When my grandparents moved out of their farm and into town, my grandmother, Miz Lena, found jobs for the sharecropping families that had lived on her farm for years. Nearby farmers were only too happy to bring them onboard. It was known far and wide that Miz Lena employed some of the best field workers in Middle Tennessee.
She brought five workers to town with her: Elizabeth, her maid, who had already been working for her for many years; Booker, Elizabeth's husband; Dimple, her part-time cook and No. 2 maid; Clarence, Dimple's husband, who had also worked for Grand Mom as many years as had Elizabeth; and then there was Ole Tom.
Ole Tom's parents had been slaves. He was brought up hard. He worked sunup till sundown for Papa Harvey, my great-grandfather, Grand Mom's father. Her family's farm, where Miz Lena had grown up, was just down the road from Grand Mom's farm. When Papa Harvey passed, Mama Sue stayed on for a while. Eventually, Grand Mom bought a duplex and moved Mama Sue in town.
Many of Papa Harvey's field workers moved on over to Grand Mom's farm. Tom was one of them.
They were all black people. Of the five that Grand Mom brought to town, Ole Tom was the only one who was assigned new duties. His new job sort of got him off-kilter.
On the farm, Ole Tom had brawned his way through everything. Even though he was aging and had a pretty big belly, he was "strong as a ox," my grandmother used to say. They sent him home from Germany before the war was over. He was what we used to call "shell-shocked."
At the farm, you could get the most out of Tom by making bets with him. The trick was, they'd bet him a cigarette that he couldn't lift that 100-pound tote sack full of corn and throw it on the wagon. Ole Tom would say, "You done lost you a cigarette."
He could sling those big heavy bags all day long. Now that Ole Tom was in town, his brute strength wasn't necessary. He was in charge of mowing the lawn and keeping the push-mower blades sharpened, weeding and watering the flowers, clipping the boxwoods and sweeping off the driveway. He had become the groundskeeper of Miz Lena's beautiful new home.
It had antique white brick with light green shutters and huge white pillars on the front porch. It had been an old farmhouse that Grand Mom gutted and remodeled into a showpiece.
For years, her home was on the DAR tour. Once a year, in the spring, little old ladies, blue-blood grandmothers and the matriarchs of Columbia would hop on a bus and go walk through antebellum homes in the area. In those parts, it was a big deal to have your home on the tour.
I remember Grand Mom saying, "Dimple, you stand just inside my bathroom. Don't let 'em come in. They can stick they head in, but that's it. Do you understand, Dimple?" Dimple answered, "Yes'm, Miz Lena." Grand Mom continued, "Last year, I come up missin' two full rolls of toilet paper. Craziest thing I ever seen. Now, don't you mess up, Dimple. They can stick they heads in, and that's all she wrote."
Grand Mom had gotten into the house-building business before we left the farm. She'd buy a farm and turn it into a subdivision. She was always plenty busy.
People were constantly walking up the sidewalk to the side door leading into the den. That's where where Miz Lena conducted her business meetings. Often, she'd come out of the kitchen with her apron on.
Without fail, Ole Tom would catch everybody on their way up to the house and hit them up. He'd say, "Scuze me, kind Mister, could you give me two cigarettes? If you can spares two of em, I doesn't have to bother you no mo."
Builders, contractors, politicians, family members, housewives. They were all fair game. Almost everyone obliged Ole Tom. They could tell he just wasn't right.
By the end of the day, Ole Tom's left shirt pocket was filled with Lucky Strike, Camel, Winston, Chesterfield and Kool cigarettes. It drove my grandmother crazy.
Often, I would go out into the yard and keep him company. I was 8 years old. As per my grandmother's instructions, I stood back from him "a little ways."
Ole Tom talked to himself constantly. I couldn't hear what he was saying, until he started pulling real hard on some weeds. Like he was in the middle of a conversation with someone, he'd spout out, "If dey'd did what I did, dey'd be funny actin' too."
The rest of the time, he would mumble and chuckle to himself.
Sometimes, he'd look back at me and appear a little startled, as though he had forgotten I was there. Then he'd say, "Boy, why don't you make dem shoes move and git Ole Tom some cold drinks?" In the warmer months, I'd run him out a glass of iced tea.
Ole Tom got up off his knees, slowly. Wiped his brow. And with a big smile, said, "You think it hot now, wait till we gets to hell."
Often, Dimple and I were assigned to the "spit patrol." Tom would spit while he worked. He didn't chew chaw. He would just spit a lot. This habit also got on my grandmother's nerves. Big time.
She'd stand at the window, with her hands on her hips, and just stare out at Tom. She said, "Come here, Dimple. I want you to stand right here and keep a eye on Tom. If you see him spit, come git me."
Once, Grand Mom saw Ole Tom suspiciously walk into a gaggle of high bushes toward the north side of the front yard. The bushes separated Miz Lena's yard from Mr. and Mrs. Park's home.
Mr. Park was a banker. He and Grand Mom had done a little business through the years. Miz Lena liked Mr. Park. She didn't have the same feeling for Mrs. Park. They had had a falling-out about something. From that time on, Mrs. Park was never invited to the house and was written off the Christmas card list. Grand Mom addressed the card to Mr. Park and wife.
Ole Tom still hadn't come out from behind the bushes. Grand Mom sent Dimple, and me as a backup, out to investigate what he was up to. Miz Lena stood behind the front-porch screen door and watched.
Dimple went ahead of me and stood about 20 feet back from the bushes. In her extra-shrill voice, she hollered, "Tom, Miz Lena say you betta not be doin' somethin' bad back there. She say she don't want you messin' up her yard with yo bad habits. She say hold yo bidness til Mr. Adrian take you home."
Adrian was my grandfather.
Tom hollered out, "You tell Miz Lena I ain't doin' nuttin' in her yard. I doin' it in Miz Park yard." Dimple ran back to the front porch and repeated to GrandMom what Tom had said. Then, she came running back to the bushes. Ole Tom was still back in there.
Dimple hollered out to Tom, "Miz Lena say dat be fine wiff her. Go over on dat side much as you wants. She say you needs to go over there on dat side wiff all yo spittin', too.
When I think back about my childhood in the South, it feels like I grew up in a movie. A classic.
Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment industry before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook.