Southern Folks: Memories of spring on Miz Lena's farm

Bill Stamps

Man, time flies. I must be having fun. The clock seems to tick faster nowadays. Once in a while, someone will mention something that happened in the '80s or '90s. First blush, in my mind, it sounds like not long ago.

Do the math, and three decades have come and gone. I guess what my grandmother, Miz Lena, used to tell me was right. She'd say, "Honey Baby, life goes by." It's taken me all these years to fully understand exactly what she meant. Now, I know.

Southern Folks

The first day of spring showed up this past Tuesday with very little fanfare. I always get it mixed up with Easter and daylight-saving time. Once again, it got by me.

When I was a little guy, living on my grandparents' farm, to me, spring meant it was getting closer to summer. It wasn't gonna be long before I would be wearing shorts. The days would last longer. Most importantly, the creek would warm up and I could go swimming.

My grandfather was an architect and commuted to nearby Nashville. My grandmother, Miz Lena, they called her, ran the farm. She knew exactly what she was doing. Her parents, my great-grandparents, Papa and Mama Sue Harvey, were farming people. Grand Mom grew up working hard.

Miz Lena's feeling about being a farmer was simple. You work from sunup to sundown. Get things done. No complaints. As she used to say, "How much simpler can it git?"

There were about a dozen black families living on Grand Mom's farm. They worked the fields, kept up the livestock and saw to anything else that Miz Lena needed done. They had worked for her for years. Elizabeth, Grand Mom's maid, took care of the big house. Dimple also worked in the house, under the supervision of and alongside Elizabeth.

Elizabeth looked like Aunt Jemima, right down to the scarf wrapped around her head. She was commonsensically wise. She smiled about everything. I'm sure she realized her role of importance and the level of confidence Miz Lena had in her. Elizabeth was solid as a rock.

Dimple, on the other hand, was a little firecracker! Just a little thing. She zipped through the day. She wore a wig with little flips at the ends that never seemed to fit quite right. Dimple had a shrill voice. When she got the giggles, which was often, she'd hit octaves of shrillness that were siren-like. She talked to herself and to her mother, who was already in heaven, throughout the day. Dimple was about 10 years younger than Elizabeth.

There was never a doubt when spring kicked off up at the big house. Miz Lena saw to that. She had her planting calendar and to-do list laid out across her ornate oak desk back in the utility room.

Come the first day of spring, Miz Lena was up before the roosters. Everybody on her payroll was expected to hit the ground running. There were rituals to be performed. Spring cleaning was underway. Man your stations!

With Miz Lena and Elizabeth at the kitchen sink, Miz Lena would say, "Elizabeth, raise the winda' and tell me the weather." Grand Mom knew her weather, but Elizabeth seemed to have a supernatural sense of how the day was going to be. She was amazingly and acutely accurate.

Elizabeth stuck her head halfway out the window, looked left and right, then up to the sky, studied it for a bit and sort of sniffed the air. She pulled her head back in and said, "It look like we is gonna have good weather all day. Maybe a liddle wind. Should be up tuh 65 degrees. No rain in da' fo'cast, Miz Lena."

Years later, Elizabeth told me that she used to listen to the morning weather forecast on a local radio station just before she left her house and headed up the hill. We laughed.

Grand Mom said, "Awright then, Elizabeth, you and Dimple go on upstairs and pull off all them sheets, warsh 'em and try to git 'em hung on the clothes line before lunch."

If you've never stretched out on clean sheets that have been hung outside to dry in the spring sun, you don't know what you're missing. Soft and fresh. You go to sleep with a smile. It's like slumbering in a bed prepared by angels.

Later in the week, all the carpets and hook rugs would be hung over the same white, rubber-coated clotheslines. Dimple would beat them, unmercifully, with a sweeping broom. Almost with a vengeance! So hard that her wig slid over to one side of her head.

With every one of her leap-in-the-air, home-run swings, she'd holler out things she had on her mind. "I (swing) ain't (swing) takin' (swing) no (swing) mo' (swing) of (swing) yo' (swing)", and so on. Dimple had some pent-up feelings to release. Her husband, Clarence, was known to drink a little.

Miz Lena's backyard garden spot was just a few flagstone steps up the hill from her rose garden.

Every October, she'd have her roses burned back. Almost ceremoniously, big-bellied Ole Tom would cut the stems to the ground and burn what was left of the stalks. He'd say, "Gotta stay away from dem black spots." I never knew what that meant. The ashes were left to dissolve over the bed. Like clockwork, the first vibrant blooms of the Icebergs and the Sunsprites would peek out in late April.

Aside from cleaning the house, from top to bottom, Grand Mom had some pre-Easter planting to do. First vegetables in the ground were carrots, pole beans, cabbage, lettuce, onions, peas, summer squash and a row or two of sweet corn.

In April, after she was sure the last frost had come and gone, Miz Lena would instruct Ole Tom to "plant the 'maters." She'd say, "Tom, be sure to hammer them poles deep enough to hold the weight." His pat answer to her was always, "Yes'm, Miz Lena. Ain't gonna be no problem, Miz Lena."

Funny that I can remember these things from way back then but couldn't, to save my life, tell you what happened the day before yesterday. Without her realizing it, my grandmother gave me a lifetime present of happy memories. I'm thankful to have them.

Spring's starting to show itself here in East Tennessee. The buttercups are in full bloom. An early arrived red cardinal, perched on the backyard fence, was singing to me a few days ago. I think it was one of my cousins. Probably Ronny.

The trees are beginning to blossom and coming back green. Soft-colored wildflowers are showing themselves. Rain travels through. It's getting warmer. We're on our way to another beautiful season. Thank you, God.

For those of you with kids or grandchildren, take a little time to create spring memories for them. Tell them stories about the family. Plant some flowers. Open the back door, sit with them and watch the rain fall. Let them witness, firsthand, the quiet and majestic miracles of spring.

Looks like this world is going to keep on spinning faster and faster. Fond memories of spring that you make possible for your children now will more than likely come in handy for them someday and probably for the rest of their lives.

Remember, life goes by.

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