For a few years of my very young childhood, I lived with my grandmother, Miz Lena, on a farm in Middle Tennessee. She had her hands full, taking care of me and my two brothers while my mother was away recovering from her demons.
Grand Mom was a country woman. She wasn't a terribly consoling person. She grew up on a farm. If something hurts, you just deal with it. If something is wrong, you fix it. To her way of thinking, there was a logical and correct answer for any problem: her answer. Furthermore, there could be dire consequences coming your way if you didn't heed to her tenured advice and country remedies.
She'd say, "Looka here, if you don't stop pickin' at that, it's gonna start bleedin', yuh'll start gittin' dizzy, and I'm gonna haf tuh run yuh up to the emergency room at the hospital. They'll probly haf tuh give yuh a needle shot. One a them long needles. They's gonna stick it right in yore knee. I know them needles hurt. Now, you don't wanna haf tuh go to the hospital, do yuh?" I didn't.
Then, she said, "Elizabeth, run git me that mecurachrome out from my medicine cabinet." Elizabeth was my grandmother's longtime housekeeper, a wonderful black lady who took care of everything.
Grand Mom really didn't have to go into such elaborate detail, but it was effective. I stopped picking at my always present scabs. I got a new one every few days.
She once told me, "Looka here, sit up straight. You wanna grow up to be all bent over. Hunchbacked. Walkin' around ever'where lookin' down at the ground. People tryin' to get up outta yore way. Yuh won't be able to find work nowhere. You'll probly end up sleepin' under some railroad tracks. If I was you, I'd be sittin' up like yuh cared a little bit about yoreself. Strong men stand up straight."
I was just 5. I didn't feel a curve forming in my spine. But Miz Lena seemed to know what she was talking about.
When Grand Mom sensed that she wasn't getting through to me, she'd bring in the Almighty — and Elizabeth for backup. Grand Mom's God was a no-nonsense one and, apparently, didn't care much for the chattering of children.
Almost all of Grand Mom's sermons took place in the kitchen. Elizabeth was always close by.
I was sitting at the breakfast table, asking Grand Mom questions, one right after the other. They were the kind of questions that made her have to think too much. She and Elizabeth were at the sink doing the dishes with their backs to me. Elizabeth washed. Miz Lena dried.
I guess Grand Mom had had enough. Over her shoulder, she said, "Son, why do you think the Lord wrote down, "Children should be seen and not heard? Cuz kids kain't learn nothin' if they's talkin' all the time. Elizabeth, you ever learn anything while you wus talkin'?" Elizabeth said, "No'm, Miz Lena."
She covered a lot of territory. Nothing was off-limits. I remember her take on Catholics. She told me, "Now, what I was sayin' is that yore not gonna make it to heaven if you keep hangin' around with the wrong kinda' people. Little Mike's a nice young boy, but his family is Catholic, and they don't believe in what Christian people do. They ain't nothin' in the Bible sez yore supposed to eat fish on Friday. Elizabeth, did yuh ever read anything about fish on Fridays in the Bible?" Elizabeth said, "No'm, Miz Lena."
Grand Mom continued, "I told yuh, already, Son. God notices the kind of people yuh run around with. Remember this, the Lord don't look the other way. You ever hear anything in the Bible about Catholics? Well, there's a reason for that."
She never explained the reason. Miz Lena was her own kind of religious. She rarely went to church. Mostly holidays — Christmas and Easter. She was Presbyterian. The only praying I ever heard out of her was when she was at the end of her rope with me. She'd look up and say, "Oh, dear Lord, please help me git through to this boy."
However, Miz Lena loved going to church to attend funerals. It didn't matter who died. She always seemed to take over the event. Dressed in her Sunday best, she became the grieving family's unofficial greeter.
Standing by the casket of the dearly departed, Miz Lena would greet those who came to the front to pay their last respects with, "Poor Mr. Black. I do wish he had taken better care of himself. Well, he's in a better place now, I'm pretty sure. Oh Honey, that's a beautiful dress. Did you get that at Harvey's in Nashville? I think I saw that one in the front window last fall."
She'd stand up front, clutching her purse and talking to her fellow mourners, until the eulogy began.
One time, she returned to our pew and said, "Well, at least that poor woman don't have to worry no more about where he is at all hours of the night."
I'm now in my 60s. And, sure enough, a lot of Miz Lena's teachings have stuck with me. I stand up straight and have found that I learn more when I listen.
Grand Mom and Elizabeth have passed on. I have to assume, by now, my grandmother has bumped into several Catholics up there. I can only imagine her reaction.
I've thrown caution to the wind. I've been with my true love, Jana, for the past 22 years. She's a Catholic. So far, so good. I'm sure Miz Lena has realized that she was wrong about Catholics. She was already warming up to them when Kennedy came into office.
Little Mike and I stay in touch.
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.