Southern Folks: Lessons at the table with Miz Lena

I don't know about you, but I've come to realize that so many things I learned as a child have stuck with me. Growing up in the South and living off and on with my grandmother, Miz Lena, was a wonderful and rewarding experience. I just didn't fully appreciate it at the time.

Sometimes, Miz Lena's rules and ways of doing things felt like boot camp. There seemed to be lessons of life being preached to me daily. Stuff that was of no interest to a 6-year-old kid. For instance, I couldn't have cared less about how to set the table for supper. Miz Lena cared. As she used to say, "My house, my rules." I guess she had a point.

Southern Folks

My grandmother was from the country and was of the opinion that men should be men. She didn't mind when I got into a scuffle. Growing up with several brothers, she understood that sometimes you gotta take it outside. She was tough as nails herself. But for whatever reason, Miz Lena felt it was very important for me to learn the "sissy stuff."

Years back, she had divorced her first husband, Doc Dean, moved to Chicago and gotten a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, working behind the cosmetics counter. Here she was, a country gal, straight off the farm, interacting with the Windy City's elite. She knew she needed to step up her game.

Miz Lena bought and read every book there was on how the "fancy-dancies," she used to call them, lived, dressed and socialized. Less than a year later, she left Chicago on her way back to Tennessee with a new husband. His name was Adrian. He was a rising star architect who designed Shell Oil gasoline stations.

Somewhere along the line, in her quest for refinement, she had learned proper and formal table settings. I was barely into my second grade, but I guess she thought that it was the absolute perfect time for me to learn some of the more boring things in life. I attempted to resist, but she stopped me in my tracks with some of her rural psychology.

She said, "Stop all yore belly achin'. It beats havin' all yore teeth pulled, don't it? I answered, "Yes, Ma'am." That's all I could come up with.

I remember the morning, sitting across the breakfast table from Grand Mom. My head in my hands, looking out the window at my dog, Prince, who was waiting for me. Me glancing back at Miz Lena, thumbing through her special-edition Betty Crocker Cook Book, the one with the red-and-white checkered cover. Her reading glasses were halfway down her nose, looking for the etiquette section. She found it, and the morning class began.

Miz Lena said, "Awright now, stop lookin' out the winda' and pay me some attention. You and Prince can go play in a little bit, but right now, we're doin' this." The "this" was me learning about the purpose and proper placement of eating utensils. I wondered how long it was gonna take. This had to qualify as some form of child abuse.

She had my side of the table all laid out. Plates, saucers, a couple of different-size glasses, a whole array of knives, spoons and forks and a pink-colored fancy-folded cloth napkin.

Miz Lena had already spent hours on me at the table while we were eating. No elbows on the table. Keep my elbows down while cutting up the meat. Napkin in my lap. There was a lot to do just to get through the meal. If it weren't for the great desserts that followed the main course, I might not have been as cooperative about eating that yucky broccoli with the medium-size fork.

In addition to Grand Mom hawk-eyeing my selection and implementation of the eating utensils, she was nonstop with her criticisms.

She'd say, "Looka here, stop kickin' yore feet under the table. Sit up straight. You want people tuh think yore a bum, sittin' sideways in the chair like that? " I never got that correlation. Had she actually witnessed a bum eating, and he was sitting at an angle from the table? She continued, "Stop all that fidgettin'. Don't be pickin' at that scab while yore at the supper table. What's wrong with you, Boy? Yore actin' like you growed up in a barn! Gracious sakes alive!"

Aside from learning about salad forks versus regular forks and that the knives' blades should be pointing toward the plate, Miz Lena spent extra time teaching me all about the butter knife. She said, "Elizabeth, git me a stick a' Blue Bonnet from the 'fridgerator." Elizabeth was Grand Mom's housekeeper. She brought the butter to the table on a small saucer.

Grand Mom had me slice down on the cold butter stick over and over. Each slice was to be placed on the edge of my plate first. Then you take the regular knife and spread the butter on the bread. Seemed like a lot of unnecessary moving parts to me. Not only that, but the slice of butter was wider than the regular knife. And I had little hands. It was kind of a balancing act. She'd say, "Stop stickin' yore thumb in the butter, Son."

I kept working on it. Finally, she said, "Awright then. I think yore gittin' the hang of it. We'll practice this some more at supper tonight." She was relentless.

As if that weren't bad enough, she served liver once a week. Miz Lena used to say something about liver being good for me because it had iron in it. It took awhile before I figured that one out.

I felt conflicted when Grand Mom insisted that I say the Lord's Prayer, giving thanks to the Almighty for the liver and broccoli I was about to receive, but I did it, even though I couldn't stand the stuff. I assume God understood. And I did my best to eat it all, seeings how there were all those children in Africa that would "just love to have them some fresh vegetables and chicken liver." I used to think those kids must have been really, really, really hungry.

Miz Lena used to wrap up her fine-dining instructions with, "And try to have somethin' interestin' to talk about over your meal." Through the years, I've had the pleasure and great privilege to break bread with some pretty "fancy-dancy" people in grandiose and opulent settings. Movie stars, politicians, philosophers and billionaires. Even a king.

So many times, I've told those at the table a version of this little ditty that I've just told to you. They've always cracked up. And they've found Miz Lena to be very interesting.

So there ya' go, Grand Mom. I guess it's worked out the way you wanted. Thanks for taking the time and having the patience to teach me the boring stuff. It's come in handy.

For the record, I've mastered the use of the butter knife. Another thing, and nothing against Africa, but I don't eat broccoli or liver anymore. Fortunately, I've just never been quite that hungry.

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