It was the 1950s. Saturday morning. I was a little kid, once again living with my grandparents. My grandmother, Miz Lena, and the two black ladies who worked for her, Elizabeth and Dimple, were in the kitchen. Elizabeth was at the stove, hand on her hip, cooking some great-smelling bacon.
My two younger brothers had already eaten and headed down the hill to play. I was a little late waking up. Chances are, had I stayed in bed just a little bit longer, that buzzer would have gone off in Miz Lena's head. She'd have been in there pulling the covers off me and telling me that I was gonna get sick if I slept too long.
Same went for me watching too much TV. She used to say, "Honey baby, the scientists on the news said too much television'll give yuh a headache that they don't have no cure fer. I'm tellin' yuh this for yore own good. Now, git on outside and git some fresh air in yore lungs and some sunshine on yore face."
Grand Mom and Dimple were at the sink. Miz Lena was telling Dimple how the day was gonna go. It was pretty much the same schedule they'd had for years. Except for one thing. It was time for redemption. This was Green Stamps Saturday!
I walked in and said good morning to them. Dimple turned around with one of her big expressive smiles, the kind that runs from ear to ear. In her shrill but little voice, she said, "Good mownin', Butch. I hope you sleep good las' night."
Elizabeth waved me over to her. She wrapped her arm around me and pulled me close to her side for one of her patented, reassuring hugs. She flipped the bacon, looked down at me and in her soothing, velvety voice said, "Good mownin', sweet child. Is you hungry fuh some breakfast? Yo' grandmamma have you some orange juice awready squeezed an' sittin' in da 'fridgerator fo' you."
That Southern, slow and smooth, Saturday morning yawny mood didn't last a full minute.
Miz Lena, not yet wishing me a good morning, turned around and got to the orange juice in a matter of seconds. She herded me to the breakfast table and actually pulled out my chair for me and pushed me in. Grand Mom said, "Looka here, Elizabeth's gonna make you some breakfast. You eat it right down, and head on outside. She kissed me on the top of my head and said, "Good mornin'. Now hurry up." Elizabeth set down my plate.
Grand Mom started doing her circling thing. When she had to wait for something or somebody, she sometimes walked in circles. If she had enough room, she did figure-eights. I ate as fast as I could. She patted my back and pointed me toward the door.
On the last Saturday morning of any given month, Miz Lena's kitchen turned into a small assembly line.
Swiftly and ever so carefully, the rooster and hen salt and pepper shakers, the wooden napkin holder, the iris-printed placemats, a small, milk-white vase of artificial pink carnation flowers and the cigar box full of my crayons were removed from the glass-top breakfast table and placed on the desk in the utility room right off the kitchen.
Elizabeth and Dimple sat down at the breakfast table, directly across from one another, sponges at the ready and a touch of anxiety in the air. Almost ceremoniously, Grand Mom brought in two or three large paper bags and dumped the contents out on the table. Reams of S&H Green Stamps and the little paper books in which the stamps were to be glued, 50 or so to a page.
It's about the only time that Elizabeth or Dimple sat at Miz Lena's table. Weather permitting, black help ate their meals on their own plates and utensils outside. In the colder months, they ate back in the utility room or standing up at the sink.
Miz Lena just couldn't bring herself to break white Southern protocol. It was the way she was raised. It's hard to let go of things that are beaten into your head from childhood.
I resented the way black people were treated. It just wasn't right. The same men and women who looked after me and my younger brothers weren't considered good enough to sit at a white person's table.
When you're a child, politically correct is way on down the line from decency and unconditional love. A kid pays more attention to kindness and thoughtfulness than to skin color. It's only later in years that we learn prejudice.
Back then, black people weren't allowed to sit in the front seat of a white person's car. Through the years, as we both got older, Grand Mom and I had discussions pertaining to black and white issues. I used to get a kick out of reminding her that she and every other proper white housewife in town were basically chauffeurs to their black help.
Miz Lena never had a comeback to that other than to say, "Looka here, I hadn't got time for one a' yore Martin Luther King speeches." Classic Miz Lena. She knew things weren't right, but realizing that she couldn't do anything about it, she didn't want to discuss it.
My grandmother loved Elizabeth and Dimple but couldn't publicly show it. Inside the house, it was a bit more relaxed. Still, there was a line that was never crossed. At least not till much later in Miz Lena's life.
In the '50s, many retail businesses, like grocery stores, gas stations, department stores and pharmacies, offered stamps, green in color, to their customers. They were called S&H Green Stamps. It was a way for businesses to build customer patronage.
The cashier "rewarded" shoppers a certain number of Green Stamps based on their total purchase. If you spent 25 bucks for groceries, you'd get a big sheet of stamps. Fifty dollars, and you got twice as much, and so on. It took 1,200 stamps to fill up a book. There were signs out in front of businesses and decals in their windows that read, "S&H Green Stamps Inside." It was a big deal.
Shopping at the grocery store was an event. People in line, behind the woman checking out, would ooh and aah and sometimes applaud when rolls of Green Stamps were presented to a customer who'd bought a bunch of groceries.
An everyday housewife with big families to feed could walk out of the store feeling like a winner. She'd strut to her car like a movie starlet and glowing from her 15 minutes of local fame.
Miz Lena had it all on the clock. From experience, she knew that it would probably take Elizabeth and Dimple about an hour to glue all the stamps into the books, enough time for her to make a couple of calls, change out of her "house clothes" into something more presentable and thumb through her S&H Green Stamps catalog, featuring Dinah Shore on the front cover.
There was page after page of cool merchandise one could be rewarded based on how many books of Green Stamps you filled up. It only took two books to get a lamp or an electric corn popper or a pair of roller skates or a football or stainless-steel items for the kitchen. They used to advertise that with enough books, you could get yourself a motorboat.
Back at the breakfast table, Elizabeth and Dimple were head down into it, ripping and gluing Green Stamps onto each page of the books. In Dimple's mind, there was a friendly competition between them. Who could finish first and with the most filled books? I think Elizabeth knew what Dimple was up to but never let on.
Elizabeth used a damp sponge to wet the glue side of the sheets of stamps. In the beginning, Dimple licked the stamps and made "ugh" and "ick" sounds. She thought she could move faster by licking them. Eventually, she switched to the sponge.
Green Stamps Saturday was the best Saturday of every month. Everybody — Elizabeth, Dimple and I — got something. It was kinda like Christmas. Off we went, me and Elizabeth in the back seat, Miz Lena at the wheel with the front seat pulled up as far as it would go, steering her big bubble, mist-green Cadillac toward the S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center, clocking speeds up to 15 miles per hour. We'd get there in a little bit.
As usual, before we got out of the car, there were last-minute instructions from Miz Lena, directed to me, about how to act once we got inside. Grand Mom almost always brought up an incident that had happened some time back. She'd say, "Looka here, I don't wanna hear, ever again, about you tellin' any of them ladies how yore kin to Mr. Green Stamps and askin' for a family discount."
Yes, I did that. Those were some great times. Times that shall, unfortunately, never come again. Uncle Green, if you're out there, I hope you're well.
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.