Southern Folks: Miz Lena's younger brother, Watt

Bill Stamps

I was 10 years old, standing outside one of Grand Mom's homes that she was building. Some of her crew were loading up and getting ready to go home. One of them said, "Dogonnit, I think she saw me. Yep, she's turnin' around. Awright, boys, let me do all the talkin'."

My grandmother, Miz Lena, pulled up to the construction site in her 1952 mint-green Cadillac, her official general contractor's vehicle. "Big Green," they called it.

The car was already over 6 years old but had just a few thousand miles on it. When Miz Lena sat behind the wheel, her head just barely over the steering wheel, it looked like she was driving a swimming pool, with her sitting at the deep end. She was a little lady.

Grand Mom had moved from the farm into town and was building houses in her very own subdivision, Columbia Gardens. She was the only female contractor around that stretch of Middle Tennessee.

Miz Lena's male counterparts had great respect for her. They admired her grit and work ethic, her attention to detail. She wanted things done right. Don't mess up! Many a subcontractor found themselves brought to their knees by an unhappy Miz Lena.

More than once, she told me, "Honey, if yuh got yore name on it, it needs to be better than good."

Here came Grand Mom. We watched her get out of her car and start up the staked-out path where the sidewalk was to be poured. She was fast-stepping, with her slight limp and her omnipresent yardstick in her hand.

Grand Mom had been on a cane for over a year after her car accident. She finally weaned herself off the cane and onto the yardstick. The yardstick was free, compliments of Spring Hill Hardware. She'd put it in the ground and step with it. It was just enough to make her feel confident about putting one foot in front of the other.

Like everything in Miz Lena's world, her yardstick was not only a bargain but multifunctional. Perfect for pointing up to a spot that could use a little more spackling. She waved it back and forth and from side to side, as if conducting an orchestra, while she explained to her painting crew how the avocado-green in the dining room would be in perfect harmony with the wet ivory trim.

Miz Lena's yardstick was also a tool of expedience.

If she was in the aisle of a hardware store and in a hurry, she'd smack a grown man on his ankle with her yardstick. When he turned around, Miz Lena found just enough daylight to get by. Nothing was ever said. I think those men found it hard to believe what just happened! She was fast, too.

Grand Mom, in her work clothes and her special-built, lace-up brown boots, was getting closer to us. She began pointing her yardstick at the man she had come to see. She was saying something, but you could only hear her every third word. From her tone, it didn't sound good for the subcontractor, the one who was gonna "do all the talking."

She walked right past him and over her shoulder, said, "Mr. Parrish, I was hopin' you'd still be here. I need to talk with yuh about that hot water heater in the basement. Come 'round here with me right quick, and I'll show you what's got me concerned." It had something to do with the way it was installed.

You could hear the muffled voice of Mr. Parrish. Then, clear as a bell, Miz Lena said, "Looka' here now, Mr. Parrish, I'm not payin' full-price wages for half-done work. Now, yuh got plenty a sunlight left to git this right. I got inspections tomorrow after lunch. I'll leave it to yuh to figger out how yore fixin' to git this done on time and git yoreself paid."

That's just the way she talked. The way she thought.

Miz Lena paid on Saturdays. No advances. She'd say, "Honey Baby, if yore grandmommy paid them men a little bit on Friday, they'd all be workin' Saturdays with a hangover."

I suppose that applied to her younger brother, Watt, as well. He was a good man and one of my favorite great-uncles. He was also a troubled World War II veteran with memories of combat that he just couldn't shake loose. He conquered his demons with daily pints of Early Times and two and a half packs of Lucky Strikes.

Watt was what they called a master painter. He didn't make mistakes. He worked for Miz Lena, and she was happy to have him. They respected and loved one another.

Granted, a few times a day, he'd head over to his truck to mix a little "medicine" with his coffee, "just to steady up the nerves," as he would say. Miz Lena looked the other way. She understood about Watt and his moods. Watt was carrying a whole bunch inside.

So what, if, every once in a while, he'd take a little nap. Standing three rungs up on the ladder, his paintbrush in his hand, the top of his head leaned up against the wall, the cigarette in his mouth gone out. In a couple of minutes, he'd come to and go right back to painting.

Watt was short and wiry built. Most men steered clear of getting him upset. They'd heard the stories. Watt didn't stand up straight but kind of leaned forward. His full mop of brown hair was brushed back, showing the wrinkles of a life and a half etched deep into his forehead. A thin-lined moustache rolled across the top of his lip. His voice was a little gravelly.

He didn't talk much, yet I learned from him. Sometimes, a man of few words says a lot.

My favorite thing to do was to hang out at Miz Lena's construction sites. It was fine with Grand Mom. I was told to stay out of the way, help when I could and listen to my Uncle Watt.

Often, I'd sit and watch him paint out a room. It was always quiet. No radio blaring. Sometimes he'd run a little fan. Mostly there was just the smooth motion of his brush strokes. Watt barely used a drop cloth or taped off anything. After all, he was a master painter. He was as magical with his brush as was Miz Lena with her yardstick.

One stroke, just above the white wooden trim, and he was done. Up and down the side of a window frame, and there you go. I only saw him drip on the floor once. He looked down through the ladder and said, very quietly, "oops."

Watt, facing the wall he was painting, said, "You know, Butch (that was my nickname), "they ain't nothin' a man kain't do if he puts his mind to it." Then he'd quietly add, "'Ceptin' fly, maybe" and chuckle under his breath. Or he would advise me, "Don't waste your prayers on stuff you don't need," and in his baritone whisper add, "That is, unless you think you just kain't live without a Cadillac." Then another chuckle.

One day, I was sitting on the living room floor in an almost finished house. I was leaned up against the side of the fireplace talking with Watt. Just the two of us. I pretty much did all the talking. Occasionally, Watt would give me a grunt of acknowledgement, like, "umm hmm" or "yep." That was about it.

Watt was up on his ladder, wrapping up some trim work. I was watching the maestro do his thing. It was raining outside and quiet. Just the way Watt and I liked it.

All of a sudden, there was a huge flash, and lightning struck! It felt like it hit the house!

When I looked up, I saw that Watt had spilled paint all over the wall and on himself. The thunder and lightning had taken him back to another time and place. You could see it in his eyes. In his expression. He was shaking.

Watt stepped down off the ladder, opened the front door and walked out into the rain toward his truck.

A few minutes later, he came back in and sat next to me. He was all wet. It was apparent that he'd had a couple of swigs of his medicine. We both looked straight ahead at the paint he had spilled. Minutes of silence. Then Watt patted my knee and said, "Well, Bud, let me go cover up this mess. A coat a paint, and you'll never know it was there." And then he chuckled.

I'm sending my good wishes and hope for success to those of you who live for your dreams. And my empathy and understanding to those of you who are living with your nightmares.

Either way, just remember, we're all in this together.

Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at or through Facebook.