Southern Folks: The formula for a full life

Bill Stamps

Here I am, a couple of months this side of getting old and just now starting to practice what my grandmother out of Middle Tennessee preached to me so many years ago. As early as I can remember, Miz Lena, as she was called, seemed to be constantly preparing me for my big life ahead.

She wasn't a particularly soft woman. Very firm and to the point. There was never a doubt about where she stood on things. If you asked her opinion on just about anything, stand by. She'd let it fly!

Southern Folks

Whatever I asked her, she'd give her best answer, then add a little extra. She always managed to find a way to give me some advice about life. She didn't tell me once or twice but constantly!

Things like, "Ever time yuh think yuh got it bad, remember they's a whole mess a' little girls and boys that would love to be in yore shoes." Several times, throughout my childhood, I gave away most or all of my clothes to kids in dire circumstances. It was terribly embarrassing to have to ask for them back.

Another of her favorite sayings was, "God helps those who help they selves." I asked her what that meant exactly. She answered me right back with, "If yore just gonna sit around and wait for the Lord to do it all for yuh, think again. You gotta put a little backbone into it, if yuh want his help. The Lord hadn't got time for lazy."

When I got into showbiz and she saw me biting off more than I could chew, going for right-away success, she'd tell me, "Son, life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard."

Miz Lena used to remind me, "If yuh kain't say somethin' good about somebody, don't say nothin' at all." Although she generally practiced what she preached, she slipped a little on this one. If she was pushed too far and got upset with someone, they knew it. First, she'd cover the remark that had set her off. Then, hold on to your shoes! She'd rapid-fire suggestions on how you could improve your sorry self. Her words could burn.

Miz Lena wasn't a highly educated woman. No college degree. The only reading she did was the newspaper. She mispronounced a bushel of words, but you always knew what she meant. She was razor smart when it came to dealing with people and life.

Anytime that I complained about anything, she'd wag her pointing finger, right up close to my nose, and say, "Looka here, don't complain about nothin' unless you got a plan to do somethin' about it. Little girls complain. Men come up with a plan and then throw in on it. You better hurry up and be a man." She began saying that to me before I started the first grade.

Anytime I got frustrated or down about something, Miz Lena told me the same thing every time. She'd say, "Looka here, start workin' on becomin' more of a optimist, Son. Remember, a optimist wakes up in the mornin' and says "Good mornin', God." A pessimist wakes up and says, "Good God! Mornin'!" Funny how some sayings stay with you through the years.

Miz Lena refused to spend too much time on matters that "anybody in they right mind oughta be able to figure out." I've seen her just walk away from people right in the middle of a conversation. She didn't have the patience or time to waste on talk that was going nowhere. It put a few people off. It was of no never mind to her.

More than once, I heard her say that those particular kinds of people "didn't have the brains God gave to a brass monkey." Or, my favorite, "If yuh put they brain in a bird, he'd fly backwards."

As a child, I don't think I ever asked her for much advice about anything. Didn't really have to. Miz Lena had plenty to give and never missed the opportunity. At the time, it felt like she was constantly lecturing me. Still, I listened. I really had no choice.

Dad moved us to the West Coast when I was 13. After that, I only saw Grand Mom a couple of times before I enlisted. After my hitch in the Marine Corps, I returned to Tennessee, much to my grandmother's delight. I got a job at a local radio station and visited with her several days a week. When I got off the air, I'd drive over to her house, and we'd have coffee and a slice of her family-famous banana cake. We'd talk and talk.

She was still dishing out the same sayings I had heard from her so many times before. Somehow though, hearing it again all those years later, her words of advice made a lot more sense. She had also softened her tone and spoke to me in a more loving and less lecturing manner.

I eventually moved back to the West Coast to pursue my interest in the entertainment business. But I made sure to speak with her once a week and fly back to visit with her when I could.

Anytime I made an East Coast business trip, I'd loop back through Tennessee. I tried to make my visit easy on her. If she had just a little bit of notice as to when I was gonna show up, she'd have a fresh-baked banana cake, wrapped in damp paper towels, sitting on the kitchen drain board. She knew it was my favorite. Southern grandmothers are like that.

In the late '80s, when my first marriage was in shambles and I was unsure about pretty much everything, I asked for her advice on what to do. I remember telling her that I wanted to live a full life. She said, "Honey Baby, they's not really much to it. If yuh can wake up in the mornin' and have someone to love, somethin' to do and somethin' to look forward to, you'll have a full life."

In one rich sentence, my little grandmother summed it all up. Although I'm more than a little late, I feel I've finally gotten there. I wake up in Tennessee to great days spent with the love of my life, my wife, Jana, and our pup, Scout. I generally have tons of stuff to do. Good stuff. And there's so much for me to look forward to. I have a full life.

I'm reminded of something else Miz Lena used to say to me, "Honey Baby, it's better late than never."

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