Southern Folks: Karma - country style

Southern Folks

I grew up moving around. Little towns. My dad was a radio announcer, a drive-time morning man. Anytime a better offer came his way, we were gone. Up until my sixth-grade year, I never lived anywhere more than 18 months. Then there were the problems at home. Mom and Dad were that couple who loved one another but just got on each other's nerves. They pushed all the right buttons.

Every so often, in between my mother's teaching jobs and my parents' separations, I ended up living with my grandmother, Miz Lena, in Middle Tennessee. Her ways were pure country. She was starchy strict. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that my grandmother was in charge. Her way or hell to pay. No possibility of getting around her.

Miz Lena had me convinced that she and the Almighty spoke often. Apparently, and according to Grand Mom, God peeked in on what I was doing and reported his findings back to her.

Wagging her finger in my face, she'd say, "If you lie to yore elders, them Carmen Gods'll come gitcha! They's green and yellow and can come right through doors and walls. They can smell a liar from a mile away. They don't come from heaven, but they work fer God. They know the devil too."

She was referring to Karma. Grand Mom usually stuck to her made-up, self-serving quotes from the Bible. Karma was a new one on me. Folks raised in a farming family, as was she, seemed to have firsthand knowledge about things of that sort.

It was yet another method she used to get the truth out of me. She had all the angles covered. Sometimes, I was afraid to tell her the truth, knowing full well of the consequences. She surely kept me on my toes. She'd say, "Son, the Lord always knows the truth. He's the one who invented the truth! You kain't hide nothin from the Lord. I oughta know. I've been talkin' with him all my life. He tells me all kindsa things in my dreams. So I already know the truth, Son. Now, I want you to tell me, again, about where you think my 'maters went."

My grandmother had a good-size tomato patch right off the kitchen window on the sunny side of the house. Her tomatoes could have won blue ribbons at any county fair. Big, plump, juicy ones. The kind you'd see in television commercials.

All Southerners love tomatoes. I used to pick them right off the vine, add a little salt and eat them just like an apple. When they were in season, we had tomatoes with every meal. Even breakfast.

Miz Lena said, "When I was pullin' weeds outta my garden yesterday, I counted more than a dozen ripe 'uns ready to pick. I went out there just a little bit ago, and they's not but five of 'em left. And I don't want to hear, again, about you thinkin' some retarded man from "poor town" come up here last night and took em! Now, before you answer me, I want you to think about them Carmen Gods."

She should have been an attorney.

She continued, "Truth don't come out a little at a time, Son. If yuh tell just some of the truth, it's the same as a lie! Elizabeth told me that she seen you out there with my good silver salt shaker yesterday." I thought Elizabeth, my grandmother's maid, hadn't told her anything of the kind. That's what I thought - but I couldn't be certain.

Now came her finishing touches: a story. This is when she got serious.

Miz Lena leaned in on me, put her hands on my shoulders and looked me right in the eyes. With a long sigh, she looked to the ceiling and in a prayer voice, said, "Oh Lord, please help me git through to this boy." I looked up, too.

Then came her story, designed to shake me to the bone.

She said, "You know what Elizabeth told me about a little boy that used to live down the road from her? She said this little boy lied to his gran' mama about somethin', and then somethin' else, and he just up and disappeared one night. Said he went to bed, and the next mornin' he was gone. Nobody's heard from him since. Everybody figures the Carmen Gods come and got him! That can happen to children who lie to their parents."

She patted my head and said, "Now, you wanna try again? Think real hard now."

No matter how calmly she spoke or what method she'd use, I knew as soon as I fessed up, it wasn't going to be like the George Washington story she often told me. The one about how, when Mr. Washington was a kid and he chopped down a cherry tree, when his mother questioned him about it, he admitted that he did it.

Grand Mom would wrap up that story the same way, every time, with, "And little George Washington, our country's first president, said, "Mama. I kain't tell yuh a lie. Yuh do so much fer me. Yuh cook my meals, and yuh look out after me. I'll tell yuh the truth. I chopped down that cherry tree." And then, her wrap-up was always, "Now, Son, yore never gonna be president if yuh go around tellin lies."

At 5 years of age, I hadn't given any thought toward running for office, but she had a point. After all, nothing happened to "Little George," since he told his mother the truth.

Then she'd say, "Yuh might as well give up the ghost, Son." Another one of those things she used to say that I didn't quite understand, but I knew what it meant.

She was right. Besides, I assumed my grandmother already knew the truth. The Lord had more than likely told her while she was sleeping. Plus, her story about that kid disappearing overnight sounded pretty scary to me. Once again, she had me.

I sobbingly confessed to the tomato caper, and she lit up my britches with a branch that Lash LaRue would have been proud of.

Another time, when she had me cornered on something else, and me knowing full well that I was going to get it, I decided I'd try some reverse psychology of my own. I thought I was being rather clever.

I asked Grand Mom about the summer she had bought her first Cadillac and forgot to order air conditioning as part of the package. Until the air conditioning was installed, she kept the windows to the car rolled up and insisted that I sit in the front seat and smile, with sweat dripping off my forehead, so that she wouldn't look silly.

I asked her, "Don't you think that qualifies as kind of a lie, Grand Mom?" Right back, she said, "No, that qualifies as being disrespectful and sassing your grandmother," and she lit me up again!

And so it went back then.

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