Off and on, in my early childhood, I lived with my grandmother, Miz Lena, in a small town in Middle Tennessee. She was a country woman who came up off the farm and made good.
I learned a lot from her, stuff that's stayed with me through the years.
Be kind to people and treat them with respect. Watch your manners. Be sure you know what you're talking about before you open your mouth. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don't take any guff from anyone. Stand your ground.
That's the way Miz Lena conducted her life. She was a proud Southern woman. The complete package. I loved her very much, and, in spite of her hard line, I could feel her love for me.
When you're a kid and being disciplined, it can feel like they have no love for you. No mercy either. It's when you get older that you realize they were doing it for your own good. And because they loved you.
On many more than one occasion, I felt my grandmother's concern for my future well-being at the snappy end of a green tree limb. She went back and forth on whether she was "whippin' the devil outta me" or "switchin' some sense into me." Either way, she got my attention, as she would say, "right quick."
Grand Mom could be a little crusty around the edges. She used to say, "Don't let nobody tell you who you are. You need to figure that out fore yoreself. And yuh better git to figurin'." She started putting that in my head when I was 5. I've pondered that thought all my life.
I attended part of my third grade at McDowell Elementary School on Seventh Street in Columbia. I didn't know anybody. It wasn't the first time. Before I turned 10, I went to six schools. It's hard to make and sustain friendships when you're in constant transit.
For a while, my best friends were two black ladies who worked for Miz Lena. Elizabeth and Dimple. They were happy people, even though they had been dealt the short end of the stick, being black and all. The South was pretty rough on "people of color" back in the '50s.
I learned a lot from them as well. They had soft hearts and soothing hands and found a way to be joyous in spite of the unfair life they were forced to endure simply because of the color of their skin. It's a time in history I think most white Southerners wish never happened.
While Grand Mom was direct, blunt and spared me no mercy, Elizabeth and Dimple taught me things accompanied with big smiles and congratulatory hugs.
They were Baptist women who had turned over their souls and destiny to the Lord. Elizabeth quoted and explained the Scriptures to me. Dimple and I had foot races and sang. Elizabeth sang, too. But not with as much enthusiasm as Dimple. She belted them out at the top of her lungs in a shrill key that could wake up the dead!
Dimple taught me "Jesus Loves the Little Children." She'd throw her head back and sing, "Jesus lubs da lil' chilren. All da chilren of da world. Red and yella, black and white. Dey is preshus to his sight. Jesus lubs da lil' chilren of da world." When she got to the black and white part, she'd point to herself and then to me.
Dimple told me, "Sweet child, whenever you is in trouble, you sing dis song, and yo' troubles is gonna go away."
Even though I loved Elizabeth, and Dimple was child-like, I did, from time to time, miss having kids my age to play with.
One Saturday morning, I got permission from Grand Mom to go run errands in town with Clarence, Dimple's husband. He was a little black man, barely taller than Grand Mom. He was bow-legged and talked through his teeth. Always in bib overalls and a little top hat. I sat in the back seat of his DeSoto, barely able to see out the window.
I wasn't especially crazy about going to the hardware store or the post office, but I knew that I could always talk Clarence into stopping off at Gilly Truelove's grocery store for a couple of chocolate drops or a Milky Way.
While in the store, I met a little black boy my age and invited him to come home with me and have lunch. Clarence had me call Grand Mom on Mr. Truelove's phone to make sure it was OK. Elizabeth answered the phone. Grand Mom was gone but would be back shortly. Elizabeth said she thought it would be all right. I didn't mention that the little boy was black. It didn't matter to me. I was just excited to have a new friend. His name was Calvin.
Calvin was a head taller than I, with huge brown eyes. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he was poor. His eyes lit up when I told him that we were having bacon-lettuce-and tomato sandwiches and soup. I figured we'd shoot some marbles after we ate. Or maybe run around in the yard. Throw some ball. Climb a tree.
We were just about to say the blessing when Miz Lena came in. She did a double take at Calvin. I could tell that she was somewhat taken aback. Black people, even black children, didn't sit at a white person's table. That's just the way it was. There was an uneasy silence.
Then I remembered what Dimple had told me. Instead of bowing my head, I started singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children." Calvin knew the song and joined in. Elizabeth, standing by the table, began singing as well. Tears began running down her cheeks. I could see it was getting to Grand Mom.
Calvin and I became friends. He came over often.
Years later, Elizabeth, with misty eyes, would tell me that she had felt the Holy Spirit walk into the kitchen that day.
When he was 16, Calvin got a job at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Army and ended up being stationed in Germany. When Calvin got out, he went back to work at Piggly Wiggly. He soon became assistant manager.
Any time Calvin saw my grandmother in the store, he'd drop what he was doing, hurry over to her and carry out her groceries. When I'd talk, long-distance, with Grand Mom, she would always tell me that Calvin said hello. She would say, "Honey Baby, Calvin is such a nice young man."
Thanks, Calvin. You were a great friend. Just like Dimple did with me, I'm pointing at you. Jesus loves you. And I could tell, so did Miz Lena.
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.