When I was a little boy, my grandmother, Miz Lena, asked me what I thought was the greatest gift given to me by the Lord. I answered, "Rain." She cupped my face with her hands and said, "I know, Honey-Baby."
My duties as a child, while living with my mother, were to help keep the house straight and look after my two younger brothers as best I could. Even when you give it all you got, it's sometimes not enough.
Three young country boys living without a father figure around makes it tough on a divorced, working woman. Back in the mid-'50s, divorces weren't nearly as common as nowadays. Many times, a disgruntled couple would appear before a judge and explain to the court why they wanted a divorce, and the judge would tell them to go back home and work things out.
If you have kids, I think you should do everything you can to keep the family together. Divorce should be a tough decision to make. Consequences should be considered. It used to be that way.
Another thing about back then, there weren't as many women in the public workforce as now. We were still in that mindset that women stayed home, raised babies, cooked and kept everyone in clean underwear. Daddy brought home the bacon. Times and things have changed. Some, for the good. Some, not so much.
Mom was a schoolteacher. I'm pretty sure that the school janitor's take-home pay was more than Mom's. In the '50s, schoolteachers, especially women, were admired but paid a meager salary. The courts were generous to the men, when it came to alimony and child support. I don't know how much Mom received, but I can assure you that it wasn't enough. If we three boys hadn't been on the hand-me-down system, at least one of us would have been walking around with no clothes on.
My mother never got over my dad. She nursed her heart with prescriptions written by a rather shady, little doctor who was in it for the money. I'd sit up with Mom at all hours and talk with her about the cruelties of the world. She'd take a pill, wash it down with a beer and smoke one nonfiltered Lucky Strike after another.
Mom fought her demons all of her short life. Up until the time she left us, she apologized to me over and over about her mistakes and her inability to conquer her troubled soul. I felt so sorry for her. I loved her.
At a very young age, I turned into an insomniac. About the only time I could get sound sleep was when it rained.
When things at the house got too crazy, my brothers and I were carted off to live with my grandparents on their farm in Middle Tennessee. It was a large farm, not that far from town. My grandfather was an architect and commuted to Nashville. Miz Lena, very handily, oversaw the farm. She ran a small herd of cows, grew tobacco and raised corn.
Elizabeth, Grand Mom's housekeeper, and her husband, Booker, along with several black sharecropping families lived on the property in a little village of small, tin-roof, whitewashed houses about a quarter-mile down from the "big house." As hard as they worked, and as disadvantaged as they were because of the color of their skin, they were the happiest group of people I've ever known.
They worked hard, got paid for it and felt good about themselves. Their children, from an early age, were taught out of the Bible and strictly disciplined. Their manners were impeccable.
Right after supper, and if the weather was right, they'd pull all their chairs off their porches and set them out around a circle of handpainted, white rocks and build a fire in the middle of it. In the cooler months, the burning logs kept them warm. In the summer, the fire kept the mosquitoes away. They'd break out their guitars and a fiddle, and a little bald-headed man, a harmonica in his shirt pocket, would drag his chair up and sit down right next to Elizabeth.
When I saw them setting up, I'd run down the hill and crawl up into Elizabeth's lap and snuggle into her enormous bosom. We'd clap our hands and sing. Mostly gospel hymns. Once in a while, a fun song for the kids. "Charlie Brown, he's a clown / he's gonna get caught / just you wait and see / why is everybody always pickin' on me."
Booker was a stout man who oversaw the field workers for my grandmother. Elizabeth and Booker's home was a little larger and nicer than the rest of the families'. Booker, at Elizabeth's insistence, must have painted the inside and outside of their home a dozen times. Booker didn't care. He loved Elizabeth and would do anything for her. Her happiness inspired his every stroke of the brush.
When dark clouds drifted over and it began to rain, wherever I was on the farm, I'd make a beeline for Elizabeth's.
Her house had two heavy-grout, red-brick fireplaces. One in the front room and the other one in the back off the kitchen in their bedroom. There was a framed picture of Jesus above the bed. The bed was pulled up next to the fireplace, across the room from a window always kept a little bit open. It was a big bed, with four or five of Elizabeth's hand-stitched quilts, all colors, laid out over a heavy, feather-down mattress.
I'd pull open the front screen door and get hit with one of my favorite aromas. Elizabeth always had beans simmering. You have to be Southern to fully appreciate the smell. You could have just had three hot dogs, but one whiff of those beans and you were hungry again. There's always room in a country boy's belly for a bowl of beans. Some cornbread, too.
I'd run through the kitchen and leap up onto her bed. The bed springs sproinged until the bed settled — kind of like applying the brakes on a car with no shocks. Within a minute, I'd begin sinking. It was a pleasant descent. The feathers in the mattress gave way to my weight, came back around and enveloped me. Snug as a bug in a rug. Extreme comfort and a sense of security. Falling asleep knowing you're safe and loved makes for sweet dreams.
In Elizabeth's bed with the rain coming down at a thousand drops a second and bouncing off that tin roof a little breeze, making the curtains flap, pushing its way through the window. It didn't take long, and I was out like a light. They'd let me be till I woke up.
I lived in Southern California for the better part of four decades. It hardly ever rains. A few years back, I paid big bucks for a super-duper mattress from Sweden or somewhere over there. It molds to the contour of your body and guarantees the best sleep of your life or your money back. I must say, it's pretty good! But nothing has ever compared to the sleeps I had in Elizabeth's bed.
I've learned time and time again that money can't always buy you quality in life, no matter how much you pay. You can't buy love.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.