth, make common sense and apply to most everything.

That is, all except for one.

Miz Lena, when frustrated, used to say, "Yuh kain't paint nothin' with a dead chicken." Maybe, I'll live long enough to figure that one out. It's a head scratcher. But like the rest of her metaphors, it's true.

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

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