I've been writing this column for over nine months now. I wasn't sure how many "way-back-then" stories I had in me. They just keep coming.
I often write about my grandmother, Miz Lena, a proud and confident little Tennessee woman. She was really more like a mother to me. In her lifetime, she made a mark.
Her rise to the top was a rough road. It was the 1950s. In those times, women working in a man's world seldom got past first base. She took the bull by the horns and became an award-winning home builder in Middle Tennessee. Miz Lena got in the game and hit home runs.
I'm pretty sure that my grandmother felt it her duty to make certain that I knew everything there was to know about life before I turned 10. In between her not quite accurate quotes from the Bible and her stories of little boys who disappeared after not minding their parents, she'd throw in a "Miz Lena Special" from time to time.
If she wanted me to clean my plate and all her other forms of persuasion failed, she'd go straight to the Ten Commandments. Her versions. There must have been a hundred of them.
At the kitchen table, Miz Lena would stand over me, and with her pointing finger directed at me, say, "Thou shalt not waste thy food! It's in the Bible, son! You gotta do what the Bible says if you wanna get into heaven. These ain't my rules. They's the Lord's! Now, sit up there straight in your chair and stop all that poutin'. If yuh finish off that broccoli, yuh got a purty good chance to live with the Lord someday."
To my way of thinking, heaven wouldn't serve broccoli. I was pretty sure that the "mean old devil" of which Miz Lena often spoke came up with that yucky vegetable.
I was one of those little kids who was always on the move and hard to keep up with. I had things to do. People to meet. People to sell something to. Like my "smooshed" pennies. My contribution to the arts. There was big profit in "smooshing."
Miz Lena told me time and time again to stay away from the railroad tracks. A little train ran right by Grand Mom's subdivision three times a day and a couple of times at night.
The conductor would start blowing his horn a half-mile out. As soon as the train got a little closer, it would begin to slow down for a curve and a partially covered bridge up ahead. The bridge's roof was overgrown with spreading Boston ivy with big green leaves and gray curvy vines about a foot thick.
When I heard the conductor's first blast, I'd lay several pennies directly on the steel railroad tracks and run for cover behind a half-burned-down cedar tree that had been hit by lightning. There, with my faithful pal, Prince, my dog, we would lie in wait for the train to pass.
Once the coast was clear, I'd go fetch my pennies. Smooshed. You had to give them a couple of minutes to cool down. The heat that was generated from the train rolling over the tracks caused the copper pennies to melt enough to elongate them into all kinds of fantastic shapes. Picasso had nothing on me.
With the right sales pitch, I could get anywhere from a quarter to a half-dollar for them from the kids in the neighborhood or at school. On a good week, I could clear as much as $2. In those years, you could buy a lot of stuff for two bucks.
Do you remember half-dollar coins? We used to call them Liberty half dollars. On the heads side was Miss Liberty in a flowing dress, carrying something and walking toward the sun. That's when they put some thought and art into our coins. A few half-dollars in your pocket felt substantial.
As you can imagine, the thought of me being down by the tracks scared my grandmother to death! It got to where, if she even suspected it, she'd take a weeping willow switch to me. After a bona fide country whoopin', Miz Lena would tell me the story of the little boy who didn't listen to his grandmother about staying away from the railroad tracks.
She said, "Well, his grandmama kep' tellin' that little boy about foolin' around down there. But no! He didn't listen. He just as well told her to kiss his foot. Well, he played for a while, an' then he got tired and laid down to take a nap. He wasn't payin' no attention and laid his feet out over the tracks, an' the train come by and cut off his feet. He liked to bled to death!"
Grand Mom continued, "You can see him ever once in awhile down there at the courthouse sellin' pencils. He's the one that rolls his self around on a little piece of wood with wheels under it. How'd you like to live like that boy? Sellin' pencils an' rollin' around town all day on a chunk a' wood."
Anytime I went downtown with my grandfather, I'd look for the boy. I never did see him. Miz Lena would say, "He's low to the ground and hard to see."
She finally convinced me to stay clear of the railroad tracks. Not so much with her interpretations of the Bible but rather with that weeping willow branch. She was like Lash LaRue with that thing!
My cash flow took a hit. About the only commodities that I had left to sell were a few pieces of leftover Halloween candy, some recently won cat-eye marbles and whatever else I could come up with.
Throughout my childhood, the "Miz Lena Specials" came at me hard and heavy. If I tried to lay off something, do it later, she would say, "Ask a man who sez he'll do it tomorrow what he done yesterday." That one sunk in. I'm not a procrastinator. I enjoy getting things done.
When I was just a little boy, if I did something to embarrass her, she'd go into a lengthy story about how I had been found "out in the woods under a rock." Apparently, it was "raining cats and dogs" that day, and they took pity on me and brought me back to the house to be raised as one of her own.
There was something that Miz Lena preached to me often, even when I was a grown man. She'd say, "Honey baby, before yuh die, you need to git right with God and git right with yore money." That has always resonated with me. Open my heart to God, and get my financial affairs in order. I'm working on it.
If you're fortunate enough to have grandparents still living, pick up the phone and give them a call today. Tell them how much you love them. Let them know how much they're appreciated. You'll make their day. They're not going to be around forever.
If it helps, remember what Miz Lena used to quote from her Scriptures to me, "Thou shalt love and honor thy grandmother and do what she sez do, cause she knows what she's talkin' about. And that's all they is to it."
It's in the Bible!
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.