Southern Folks: I knew an old woman who lived in her shoes

My grandmother, Miz Lena, used to tell me, "Honey Baby, when yuh can, do somethin' good fer somebody. You can't never tell. God might be watchin' yuh, and he'll do somethin' to make yore life better."

I was 9, living in Middle Tennessee in a small rural community with a population a touch over 100 people. We were just 12 miles south of Columbia.

My mother taught school there. Just a couple hundred kids went there, first through 12th grades, all under one roof. Sometimes there were two students to a desk, the heavy wooden kind nailed to the floor.

Southern Folks

Outside, in front of the school was some old playground equipment - a slide and some swings. There were ankle-high weeds mixed with patches of dandelions and three-leaf clovers to run through and plenty of heavy-bark trees to climb.

Somehow, with very little, we managed to have fun recesses. When you're in the country, you learn to make do. In that little town, everything and everyone leaned toward "nice and easy does it." Like Southern syrup. Nobody felt the need to rush to get to anywhere.

Mom had it tough. Her, with her personal problems and trying to raise three boys on "next-to-begging" wages. It made for a continuous stress that was felt by us all every waking morning. I tried to help however I could. Outside of collecting Coke bottles and selling them back to the grocery store for a penny apiece, I did odd jobs for old ladies, who, from time to time, paid me to fish for them.

I felt a little guilty making money doing what I enjoyed most: fishing. Sun perch were my specialty. I kept up with where they were biting all along the creek. Sometimes, those spots would just get fished out. It happens.

That wasn't much of a problem. All I had to do was get past Old Man Swikel. He had a freshwater pond on his farm filled to the rim with perch, so many that you could see them out there in the water flipping over, dozens at a time. Old Man Swikel's house sat downhill a bit, so he couldn't see anybody coming until they were right up on him. But you had to be quiet. He was downwind from the road.

With my dog, Prince, at my side, I would soft-step, like an Indian, halfway up his road, then cut across the field and down to the pond without him knowing it. I'd put a worm on the hook and throw it out there. Then Prince and I would get down low to the ground. It was easy to catch a couple dozen good-size perch in a half-hour and high-tail it out of there. It was a risk I took more than once. I guess I felt a little bad. But I didn't figure Mr. Swikel would miss anything. He had a lot of fish.

The Swikel farm lined up next to Miss Ruth's place. She probably had about 10 acres of land. She lived in an old whitewashed house with a porch and a couple of trees on the same side of the house as the chimney. She had some chickens, a few cows and a swarm of cats that lounged on her front and back porches.

A brown trailer sat in the far back of the property, along with a rusty tin-roofed white shed and a matching smokehouse. Directly behind the back porch and out in the yard a ways was an honest-to-goodness outhouse painted green. It was functional. Miss Ruth used it.

She was probably in her 50s, a little, lumpy-built woman with calloused hands and great big lips. Her hair was grayish. She kept it up in a bun. Sometimes, she'd have cotton stuck up her nose. When she started talking her staccato gibberish, every word sounded like it started with a G. She wore dark clothes and walked everywhere she went. She carried a medium-size tote sack, folded and stuck in her belt, just in case she found something interesting along her trail.

She grew up just outside of the county line. She lived with her father and a sister. They said Miss Ruth was born crazy. Some of the old-timers told stories about how Miss Ruth was a "holy woman." They said if she blessed you that you'd have some good luck come your way - kinda like she would special-order your good fortune direct from God. By the same token, don't get her mad at you. She'd get you. Fact or small-town exaggeration. I wasn't sure. But they sure told the story convincingly well.

When Miss Ruth was a teenager, her white-trash, illiterate daddy kicked her out of the house. He was a nasty man, with a well-known contempt for people of color. They whispered that he killed a few. He couldn't take Miss Ruth's constant babbling of the Scriptures and her speaking in some kind of tongue. He kicked her out into the night.

They said Miss Ruth put a spell on her father, and he died under mysterious circumstances. There were many other rumors about her family. I can tell you this, for sure: Everyone gave Miss Ruth a lot of room. Me too.

Miss Ruth had nowhere to go, so she ended up sleeping out back of the high school gym for a year or so. For many years, she caught fish and pulled weeds and picked crops to get by. Over the years, a few different times, some good church people would take her in. Those stays never lasted that long. Even the best-intentioned good Christians couldn't take her nonstop, around-the-clock sermons.

Over and over, Miss Ruth walked up and down the roads. They used to compare her to the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in a shoe. Miss Ruth lived in her shoes. She was homeless.

I only spoke to her a few times. Mostly just saying hello. She walked fast. I could hear her coming up behind me, preaching up a storm. Not loud. Just a little above normal. When she walked by, she'd say, "Hello, Boy" and then go right back into where she left off. I always stopped and let her get ahead of me. I wasn't afraid of her. Actually, I was fascinated by her. Still, like I said, nothing wrong with giving her some space.

When Miss Ruth was younger, she fished out of Mr. Swikel's pond. There was another fellow, not Mr. Swikel, who owned the farm back then. He let her fish there all she wanted. If she wasn't walking the roads, you'd find her at the pond.

Where Miss Ruth lived, when I knew her, was previously owned by an old man who lived there all by himself, hermit-like. He was a little off. The old man hired up Miss Ruth to tend his garden and cook for him in return for room and board. They lived together for several years. Not in a romantic way. More like a father-daughter way or maybe more like brother and sister. Together, they hollered out to the Almighty for hours at a time. Miss Ruth and the old man both finally had some company.

The old man died and left everything to Miss Ruth. She never stopped walking up and down the roads or preaching the "Good Word." If somebody was down on their luck, Miss Ruth let them stay out back in the trailer. She knew firsthand what it felt like to have only your shoes in which to live.

There's a lot of us Americans out there walking the streets, down and out and dealing with their demons. They don't seem to have a friend in the world, just existing. If you have the heart and an opportunity to help these people, please do.

You never can tell. God might be watching you and do something to make your life better. Happy Sunday.

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