Back in the '50s, when I was 10, I lived with my mother and two younger brothers in Middle Tennessee, just a 15-minute drive south of my grandmother, Miz Lena's home, in Columbia. It was a little farming community where it wasn't unusual for them to go to some kind of church function almost every night.
Down by the creek, there was a roomful of Church of Christ worshipers, and in town, a mess of Baptists. Not just Baptists but rural Baptists. There's a difference. The most devout regular-type Baptists usually only attend church Wednesday nights and are in the pews for the first sermon on Sunday mornings.
Rural Baptists have something going on pretty much every day of the week. Sometimes two nights of choir practice. Meetings about the next upcoming church fundraiser. A warm-up sermon on Wednesday nights. Then another meeting to discuss finances.
Ninety-five percent of the nightly attendees were women of tenure, who had raised their families and loved their husbands but decided they'd give the rest of their lives and hearts to their preacher, the church and the Almighty. Not necessarily in that order.
The Holy Ghost was in those sweet ladies' hearts. The pies, cakes and cookies they baked and brought from home usually ended up in the preacher's belly. Even now, you just don't see too many skinny Baptist preachers walking around.
There were just over a hundred people living in town. I don't think we had a mayor or city council. The town was too small. It wouldn't have worked anyway. It would have been mighty tough for them to vote somebody into office over another neighbor. Besides, as far as any of them were concerned, things were just fine the way they were.
After all, most of them went to the same church, shopped at the same grocery store (the only one in town) and helped each other through difficult times.
If a neighbor was out of town, the rest of them kept an eye on their home. If someone was sick, it was their next-door neighbor's pleasure to finish up his yard, then step across the driveway and mow theirs. There was a real sense of community. One for all and all for one. Except for one old woman.
Everyone called her "Old Battle Axe." Nobody dared volunteer to take care of her yard. She lived in a little beat-up house within the city limits, across the street and down a few doors from Whiteside Drug Store. She had all her backyard hidden with a fence of faded grapevine sticks.
Her front porch screen was a deep-rusted color and sagged. She never mowed her front yard. Pretty much every weed known to man grew freely. Every spring, bindweed, pigweed, crabgrass and dandelions spread across her excuse for a lawn and thrived until it turned cold.
Toward the end of summer, from out of the weeds close to her house, big pumpkins popped up. Old Battle Axe just let them grow. The birds swarmed in and pecked away at them. Big black ants built their hills throughout her yard and lived off the cracked-open fruit throughout the rest of the hot days. Every once in a while, you'd see a green garter snake stretched out and sunning on her uneven and crumbling sidewalk.
Old Battle Axe never had a nice word to say. She had an old dog that, over the years, had taken on her demeanor. He, too, hated everybody. He even looked like her, or vice versa. A scrunched-up face and crazy eyes. He was a mix of pit pull, bulldog and mean.
That old dog barked all day long at anyone who passed by. I mainly walked on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. It wasn't a pretty sight for anyone passing by when the old dog pointed his backside to the street and did his business in the front-yard weeds. A Kodak moment, it was not.
I used to think Old Battle Axe didn't really need all those "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs in her yard. Between the signs, weeds, ants, snakes and all that dog poop, she didn't have much to worry about anybody wanting to trespass on her private property.
All the other people in town had some pride about themselves and kept their yards mowed and planted boxwoods and some azaleas up next to their houses, with thickets of yellow buttercups and purple irises growing here and there. Most everybody had an American flag hoisted in their yards or mounted up close to the front door.
I suppose you could call it a town. Just don't blink. There were only seven businesses and a dozen or so houses on both sides of the two-lane that ran through. The city limits started just as soon as you crossed the first bridge and ran out when you went over the second bridge, about a quarter-mile down.
There were two old spinster sisters who were a few years apart but looked like twins. Their homes were on the same side of the street at opposite ends of town close to the bridges. One of the spinsters had a double-sided white sign in black, hand-painted, capital letters that stated, "JESUS IS COMING." The other sister posted the same-size sign out in her front yard at the other end of town that read, "PRAISE THE LORD."
Those traveling through our little-bitty town got some church, whether they liked it or not. The sisters weren't ever asked to remove the signs. No one would dare. It would have been some kind of a religious crime. Blasphemy! Besides, they weren't hurting anything. At least the signs didn't read, "Honk if you love Jesus."
Seems like back then everyone pretty much believed in the same God. I guess as long as we all believe in a higher power, the Almighty lets nowadays' religious rhetoric slide. At least, he has so far.
I did odd jobs for practically everybody in town and got to know all of them pretty well. Widows, retired teachers, Preacher Man and nice old couples. Hardly any kids. They'd grown up and moved out or away. There were far more kids living on farms out in the country than in town.
After an early supper, most everyone stepped outdoors to stretch their legs and took a stroll up and down the sidewalks, from bridge to bridge. Neighbors stopped and spoke to one another with kindness and respect. They'd discuss the weather and ask about each other's families. Big smiles and laughter.
One old couple, anytime they saw me and my dog, Prince, would stop and pet Prince, and the woman would ask me if I was "goin' regular" to Sunday School. The man sometimes gave me a dime and told me to have a "sody pop" on him.
When people passed by Old Battle Axe's house, without a second thought, the men tipped their hats and said, "Good evenin'." The women looked toward the rusted screen porch and smiled. The old dog barked at them.
You could barely see the silhouette of Old Battle Axe, sitting out on the porch behind the screen. She never said a word back. Every evening, the same thing. I wondered why those good people passing by bothered being neighborly to such a mean old woman and tolerated her equally mean old dog.
One of the women in town told me that the Christian way was to treat Old Battle Axe the way I would have her treat me: the Golden Rule. She said, "Sometimes, it takes a while fer somethin' to catch on. Just be patient. Sooner or later, yuh'll touch her heart. The Lord'll see to it." I wondered.
Autumn arrived. There was a commotion of people at Old Battle Axe's house. Two or three men were working in her yard. It was mowed and cleaned up. The signs were gone. Every few minutes, one of the "sisters of the church" walked into the house with covered Pyrex glass plates and bowls of goodies. Old Battle Axe had fallen ill.
When the crowd dissipated, I braved up and went to her front screen door and hollered out, "I hope you feel better." From in the back, I heard a sweet and very weak voice say, "Thank you, honey."
As I stood there, feeling good about the moment and thinking I'd touched her heart, from out of nowhere, that mean old dog came full-blast running and growling down the hallway and bounced off the screen. He started barking up a storm. Scared me to death!
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I believe you can, but in some cases, it takes a while. You just gotta be patient. Sooner or later, a heart gets touched.
Remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This rule applies better to humans than mean old dogs.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is available in softcover and Kindle editions on Amazon. The limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcovers are sold out. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.