Southern Folks: Beans, Ole Tom and well-dressed scarecrows

Bill Stamps

I was spending a couple of weeks with my grandparents on their farm in Middle Tennessee. Spring was in the air. The trees around the big house were starting to look like themselves again. Overnight, yellow daffodils popped up in between the bordering rocks on both sides of the gravel driveway leading up to the big house.

Colorful birds winged in to let us know they were back. Some of them began preparing nests in the string of bird houses that hung in the big, black-trunked tree right out back of the screen porch. Miz Lena welcomed the goldfinches and red cardinals. She could take or leave the blue jays.

She was sitting at her desk in her makeshift office space in the corner of the kitchen. It was a big kitchen. Elizabeth and Dimple, Grand Mom's housekeepers, were fluttering around. My grandmother was head into her spring planting chart. The Worm Moon had come and gone. Certain vegetables needed to be planted right away.

Miz Lena decided that she was going to plant some beans down next to the bridge, this side of the creek.

Ole Tom strapped up the plow harness, pulled the reins back to him, stuck the sharp side of the plow into the green earth and yelled out, "Git up here, Blue." Then, he walked behind the big mule up and down the area Miz Lena wanted to plant. Between Blue's muscle and Ole Tom's stoutness, determination and the need for Miz Lena's praise, it didn't take long.

He came up to the kitchen, pressed his face into the screen door and said, "Scuse me, Miz Lena, we's ready tuh plant yo beans." Grand Mom looked up from her desk and said, "Tom, yore 'bout one of the smartest men I ever come across." Out in the country back then, the word smart could also mean you were a good worker.

Ole Tom grinned real big. He said, "I have me a cigarette till yuh ready fo' me tuh plant dem beans, Miz Lena." He sat down on one of the flagstone steps that led to the rose garden, lit up a cigarette and started talking to himself. Sometimes, he carried on a two-party conversation between himself and somebody else who lived in his head.

Miz Lena looked over at me and said, "Honey Baby, did yuh git enough tuh eat?" I told her I had. She said, "Elizabeth, git Butch some of that Welch's grape drink and let him take it on outside. Elizabeth said what she always said, "Yesum, Miz Lena."

I liked Welch's. Not so much that I was crazy about grape soda. I just liked the little cartoon Indian boy on the Welch's TV commercial. Woo Woo Welch's.

Miz Lena looked back up and said, "You go on outside, Butch. Don't pester Tom. I'll be out in just a little bit."

I've never been sure how long "a little bit" is. It varies, depending on who says it. With Grand Mom, it was up to 10 minutes. "I'll see you directly" can be a little bit more than a little bit or it can be half the day. Same goes for "in a little while." The one that really gets me is somebody saying, "I'll see you after lunch." Again, it depends on who's saying it.

Growing up in the South, you learn to be patient.

Ole Tom was a big black man. He took up most of the step. I sat one down from him. He asked me, "Butch, how old is you, now?" I told him, "Eight." He asked me if I liked beans. I told him I did. He chuckled and went back to his conversation with himself.

Whomever Ole Tom was speaking with was apparently telling jokes. Every couple of minutes, he laughed a little. Just before Grand Mom came out, he told his imaginary friend, "We's about tuh get busy up in here. Miz Lena be here in a minute. Gotta go learn dis boy how tuh plants beans."

Heading down the driveway, Grand Dad waved goodbye out his car window. Ole Tom and I waved back. No telling how many miles Grand Dad put on that brown, wide-finned Chevrolet. He commuted to Nashville five days a week. He kept his hand out till he crossed the bridge.

Grand Dad was a good man, reserved and softhearted. He never talked about himself. You had to ask him a bunch of questions to get one answer from him. He used to get tears in his eyes anytime Miz Lena laughed. It made him feel good seeing Grand Mom happy.

The screen door slammed shut, and here came Miz Lena. She was saying something. She, too, was talking to herself. Something about Grand Dad and "that nasty brown thing."

Grand Mom was upset that, once again, Grand Dad chose to wear his favorite and aging brown-tweed sports jacket instead of what she'd laid out for him. She was proud of Grand Dad's new title as Tennessee's state architect and wanted him to aesthetically represent his prestigious appointment. She would say, "Adrian, yore the head arkiteck. You need to look yore best."

Grand Dad argued that he felt he was respected by his colleagues, regardless of what he wore, even if he wore his favorite brown-tweed jacket. Grand Mom always disagreed. Looking away, out of the corner of her mouth, she'd mutter, "Well, you ain't gonna get no respect wearin' that old thing." She always got the last word. Grand Dad just let it go.

By the time Miz Lena got up to me and Ole Tom, she'd verbally dragged Grand Dad and his brown-tweed jacket through the wringer. It took her awhile to get over things.

She said, "Well Tom, let's git tuh gittin'. Do you have yore men ready tuh go?" Ole Tom said, "I sho' do, Miz Lena." Grand Mom looked down at me and said, "Honey Baby, promise me yuh'll dress right when yuh grow up and start workin' for a livin'." I promised I would. Off we went, to the spot Ole Tom plowed up for Miz Lena's beans.

Another three black men were standing there and at the ready. Grand Mom said, "Good mornin', men." Almost in unison, they said, "Good mownin', Miz Lena." She told them to not mash the beans too far down, to be particular with their spacing and see how much planting they could get done by lunch. Ole Tom and the men got to work.

Southern Folks

On the way back up to the big house, Grand Mom gave me her speech on first impressions and how important it was to best represent yourself to others. She told me once and a thousand times more, "First impressions is important. If yuh don't respect yoreself, ain't nobody else will." Grand Mom was a stickler for hygiene, too. She'd say, "They ain't nothin' worse than a smelly person."

Ole Tom and his men got all the beans planted that day. The next morning, he came to the kitchen door and proudly announced, "We's through, Miz Lena." Grand Mom gave him more praise for a job well done. Tom puffed up and smiled real big.

Grand Mom said, "Hold on a minute, Tom." She came back, pushed open the screen door and handed him Grand Dad's brown-tweed jacket and said, "Tom, I want yuh to go make me a scarecrow and put this old thing on him." Ole Tom said, "Yesum, Miz Lena," and took off down the hill.

Grand Dad didn't notice his jacket missing for a couple of days. He was coming across the bridge and saw it. A scarecrow was wearing his jacket! He stepped on the gas. Grand Dad had somebody go down to the bridge and retrieve the jacket. It was covered with bird droppings. Grand Dad was pretty upset. He confronted Grand Mom at the kitchen sink and insisted that she get his jacket dry-cleaned.

Grand Mom didn't even look up from the dish she was drying. Almost in a reverent tone of condolence, she told him that his coat was "too far gone" and that it was "probably for the best." Dead silence. Grand Dad said, "Unbelievable," and turned to walk out.

Grand Mom leaned back from the sink and hollered at him, "Looka here, yuh seen all that mess on yore jacket? Well, them birds has already eat up half my beans! I got Ole Tom makin' me a new scarecrow right now. Even them birds don't have no respect for that sorry brown jacket."

Once again, Miz Lena got the last word. Once again, Grand Dad let it go. It was a marriage made in heaven.

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