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: Celebrating the Fourth of July in the country
- Southern Folks: Rain brings back memories of rainy days
- Southern Folks: Looking for a feeling right as rain
- Southern Folks: My father, the SOB (sweet ole Bill)
- Southern Folks: Doing hard time with Miss Swann
- Southern Folks: Life, God and the world according to Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Remembering all our heroes on Memorial Day
- Southern Folks: Miss Juanita was a legend in her own mind
- Southern Folks: Gene Autry, the singing cowboy
- Southern Folks: OK, God, this is your last chance
- Southern Folks: Mr. Elvin was a quiet man
- Southern Folks: Saturdays made better with Green Stamps
- Southern Folks: Old Battle Axe, her dog and the Golden Rule
- Southern Folks: Praying and flying and Mrs. Silva's birds
- Southern Folks: Beans, Ole Tom and well-dressed scarecrows
- Southern Folks: Telephone party lines always rang up a good time
- Southern Folks: Good manners make good neighbors, even the scary ones
- Southern Folks: The orphans in my life taught me plenty
- Southern Folks: Family tragedy from 1968 still haunts
- Southern Folks: Everyone called him Doc Dean
- Southern Folks: Blue ribbons from the county fair for me and Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Miz Lena's younger brother, Watt
- Southern Folks: Scrapbooks, pictures and memories
- Southern Folks: Old-timers and the twins
- Southern Folks: I knew an old woman who lived in her shoes
- Southern Folks: Mama Sue ruled the roost, without ever raising her voice
- Southern Folks: The formula for a full life
- Southern Folks: Facts, fiction and fibs about the holidays
- Southern Folks: Two days before Christmas
- Southern Folks: Mrs. Freeland, my favorite customer
- Southern Folks: In loving memory of Magic Man
- Southern Folks: Memorable mornings with Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Be happy for what you have
- Southern Folks: Thanksgiving with Stumpy and the boys
- Southern Folks: Thank you, Jesus, for cold water
- Southern Folks: Autumn, miracles, magic and crawdads
- Southern Folks: Remembering Sundays with Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Mr. Glassman was a grump
- Southern Folks: I'm a Mormon, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic
- Southern Folks: Lessons at the table with Miz Lena
- Southern Folks: Sleeping in Elizabeth's bed
- Southern Folks: Chewing the rag with Mr. Remus
- Southern Folks: Remembering sweet, soft Southern summer nights
- Southern Folks: Sometimes the Lord understands why you lie
- Southern Folks: Thunder, lightning, bad words and politics
- Southern Folks: Growing faith through God's hidden treasures
- Southern Folks: Military academy and the power of prayer
- Southern Folks: I was raised to appreciate 'country simple'
- Southern Folks: Learning patience with a blackberry pie
- Southern Folks: Good people live in small Southern towns
- Southern Folks: Time to start carrying a big stick
- Southern Folks: 'You gotta do what the Bible says'
- Southern Folks: Celebrating the Fourth of July in the country
- Southern Folks: Never try to pull one over on a Southern woman
- Southern Folks: Blind Remus
- Southern Folks: Up on the hill under a tree
- Southern Folks: My friend Calvin was a precious child and a nice young man
- Southern Folks: Thinking about Duffy on Memorial Day
- Southern Folks: Watching TV with my grandparents
- Southern Folks: The Lord works in mysterious ways
- Southern Folks: Hard country love good prep for Marine Corps
- Southern Folks: Thank you, Lord, for roadkill
- Southern Folks: God is colorblind
- Southern Folks: The Lord doesn't look the other way
- Southern Folks: Grandparents' farm sits just below heaven
- Southern Folks: Lessons in life from Elizabeth
- Southern Folks: Memories of spring on Miz Lena's farm
- Southern Folks: A salute to Mr. Jenkins, the first war hero I ever knew
- Southern Folks: Baptism, Miss Mama and thunderstorms
- Southern Folks: Wedding receptions, pigeons and chuckles
- Southern Folks: Always a chance of rain
- Southern Folks: Skeeter the coon hound's great escape
- Southern Folks: Ghost at the grocery store
- Southern Folks: Willie and his wife vs. a mess of crazy people
- Southern Folks: Karma - country style
- Southern Folks: No time for crybabies
- Southern Folks: In search of the silver lining
- Southern Folks: Into the weeds with Ole Tom
- Southern Folks: Miss Bobbie and David and Goliath
- Southern Folks: My favorite Christmas memory reminds me to be grateful
- Southern Folks: Christmas fruitcakes and TV dinners
- Southern Folks: Dining out with Miz Lena over the holidays
- Southern Folks: Dressing up for the Lord and lessons in love
- Southern Folks: Memories of a southern Thanksgiving
- Southern Folks: God's secret
- Southern Folks: A belated happy birthday to the Marines and happy Veterans Day to us all
- Southern Folks: They called him Angel
- Southern Folks: Sunday lunch and Monday leftovers...perfection
- Southern Folks: 'Genies don't work as good as God'
- Southern Folks: Miz Lena had a remedy and an answer for everything
- Southern Folks: Tap dancing straight to a refund
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.