Southern Folks: Life, God and the world according to Miz Lena

Bill Stamps

I grew up in the South in the 1950s, and thank God that I did. There's no love like Southern love. I've always paid attention to those people who took the time to teach me stuff. Beginning at 6 years of age, I realized they must have cared about me or they wouldn't have spent the time on me that they did. Such was the case with my grandmother. Everybody called her Miz Lena.

From time to time, she spoke with God out loud. It seemed like every time she did, it had something to do with me. She'd tell the Almighty how she was trying with all her might to teach me things "a man needs to know." Many times, after one of her analogies or scary story lessons, she would tell me, "Now, you just think about that."

Never, never, never tell your grandmother, "I already know that." Even if you do.

The few times I said it to Miz Lena, she acted like she'd been shot. She'd get over by the refrigerator where I could see her and put her hand over her heart and look to the heavens. From that point on, she paid me no mind. She went one on one, direct with the Almighty. I had no choice but to listen to her one-way conversations with him.

She looked up and said, "Lord, I don't know why I'm wastin' my breath on this boy. He ain't even 8, and he knows ever thing they is to know. I guess we might as well pull him outta school and let him git his self a job. Maybe dig some ditches. Haul some garbage. He don't need no education, 'cause he's already soooo smart."

Then she'd keep looking up and act as though she was receiving God's reply to her. As I recall, the Lord always sided with Miz Lena. Once, I asked her what God had said to her. Grand Mom wagged her finger, gave me one of her "you'll see" expressions and assured me that the Lord would catch up with me "right directly." That put a little shiver up my spine.

Rarely, other than funerals and holidays, did Miz Lena make it to church. Nevertheless, she saw to it that I sat in the den with her on Sunday mornings, and we watched Billy Graham's television sermon.

No offense to the Almighty or Reverend Graham, but I would have gladly given up one of my toes in exchange for my nonparticipation. Same went for Liberace and Lawrence Welk.

At least I didn't have to wear my Sunday School jacket, clip-on bow tie and those hard Buster Brown shoes. Still, an hour of Reverend Graham was almost as torturous. Especially since I knew "The Three Stooges" were on the other channel.

If you went by what Miz Lena quoted from the Bible, the Good Book was partial to grandmothers. In Grand Mom's world, there were as many commandments as were necessary for her to make a point. As a little kid, I really didn't know any better.

I knew a couple of the Ten Commandments but not all of them. I guess it seemed reasonable that "Thou shalt clean thy's plate" was one of them. There were several more.

When Grand Mom ran out of her self-serving commandments, she switched to scientists. She was constantly telling me what scientists said in the paper or on TV that helped substantiate whatever it was she wanted me to do.

During one of those just before bed, dreaded bath sessions, sitting on the edge of the tub, with a very convincing look on her face, Miz Lena told me, "Honey Baby, I seen on TV that scientists has proved that if yuh don't git all the soap outta yore hair, when yore warshin' it, it'll fall out later on while yore asleep. Now just think about that." I always rinsed extra thoroughly.

Every night, Miz Lena presided over me and my two younger brothers during our baths. My brothers took one together. I was always last. As strict as was she about us washing "real good" behind and in our ears and the dirt rings around our necks, Grand Mom had us on a clock. In and out in 10 minutes or less. Time was of the essence.

Go past 10 minutes, and she gave a little knock on the bathroom door and then barged right on in. There was one time that I came up with an idea that I thought was rather clever. I was pretty sure that Grand Mom would find it hilarious. I didn't run new water. Instead, I just lay there in the empty tub. Ten minutes must have gone by.

A quick knock on the door and here she came. She took one look at me and asked, "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?" I told her, "I'm getting dry-cleaned, Grand Mom." That didn't go over well.

I was well into my sixth grade before I realized that Webster's dictionary was strictly a book of correctly spelled words and their meanings. I was half shocked. For years, Miz Lena swore up and down that she'd read about stuff in the dictionary.

In her very convincing authoritative tone, she'd quote Mr. Webster. She'd say, "Looka here, I looked it up in the dictionary. Children should be seen but not heard about." She got most of it right.

All through my early childhood, I marveled at how smart my grandmother was. Amazingly, she had retained and memorized all those scientific facts, numerous commandments and all kinds of things from the dictionary. It seemed like there was always another commandment, scientific findings or new words to remember.

Many times, the words were ones that she mispronounced. Like, "ole" instead of oil. "Theys" instead of theirs. "Coat" rather than quote. "Warsh" instead of wash. I can't print the word she used instead of shut when she told me to shut the door.

Her most effective way of making a point to me was with her stories. They always had to do with the Almighty closely watching a little boy about my age.

Like the one about the kid whose tongue swelled up every time he sassed his mama or told her a lie or didn't come home, when she hollered out the back for him to "come on in." In many of these cases, according to Miz Lena, God got fed up with the boy, stepped aside and let the devil take over.

Miz Lena told me, "They was this little boy about yore age who kept tellin' lies about ever thing. Well, he told so many of 'em, the devil come in and made his tongue swell up ever time he lied. His tongue got so big, that they had to pull out all his teeth, and then they had to cut out his tongue. Well, from then on in, the poor little boy couldn't eat nothin' but baby food. It wadn't much time after that, and he up and died from starvation. Now, just think about that."

Sometimes, Miz Lena's vast knowledge of so many biblical tales and scientific stuff made me afraid to step off the front porch.

Southern Folks

If you've ever read "Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes," there's some pretty cruel things that happen to kids. The old woman who lived in a shoe and had a bunch of kids ended up spanking all her children and putting them to bed without any supper. Jack fell down the hill and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. The Humpty Dumpty thing. Miz Lena's tales put Mother Goose to shame.

There's no telling how many times I went to bed praying that I'd still be there in the morning. All night, I heard every creak in the floor or noises coming from outside, right up under the window. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw "goobly gops" standing across the room, behind the curtains, just waiting till later in the night to squish on over to my bed and get me.

All that, and I still had to deal with the creatures with frog legs lying on their bellies under my bed. I took a run and jumped into bed. Otherwise, they could grab me by my ankles and pull me under.

I know my grandmother realized that I was a different kind of kid who needed a special kind of discipline. She felt that she had to really lay it on thick in order to get my attention. I guess a lot of it worked.

Miz Lena gave me a lot to think about. I miss her and her caring ways.

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.