Due to some family problems, I lived off and on with my grandparents, Adrian and Miz Lena, on their farm in Middle Tennessee from the time I was around 3 or 4 years old.
It was a large farm. The "big house," everybody called it, had been built a long time ago to a Confederate officer's specifications.
It was a two-story, wood-and-brick house, all white with a green roof and Grecian scrolled pillars running across the front porch. Huge front windows looked out at boxwoods and yellow and purple irises up next to the house and beyond to the pastures below. They were green with seasonal wild sprays of lavender and yellow spread here and there.
Halfway up to the house, you crossed a wide creek over a bleached-out wooden bridge that had been built a lifetime ago by slaves.
Miz Lena, in the late of the day, would slip off and sit in her chair by the front windows and sip coffee, smoke a Salem and watch the cows graze. I left her alone. As young as I was, I somehow knew to let her be with her thoughts.
Off to the right and behind the big house were several small, rusty, tin-roofed, whitewashed homes where Miz Lena's farm help lived. They used to call them sharecroppers. They were black. All they'd ever known was farming. They were good at it. Everybody — men, women and their kids — worked on the farm.
During the day, a few of the younger boys and girls would carry buckets of cold water back and forth to their families in the fields. Later, they'd break for lunch up under water maples and birch trees that lined the creek.
Elizabeth was Grand Mom's trusted housekeeper. From time to time, Dimple, who mostly worked in the kitchen, would help Elizabeth with some of the more tedious chores. Like polishing all the silver.
Miz Lena's contention was, "If you don't clean it up regular, it's twice as hard to clean down the road. I don't wanna have to deal with all that come this Thanksgiving. There's gonna be too much else goin' on."
Elizabeth and Dimple would clean all the pieces and carefully place them back in those white boxes with the inside gold foil and the Cain-Sloan department store logo on the front. Back in the buffet they'd go, all set for Thanksgiving, still six months away.
Miz Lena was always prepared for anything. She used to tell me, "Honey Baby, life's full a' surprises. Yuh take care of what yuh can when yuh can."
She had two suitcases packed in case she ever had to go to the hospital. Brand new nightgowns, slippers, undergarments, makeup and a pack of cigarettes. Brand new suitcases too. They sat in the hall closet for years.
Grand Mom told me, "Yuh think I'm gonna trust yore granddaddy to bring me the right stuff from the house? I called him at his office last week and told him I was cookin' potaters and needed him to stop off on the way home and get me some milk. He brought me home a quart of Sealtest chocolate milk." Then she looked at the floor, shook her head, and said, "Poor man, he's been slippin for years."
In the back of the big house, just down the steps from the screened porch, was a picnic-type table and four or five wooden chairs pushed up around it. When the weather was good, Elizabeth and Dimple ate their meals out there. In those days, black people didn't eat in the same room as whites. It was either outside or in the back room.
Oftentimes, I'd go outside and eat my lunch with Elizabeth and Dimple. I loved them both, but I was much closer to Elizabeth. She, in many ways, was like a mother to me.
Elizabeth's the one who taught me how to tie my shoes using a stick. She talked to me about God's plan. Anything she said to me, I listened. Elizabeth was always laughing or smiling. Beaming from ear to ear. She spoke in a soft husky voice. It seemed like anything I said or did she thought was hilarious. I always loved being with her.
Dimple, God bless her, was sweet but a little different. She wasn't bigger than a minute and spoke in a very shrill, high-pitched voice. If she got tickled about something, she'd start talking to herself and laugh about it all day. You'd hear her, back in the kitchen, talk a little bit and then begin that laugh of hers.
Sometimes, she'd try to tell us a funny story, and before she could finish it, she'd start laughing at her own joke. Dimple was contagious. Even if you couldn't understand her, once she got wound up, you couldn't help but start laughing, too. She would get tears in her eyes and hold her stomach as though it was hurting. I'm not sure she ever completed a joke.
Before Elizabeth, Dimple and I began to eat, one of the three of us would say grace. Many times, Elizabeth would say, "Sweet Child, does you wanna gives thanks to da' Lord fo this meal?"
Every so often, Dimple would give thanks. It took a while. After she thanked the Almighty for our meal, she would begin speaking with her parents in heaven.
She'd say, "Hey, Mama, you remember dem pants I say Luther need? Well, he come home de other day wit' a pair. He say his friend from church let him have 'em. So I don't need em no mo'. Whut I really needs is some underwear fo' him. Could you see what you can do? Tell Daddy I speak wit' him later."
If Dimple rambled on too much, Elizabeth would jump in with, "Amen, amen and amen. Thank you, Dimple, fo' yo' words to God. Now, let's eat dis food befo' it fly away"
One time, Grand Mom asked me to go find Dimple. There were a lot of places to look. I found her upstairs in one of the bedrooms talking to her mother in heaven. I tiptoed backwards out of the room and headed down the stairs back to the kitchen.
Miz Lena looked up from the sink and said, "Where's Dimple?"
I said, "She's praying, and I didn't want to bother her. You told me to never interrupt anyone while they're praying."
Grand Mom asked, "Is she talkin' with her mama?"
I said that she was.
Grand Mom said, "That ain't prayin'. That's talkin' to somebody in heaven. They's a difference. When yuh pray, it's only to God. Go git Dimple, and tell her I said to git on down here. She can talk to her mama while she warshes these dishes."
And so life was, out there on the farm.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.