Southern Folks: Baptism, Miss Mama and thunderstorms

Southern Folks

Every other Sunday, Rev. Phillips of the Church of the Holy Spirit, aside from teaching from from the Good Book, performed weddings and baptisms. The little church was just over the back fence of my grandmother's farm in Middle Tennessee. Elizabeth, my grandmother Miz Lena's maid, was a proud and prominent member of Rev. Phillips' Baptist congregation.

In my early childhood, I often attended church with Elizabeth. Every member of her church was black. It wasn't uncommon for the good reverend to preach all morning long, marry off a loving couple into holy matrimony and then head down to the nearby creek to baptize a half-dozen parishioners who felt the need to get closer to God.

The oldest member of the church was Miss Mama. Everyone gave her plenty of room. She was way senior to the rest of the church members. Miss Mama lived in her own world. She was a little bitty lady with white hair and a few small moles around her eyes. Every Sunday, she wore her same fresh-pressed purple dress, accessorized with white gloves and a little veiled black hat with a ladybug hairpin stuck through it.

Through the years, Miss Mama had been saved no telling how many times. On baptizing days, she'd bring a white sheet in a paper bag to church with her. She'd go into the cloakroom, take off her church clothes, wrap the sheet around her body and walk out to the middle of the creek into the very understanding Rev. Phillips' loving and waiting arms.

Miss Mama sat right next to Elizabeth and me in a pew a few rows back from the reverend's podium. Most times, I sat next to Miss Mama. She talked to herself, usually about her two younger sisters, who were living in sin. Every so often, she talked to her dearly departed pet rooster. Sometimes, she'd start clucking like a chicken.

Rev. Phillips would stop his sermon and ask Miss Mama if she could please talk with her chicken after the service was over.

When the singing started, Miss Mama would stand up, smiling from ear to ear, and wave her hands above her head and joyously belt out celebratory gospel hymns, praising her Lord. Most of the time, she was singing a different song than the rest of us. Her own words, but in the same rhythm.

Miss Mama had a lot of the Holy Spirit in her. I figured it was because she'd been baptized so many times.

After Rev. Phillips performed the baptisms, we'd all walk back up to the church.

The older women sat at picnic tables, while the younger folks served up potluck fresh vegetables and fried chicken on heavy paper plates. The men all stood up by the church steps and talked. None of the children were allowed to go up there and bother them.

I knew most of the kids. They were the children of the sharecroppers who worked on my grandmother's farm and a few other older kids from nearby farms. I was the only white child in the bunch.

While the grown-ups socialized, we kids stripped down to our underwear and went swimming in the same spot of the creek where Miss Mama and the other believers had been spiritually sanitized.

The only time I can ever remember thinking that I was something special and entitled because of the color of my skin was when one of the women of the congregation came down to the bank of the creek and yelled for us kids to get out of the water "right now!" It was beginning to thunder.

All the other kids got right out. Not me. I stayed in the water. I thought that her demands just didn't apply to me. After all, I was white. This lady kept telling me I had better listen to her. I just looked at her. To my amazement, she took off her shoes, tucked the bottom of her dress into her belt, stepped into the creek and made a beeline for me. For a big woman, she sure could move. I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.

She grabbed me by my arm, shook me a little and said,"Boy, who do you think you is? You better git yo liddle white self up out dis' water. You think I'm playin?" Her aggressiveness shocked me. Neither Elizabeth nor Dimple, another black lady who worked for Miz Lena, had ever laid a hand on me.

When we got back up to the big house, Elizabeth told Grand Mom what had happened. I could hear Miz Lena's fast-walking footsteps marching across the hallway hardwood floor and coming my way.

I was relieved to see Grand Mom wasn't carrying a switch.

She told me to sit down. I did. Then with her finger in my face said, Looka' here, Little Mr. Bill Stamps Jr." Uh oh. When she called me that, it wasn't going to be good. She didn't care for my dad. Miz Lena made it sound like his blood, pumping through my veins was the sole reason for any of my misdeeds.

Miz Lena continued, "Don't yuh ever let me hear about yuh bein' disrespectful to any adult. I don't care if they's black, white, red, yella' or blue! When a grown-up tells yuh to do somethin', little boy, you better come a' runnin'. Don't you ever embarrass Elizabeth at her church in front of her friends ever again. Do you understand me?" I told her I did. She said, "Now, you git yoreself up from here and go out there to the kitchen and you apologize to Elizabeth. Did yuh forgit that yuh was her guest?"

I was still a little surprised that Grand Mom wasn't upset that a black woman had grabbed me. Miz Lena said, "Yore lucky I wadn't down there. I wudda showed you what it feels like to have yore butt on fire."

Then, as always, came her story.

Grand Mom said, "That woman was tryin' to git you outta that creek before lightnin' hit yuh. They was a little boy, looked just like you, who wouldn't git up outta the water when it started thunderin', and he got struck by lightnin'. Well, the little boy was so weak that he couldn't swim back in. Ever' body was callin' for him, but he couldn't answer 'em. He was too weak. Then he started frizzin up, from the lightnin' hittin' him, and he started floatin' downstream. Nobody could save him. And then, all the snakes swum up to him and started bitin' him and eatin' on him. That was the last they ever seen of that boy. You better be glad that woman snatched yuh up outta there before it was too late. Now, git tuh gittin'."

I apologized to Elizabeth. I started to cry. I felt so badly that I had embarrassed her. The more I apologized, the more I cried. Pretty soon, Elizabeth's eyes watered up, and she started sniffling. I asked Elizabeth if she forgave me. She wiped her eyes and told me she did. Elizabeth hugged me tight, smiled down at me, and said, "There, there. It gonna be OK, Sweet Boy. Now, does you feel better? Cause, when you stop all dat cryin', I'll cut you off a slice of yo' grandmama's banana cake."

Elizabeth was such an understanding soul. Thank God for her and Miz Lena. They showed me love and taught me so much. Each in her own way.

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