Southern Folks: Looking for a feeling right as rain

Bill Stamps

I was living with my grandparents on the farm just south of Columbia, Tennessee. I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out at the rain. It was about this time of the year. Even at age 6, there's a calendar in your head. The few honest-to-goodness summer days you actually have left start nagging at you.

Pretty soon, the sun starts going down earlier. The evenings start cooling off. Then, just down the road, the S-word. School! Just thinking about it gave me a headache. Not long, and I'd be locked in a room full of kids and having to get taught stuff. Inevitability is tough to deal with. Every remaining day of true freedom counted.

If it was snowing, I could go outside and play. My grandmother, Miz Lena, didn't care. Kids playing in the cold, according to her, built up their immunity systems. Actually, I hardly ever got sick. Still that way. Who knew that all those times Miz Lena put me outside and I froze my butt off was for my own good.

If it was blistering August hot, it didn't mean a thing to Miz Lena. Any time I complained about the heat, she'd remind me that grown men had to work in the blistering sun to feed their families. That fact never made it any cooler.

You could freeze or risk heat stroke, but just as soon as the first wind hinted that those black clouds were gonna burst, Elizabeth, Grand Mom's housekeeper, was at the back door hollering for me to come in.

Whatever I was doing, I did it one more time. Skip another flat rock across the creek. Take one more minute to find a four-leaf clover. Just one more roll down the hill out in back of the house.

If I didn't respond soon enough, Elizabeth would start calling for Prince. Prince was my dog. Wherever I was, so was he. Prince would hear Elizabeth and take off running for the house. I had no choice but to catch up with him. Prince thought Elizabeth was calling him to eat. I knew different. We were heading back up the hill to "house arrest." It was thundering. Just a few sprinkles, but it was coming. We just made it.

It didn't look like it was gonna let up anytime soon. Another perfectly good day down for the count. I watched the new maples that Miz Lena had Ole Tom plant up next to the fence fight to stay in place. Prince laid out on the breezeway just under the kitchen window. Every so often, he'd get up and stare at me. I just looked back at him.

Miz Lena said, "Looka here, last time I'm gonna tell yuh. Yore not goin' back outside til it stops rainin'. Yore gonna fool around and catch a cold. You'll have to stay in bed, and I'll have to feed you big spoons full of castor oil. Is that what you want?" No, I didn't. She continued, "And, no, you kain't go out and play under the carport. A piece a lightnin' can come in sideways and git yuh."

She started looking through the small stack of coloring books that were in a magazine rack out in the utility room. She said, "Where's that colorin' book I got yuh at Mr. Dooley's Rexall? Wadn't it Casper the ghost? Looka' here, git one a them lined pieces of tablet paper and write out yore ABC's."

I'd had big plans for the afternoon, and now I was reduced to printing letters on a piece of paper. It was bad enough that I was in jail. Now, I was being tortured too. I looked down, outside the window. Prince had given up and was fast asleep. All right, I'll color Casper. Maybe, I'll color him black and see what Grand Mom says.

Miz Lena went back over to the sink, picked up the drying cloth and continued her conversation with her black housekeeper, Elizabeth. Grand Mom and Elizabeth talked back and forth while they washed and dried plates and pots and pans.

Grand Mom had one of those new dishwashers, but she would hardly use it. Miz Lena said, "No, uh-um, I don't want to use up my warranty." I don't think she wanted to fool with all those buttons and knobs. Plus, you can't have a decent conversation with the dishwater running.

Grand Mom pretty much did all the talking. Elizabeth, through the many years she'd worked for Miz Lena, had learned to be a good listener. Elizabeth truly cared for my grandmother. Outside of family and Elizabeth, Miz Lena didn't show her cards to anybody.

Grand Mom said, "Elizabeth, you ain't never gonna believe what Adrian did with them new shirts I bought for him at Pigs and Parson." Adrian was my grandfather. It was actually Pigg and Parsons Men's Store.

Grand Mom said, "I called Dubb Pigs about how come my bill was so low. I just bought them shirts!" Mr. Pigs sez, "Miz Lena, Mr. Adrian returned those shirts. He said he'd rather have white shirts. Said he didn't feel like an architect should wear a purple shirt, Miz Lena. He said he wadn't worried about fashion."

Grand Mom lowered her voice and told Elizabeth, "I said awright then, Mr. Pigs. Thank you." Right on cue, Elizabeth said what I heard her say a thousand times before. She shook her head and said, "Sho nuff, Miz Lena. Mmm, mmm, mmm."

There was more. Grand Mom said, "Elizabeth, he must have a dozen white shirts! He just don't give two hoots about what's popular. Well, that's the last time I'll try to git him caught up. You watch, he'll end up returning them matching socks, too. I guess yuh can only bring a mule up to the water, but yuh kain't make 'em drink it."

Elizabeth would say, "Miz Lena, you is right as rain." And that's the way their conversations went for the decades Elizabeth was under Grand Mom's employ.

Miz Lena was pretty much a loner. Her best friends were her many brothers and sisters. They came up out of the country, and every one of them became successful. They spoke to one another almost every day. Just quick hellos. They were like families were back then. Tight. One for all and all for one.

As close as Grand Mom was to Elizabeth, there was still that wall that existed between those born white and those brought into this world with dark skin. Maybe, I felt it too. I didn't think of myself to be any better than people of color. But even as a small boy, I recognized that white people ran the show. It was troubling to me.

From the time I was a kid and through the years, Grand Mom and I sat in the kitchen and talked about it. I questioned why Elizabeth had to eat her meals in the utility room. Why she had her own plates and silverware kept in the cupboards, stacked in the back. Why couldn't Elizabeth sit up in the front seat of my grandmother's Cadillac? It just didn't seem fair. I loved Elizabeth so much.

When I was in my 20s, and at that same breakfast table, my grandmother and I were having one of our talks. Elizabeth, after years of working for Miz Lena, had decided she was getting too old to keep up with it all.

Dimple was still there. She had her same ways but was slowing down. She wore a silver-streaked wig. It looked good and seemed to fit her better than ones she'd worn back in the day. Dimple's oldest daughter had started coming to the house.

Southern Folks

Grand Mom was missing Elizabeth. She didn't quite know how to express her feelings about Elizabeth to me. That black-and-white thing was still there. I reminded Miz Lena that Elizabeth truly was her best friend and how Elizabeth always had her back. How Elizabeth did so much for me and my brothers. How much she did for us all. How much she loved us.

Grand Mom broke down in tears. She looked at me and said, "Honey Baby, yore so right."

Later that same year, my grandmother bought four acres close to where Elizabeth and her husband, Booker, lived. Miz Lena built them a two-bedroom brick house and presented the free and clear title to them one Sunday afternoon. They were visibly moved. Tears streamed down their cheeks. Booker broke down.

For years after her retirement, Elizabeth came to the "big house" every Sunday. She and Grand Mom would sit back in the kitchen and have coffee and a slice of Grand Mom's banana cake. They ate off the good plates.

They'd end up over at the sink. Elizabeth still washed and Grand Mom dried. They had their talks. They laughed a lot. Every so often, you'd hear Elizabeth holler out, "Sho nuff, Miz Lena" or "Miz Lena, you is right as rain."

Grand Mom and Elizabeth passed on a long while ago. I think of them often. Good memories. The kind of feelings that give me a little lump in the throat. Feelings that are, shonuff, right as rain.

Bill Stamps' book "Miz Lena" may be purchased on Amazon (soft-cover and Kindle). Or order a signed copy at His second book, "Southern Folks," is due to be released in late June.