Back in the '50s, when I was a little boy growing up in Middle Tennessee, I had many teachers. Kind and somewhat elderly women. White ladies and black ladies. They had raised families and been through one lifetime already. I paid attention to them. I could tell by their expressions that they meant and believed everything they told me. Older ladies are like that. Plus, they're really smart.
I lived with my mother and two younger brothers in a very small farming town a little over an hour south of Nashville. Everybody knew one another's life story. Most were born there and never left. The population never got too far past a hundred. Somebody old would pass on, and a baby or two would be born.
What there was of a downtown was on both sides of a skinny two-lane road that slipped through it. Only seven buildings. Six of them open for business.
All the maple and oak trees that lined both sides of the cracked sidewalks changed colors in unison. In the really cold winter months, the trees seemed to be crying. They had lost their leaves and succumbed to glistening, tear-drop icicles hanging from the lower limbs. I'd jump up and grab one and eat it. They were pretty good.
Without a doubt, the widow Mrs. Stephenson was the richest person in town. She was on up there in age. White hair rolled up in a bun, tiny hands, her skin porcelain pale. She spoke softly. Her laugh was little more than a "tee-hee."
She was bathed and properly dressed before the chickens woke up. Attractive but conservative attire. Later, in the afternoon, Mrs. Stephenson's formality would give way to comfort, and she'd change into her house slippers. She could walk, but in slow and shuffled footsteps. Once she sat down, she stayed there for a while. It took some effort for her to get back up.
When it got cold, I chopped kindling and brought in two scoops of coal for her daily. She may have had a lot of money, but you couldn't prove it by what she paid me. I didn't care that much. She would almost always offer me a steaming cup of hot chocolate. I'd warm my hands around it and try to sip it, even though I knew it was too hot, yet, to drink.
Mrs. Stephenson owned just about everything around there. All the downtown buildings. Most of the houses over by the school and a couple of crop farms just outside of Mount Pleasant. She lived in a small but fine home in town, across from the church and down the hill from the cemetery.
She rented out her front room to Ms. Swan, a middle-aged, prim and proper English teacher at the school and the "on the down low" love interest of Preacher Parks.
Like clockwork, every Sunday, right after church, rain or shine, Ms. Swan would drive Mrs. Stephenson up the hill. Mrs. Stephenson would step out, stand over her husband's grave and they'd talk for a while. In the better-weather months, the buttercups she had planted years ago would come back up around his headstone.
Mrs. Stephenson had lost her husband to the first war. He came from a fairly wealthy Kentucky family. Less than a year after they were married, he shipped off. Him waving to her through the train window was the last time she'd ever see him. She said that, one day, two men in uniform came to the front door to tell her that her husband had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
From that time forward, she gave her heart only to God and continued to teach school. History.
In the drawing room, she had two ornate, silver-framed pictures on the fireplace mantel. They were sorta tan, brown and white. Pastel colors mixed in. One was of the two of them on their wedding day and the other of him in his Army uniform.
We'd sit in there. Her, on that feather-stuffed, cranberry-purple couch. Me, across from her, tucked back into the matching chair. Whooshes of warmth coming from the pine-sapped logs, popping in the fireplace. Drapes pulled back and the shade rolled up. Whatever sun there was came through the window and made that side of the room golden. Mrs. Stephenson would crochet and ask me questions.
She'd ask me what I intended to do professionally. If I intended to travel abroad someday. Had I given thought to possibly learning another language. I hadn't given thought to any of it. I was still marveling over Superman being able to see through walls.
She'd point over toward the mantel and tell me the story, in a loving way, almost in a reverent tone, of how she and her only love had met at a Nashville summer party and danced the night away outside on the patio under the stars. He was an excellent dancer, according to Mrs. Stephenson.
I could tell she loved to tell the story, as she often did.
Every once in a while, she'd add something I hadn't before heard. Like the horse he bought for her or what a great singing voice he had. She'd trail off and eventually stop talking. She was somewhere back in time for a minute. Just staring at those pictures. Then I'd see her gears click, and she was back with me. Class began.
Mrs. Stephenson would bring her feet up on the couch, wrap her shawl around her shoulders and tell me interesting and elaborate stories of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, America's first settlers and all about the goodness of God. Not necessarily in that order. Eventually, it became more like Sunday School.
We discussed interpretations of biblical passages or the meaning and importance of faith and hope. That one must have faith and, even in the most dismal of times, the Lord provides us a "silver lining." Pretty heady stuff for a 9-year old to consume. I suffered through it. That hot chocolate was good. If her stories got too long, she'd offer me another cup. I always accepted.
Grayness fell through the window. The golden rays on that side of the room had vanished. A dark cloud covered up the winter sun. Wind bounced off the house.
Mrs. Stephenson said, "Sweetheart, go look out the window." I did. She said, "Just watch for it." I was waiting for something. The cloud moved over and a sliver of the sun began to gleam, just below the cloud.
Mrs. Stephenson, with her arms stretched out, jubilantly exclaimed, "Behold! The Lord's silver lining." Then, in her teacher voice, said, "It is very important for you to remember there is always hope for those who have faith in the Lord."
I still remember. I have renewed my faith. And I keep hoping.
Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment industry before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.