For as long as I can remember, since I was a kid, there have been challenges to overcome. We've all been there. Some of it has been tough to deal with, the kind of stuff that's required me taking more than one stab at it to get it right. But once you've made it through some mistakes and a few hardships, you begin to understand yourself a little better.
You find out that you're a survivor. It's an empowering feeling. You got it, if you need it. My life has been analogous to an old saying we had in the Marine Corps, "We've been doing so much with so little for so long that we can do anything with nothing forever."
Long before my hitch with the Marines, I picked up a good deal of what I know about life and how to approach things from my grandmother. They called her Miz Lena. She was a proud Tennessean till the day she passed. One strong country woman.
Even if Grand Mom stood on her tiptoes, she wasn't that much over 5 feet tall. For all of her life, she was proof that dynamite comes in small packages. Sometimes, depending on the circumstance, she could have a short fuse, too.
She started out running a big farm. Very successfully. You should have seen some of those big strapping sharecroppers hop-to when she was on one of her rampages. They were high-stepping, and all you heard from them was, "Yes Ma'am, Miz Lena."
Things not moving along at her pace brought out the Great Depression survivor in her. She used to very simply, but with declarative conviction, say, "When yuh work, yuh work!"
Grand Dad was a prominent architect. He designed and oversaw construction of several state buildings. He was in high demand. He stayed plenty busy.
Grand Mom had it in her head that she was gonna build houses for a living. She insisted Grand Dad teach her about blueprints, electrical wiring, plumbing and a million other things related to building a house. I'm pretty sure he got tired of going through all of it over and over again. In my memory, it's the only time Grand Dad ever got more than a few words in edgewise.
If ever he decided he didn't want to talk about it anymore, Miz Lena would threaten to stop cooking for him. Grand Dad couldn't even make toast. She had him.
My grandmother had no formal education. The three R's, that's about it. Yet, she wisely and cunningly bought and sold stocks and bonds. She used to say, "I gotta hunch about them boys." When there were still telephone party lines, Miz Lena invested heavily into Southern Bell. She didn't sell off till she was in her late 60s.
She taught herself how to walk again after a horrific car accident. A big truck came across the double yellow line and hit my grandparents' car head-on. Amazingly, Grand Dad walked away practically unscathed. Miz Lena was pinned to the back in the trunk of the car. She was pronounced DOA on the way to the hospital and then came back to life. Grand Mom was paralyzed from the waist down. They said she would never walk again.
Within a year, she was back on the job and walking all around her construction sites. Miraculously, one day she just got up and walked into the kitchen. Elizabeth, Grand Mom's housekeeper, fell to her knees and hollered out, "Praise the Lord!"
From that time on, and for the rest of her life, every morning, the minute Miz Lena awoke, she thanked the Almighty for answering her countless prayers. They had all been the same. She wanted to walk again. God came through.
I never knew Grand Mom to be afraid of much anything. I only saw a hint of fear in her eyes twice.
Once at the farm. It was late at night. Grand Dad was away. There was an intruder downstairs in the foyer. Miz Lena in her nightgown, standing at the top of the stairs, a 12-gauge in her arms and me right next to her, hollered down, "I got a shotgun, and I'll blow a hole in yuh so big yore mama won't be able to tell it's you. Yuh better git up outta my house, right now!"
They took off running. We heard the kitchen screen door slam shut. She let me sleep in her bed that night.
The other time was when she was in her late 70s. She tearfully told me that she was having a hard time remembering things. She felt something was "just not quite right." Grand Mom was dealing with the early signs of dementia. It's a dreadful and humbling disease.
It was tough to use any excuses with her about anything. She had already been there and made it to the other side. She didn't pull any punches. Miz Lena used whatever psychology she needed to make a point, including the personal tragedies that she had had to overcome.
Like when she said to me, "Now, looka here, little Mr. Bill Stamps, are you gonna sit up here, and tell me you might throw up if yuh eat that cauliflower that I spent all day cookin' for yuh?"
If she called me Honey Baby, I had a good chance of talking her out of things. If she called me by my nickname, Butch, not so much. But there was still a glimmer of hope. If she started off with the "Little Mr. Bill Stamps" thing, it was not going to turn out too well for me.
She'd say, "After all I've been through. I come back from the dead, and you won't taste my cauliflower. Lord, God, what am I supposed to do with this boy?"
That's another thing. You didn't want her to start asking the Lord too much about what she should do. Apparently, sometimes, the Almighty was frustrated with me and recommended that Grand Mom take me out to the carport and apply a green hickory switch to my behind.
Miz Lena kept at me, "Son, how do yuh know whether you like it or not till yuh try it? You like beans, don't yuh?" Yes, I did. "Now, how is it that you know you like beans? 'Cause you tasted 'em! That's how! Same goes for anything. You kain't say fer shore till yuh know fer shore. Beans come right outta the ground, and so does cauliflower. Matter a fact, I think God planted 'em side by side. Now, sit yoreself up straight and take a few bites."
For good measure, she'd stand over me, look up toward heaven, and say, "I guess now, I've seen everything, Lord. Here my oldest grandson is almost a grown man, and he's afraid of a vegetable."
I was only 7, but still, she had a point.
Miz Lena wasn't impressed much when I cried. She'd just look at me as if she was shocked that I would dare cry about something. There were no comforting words coming from her. My grandmother was hard country when it came to my tears. She didn't believe in crying.
She said, "Looka here, what's so bad that it's makin' you cry? Men don't cry. Believe me, Honey, yore grandmama's got lots I could cry about. You don't have no idea. Here, come on now, yore gettin' my kitchen floor all wet. Now, just take all that cryin' mess outside and go git yoreself some toilet paper and blow yore nose, too."
If I dared whine about any kind of physical pain, she'd say, "You think yuh got it bad, try gittin' run over by a truck!" Again, she had a very good point.
Miz Lena could have been a great Marine.
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.