Southern Folks: Mama Sue ruled the roost, without ever raising her voice

Bill Stamps

My grandmother, Miz Lena, was born and raised on a farm in Middle Tennessee not too far from Columbia, her and all her brothers and sisters. There was a mess of them. Grand Mom was the oldest.

The custom back then on the farm was that the oldest kids helped their mothers with younger ones. That wasn't all. They cooked, cleaned and did whatever else needed to be done. Grand Mom grew up being in charge of all of her younger siblings.

Farming families rely on the strong backs of Daddy and his boys to do the heavy lifting. However, country girls were out there in the fields right alongside the men pulling their weight.

Southern Folks

They had plenty of time to practice being a lady once the crops were brought in and the cows were stripped. They were all in it together. That's the true definition of family.

When she got into her teenage years, Miz Lena made a vow to her mother, my great-grandmother, Mama Sue, that she was going to become somebody. Mama Sue answered her like she always did. She'd just say, "Well." Mama Sue told me that from an early age Grand Mom was headstrong. She said, "Lena put her mind to somethin' and off she'd go."

Grand Mom wasn't a scholar, but she got through school. Less than two years later, she married a local veterinarian with Cherokee blood in him, Doc Dean. They had two children. My mother and her brother, Van. Doc Dean loved my grandmother but just couldn't put the bottle down. The marriage was over. Grand Mom took off for Chicago and returned to Tennessee a year later with a new husband. Doc Dean kept on doing what he'd been doing.

When Papa Harvey, my great-grandfather, passed on, Grand Mom moved Mama Sue into town and put her in a duplex that Grand Mom bought especially for her. If ever anything were to happen, it only took five minutes to get over there. If you lived way out in the country, it could take a while for the ambulance to show up. Mama Sue was already getting up there in age, and Grand Mom didn't want to take any chances.

Grand Mom worshiped her mother. It's hard to picture Miz Lena as a child, but she was. She was Mama Sue's child. Like all children, Grand Mom wanted the best for her mother. All of Mama Sue's children knew that she was lonesome for Papa. She used to wonder out loud how much longer she was going to have to wait to be with her beloved again.

Mama Sue was the only person on Earth who could stop my grandmother in her tracks. What very little Mama Sue said, or the little sounds she made, Miz Lena paid close attention to.

Mama Sue would say in her little voice, "Lena, settle down. You ain't churnin' butter. Yuh'r makin' me dizzy." Grand Mom, whatever she was doing, would shift to low and sit right down. Like, within seconds. It was odd to me to see Miz Lena subservient. Mama Sue ruled her roost without ever raising her voice.

Watt, one of Miz Lena's brothers, started out living in the other duplex unit. Eventually, he moved on in with Mama Sue. Watt was divorced, and Mama Sue enjoyed his company. Neither one, Mama Sue or Watt, had much to say. Part of the reason for that was that both of them were hard of hearing. By nature, they were both soft talkers. So they didn't have much dialogue between themselves.

When Mama Sue had something to say, we'd all lean in. She spoke just a little above mute. If she asked me a question, I'd sit next to her and holler my answer into her good ear. I'm not so sure she really heard everything I said. But as soon as I began speaking, she'd tilt her head, look up at me and start smiling. Everything about her was soft and sweet and delicate.

Grand Mom wasn't any bigger than petite. Most of her brothers were on the short and stocky side. The girls, not counting Miz Lena, were a little taller. They took after Mama Sue. She was above average height and slim built.

Mama Sue looked like she stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She was bent over from decades of standing up, with thick glasses and her shocking white hair in a bun. She had small hands and a substantial mole at the corner of the smiling side of her mouth. She was pale and thin.

Mama Sue always wore simple, loose-fitting, cotton dresses with embroidered lace collars, along with old-women hose, those kind that are heavy and flesh-colored with big seams up the back. She wore the same black, lace-up, square-toed shoes every day. When she was sure that there would be no more company stopping by, she'd slip into something more comfortable.

Every morning, long before sunrise, she was up and fully dressed. With short, determined steps, she'd make her way to the kitchen and start her morning ritual of boiling the grits and rolling out biscuits. Eggs, bacon and milk gravy at the ready. Watt would smell the coffee percolating, get up, go into the kitchen and insist that Mama Sue let him take over.

When I was too young to remember, when Papa and Mama Sue were still living on the farm, Grand Mom took me with her to see them. There are black-and-white photos in a box somewhere of me sitting in the saddle atop a big, brown-and-white horse named Dexter with Papa Harvey. He's wearing a white, 10-gallon cowboy hat and spurs on his boots.

I remember very little about my great-grandfather. To hear Grand Mom tell it, Papa Harvey lit the sun and hung the moon. That's just the way little girls are supposed to feel about their daddies. Anyone who knew him said he was a good man.

He never borrowed anything, paid his very few bills on time and kept who he voted for to himself. Talk was that he hid out Jesse James from the law a few times. They may have been distant cousins.

Mama Sue kept her Bible close by. In the middle of the day, while Watt was at work, she'd put on her extra-thick glasses and read underlined passages. She often took a little nap with the Good Book open and in her lap. She loved to browse and reminisce through her scrapbooks. She'd softly run her fingers across pictures of her kids and Papa Harvey and smile.

Mama Sue had a very dry humor that was best displayed when she'd poke at Grand Mom. We could just be sitting, not saying much, and out of the blue Mama Sue would half-snicker and say to Grand Mom, "Lena, you need tuh git yoreself a cat."

Grand Mom would start looking in her purse for her keys and mutter, "I don't care nothin' about no cats. They's evil, with the devil inside of 'em. I don't reckon I'm ever gonna hear the end of that cat."

Years back, all through the '50s, the good women of that time wore some pretty wild hats - big feathers on them, jewels, little veils. Grand Mom, on one of her trips to the big city, bought herself a shiny green velour hat with a bird on top of it.

She was walking down the sidewalk next to a wall. Her being little, from the other side all you could see was the bird. A prowling cat saw the bird moving across the wall and pounced on it. Grand Mom couldn't get the cat off her head. She never wore the hat again.

Knowing how Grand Mom was, Mama Sue thought that was just the funniest thing ever. It was a sore spot with my grandmother. Mama Sue was the only one who could tell that story without worry of Miz Lena's retaliation.

I loved Mama Sue. She was such a sweet woman. Never a complaint. Whenever I got up to leave, she'd have a little slice of something wrapped in a napkin or aluminum foil for me to take with me. Every time, she would stand at the half-open front door and wave goodbye to me. She wouldn't close the door till I was out of sight.

Mama Sue, her open Bible on the nightstand, passed away in her sleep three days shy of 100. Her long wait was finally over. She was where she wanted to be. Once again, with the true love of her life, Papa Harvey.

Be kind to the elderly. They've lived a long time and been through a lot. While they're still with us, treat them with deserved kindness and respect. Tell them over and over how much they mean to you and that you love them. The Golden Rule is in play.

Remember, someday you too will be waiting to go home.

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