It was the '50s. I was a kid, living with Miz Lena, my grandmother, on her farm in Middle Tennessee. Black sharecropper families lived there, too. They were about a quarter-mile down the dirt road from the "big house."
Apple, pear and blooming cherry trees growing up front, out back and in between a dozen little white-washed houses with tin roofs and blood-red chimneys. A few gardens, planted up next to bending, backyard, wooden fences. Weaves of orange, white and yellow honeysuckle running here and there.
At certain times of the year, after a good rain, the wet earth, mixed with the pungency of the honeysuckle, rolled across the pastures. It was like inhaling perfume.
I knew all of the families. All the kids. They were good people. They truly believed God was with them every minute of every day. It wasn't unusual to see one of the men, working in the field, look to the sky and begin to sing songs to the clouds and sun, in coarse-but-perfect gospel pitch. Sometimes, they made up the words.
They sang about their love for the Lord. About being blessed with family. Having work. Sometimes, others, working in between rows of nearby 6-foot stalks of corn, would wail out their praise for the Almighty. A jubilant "Hallelujah" or a "Thank you, Jesus" that fit perfectly within the rhythm of the song.
Even as a 5-year-old boy, I remember thinking just how special those moments were. I'd sit up on a rise and watch them for hours. There was something about those black people. They appeared to have a magical connection with God. It seemed like they knew something about the Lord that they were keeping secret. I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
My favorite person on the farm was Elizabeth. She worked for Miz Lena, in the big house. She looked like Aunt Jemima's twin sister. Bandana and all. Seems like she was always wearing a red-and-white checkered apron. Her voice was smooth, and her ways were gentle. Her eyes expressed her mood. Ninety-nine percent happy. A pinch of caution. She had complete faith that the Lord was looking out for her. Guiding her.
Through the years of working for Miz Lena, Elizabeth had found a way to deal with my grandmother's to-the-point demeanor. Grand Mom could be a little rough around the edges. Elizabeth and Miz Lena had met minds a long time back. They knew each other well. Different-colored skin. Way different lifestyles. But they were both proud Southern women.
For some reason, Elizabeth thought that everything I said or did was hilarious. She'd start giggling and then into her infectious laughing. She'd be laughing and bend down to pat her knees. Her laughing made me laugh. The good kind of laughs that hurt your stomach a little. She'd take out her hankie, dry her tears of joy, and say, "Sweet Child, you is yo' own kind o' funny."
That line has stayed with me. At the time, it sounded good to me. Now, all these years later, I'm pretty sure she meant that my sense of humor, or my take on things, was a little different. She was prophetically right. All my life, I've felt a little bit like an outsider. Not in a "boo-hoo-poor-me" way. Just different.
I once tried to make a watermelon grow inside me. I ate watermelon seeds, drank lots of water and swallowed a quart of dirt. Nothing happened. Not even a sprout. Maybe eat a little more dirt, I thought. I became deathly ill.
Elizabeth nursed me through that ordeal. Castor oil, Bromo seltzer and black coffee. Let's just say her remedy was extremely effective but humiliatingly uncomfortable. I remember Elizabeth shaking her head and doing her best to coach me through it. She'd cradle me and say, "You is gonna be awright, Baby. You jus' kain't go swallowin' no mo' dirt."
I'm embarrassed to say that I tried it once more with a cantaloupe. Same results.
When Miz Lena got wind of what I did, she summoned me to the kitchen. Me sitting at the breakfast table. Grand Mom, with her hands on her hips, leaning in and looking at me. Deep concern in her eyes. Like she was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Semi-circling around my chair. Saying things under her breath. Just loud enough for me to hear the gist of it.
Things like, "Lord, I'm worried about this boy."
When all her attempts of reasoning with me failed, she went to her standard scare tactics.
Miz Lena said, "Looka here, I didn't wanna haf to tell yuh this. But we found yuh under a rock, down by the spring. Yuh was just a little baby. We decided to take yuh in and raise yuh like yuh was one of our own. We was afraid this day might come. If yuh keep this kinda stuff up, I'm afraid I'm gonna haf to call up to Madison, to the insane 'sylum, and tell 'em to come git yuh. It don't look like yore gittin' any better. Looks like yuh caught crazy. Eatin' dirt! The very idea."
That rattled me.
Soon after that, I asked Elizabeth if she thought that I was catching crazy.
She cupped my face in her hands, smiled, and barely above a whisper, said, "Don't you worry, Sweet Child. Da' whole world is catchin' crazy. Someday, da' Lord is gonna come down here and fix things."
That was comforting to me. Her being black and having that magical connection with the Almighty. I figured that I was in on their secret.
I still believe Elizabeth was right. Seems like it's about that time, Lord.
Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.