EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Stamps is on a six-week hiatus. Here's one of his favorite past columns.
In my early childhood, I lived with my grandparents off and on for a few years on a farm in Middle Tennessee. That was a glorious time.
It was decided that we'd move into town and leave the farm in my grandmother's brother's capable hands. Grand Mom, Miz Lena, they called her, was fast becoming a builder of homes and subdivisions.
A horrific car wreck a couple of years back had almost killed her. The insurance finally paid out, and Miz Lena took the money and bought a farm, which she intended to turn into a classy subdivision. Being in the city of Columbia, where she was building, was deemed imperative. For me, it would take some adjusting.
Miz Lena brought most of her house staff into town with her. Elizabeth, her head housekeeper of many years, came with us. I could tell Elizabeth and Miz Lena had respect for one another. My grandmother was as nice to Elizabeth as a white woman in the '50s could afford to be. It was a different time.
Grand Mom never raised her voice at Elizabeth. There just weren't a lot of "please and thank yous."
Elizabeth was like a mother to me. She was the best hugger I knew and was as sweet as she could be. She used to tell me that she loved me like I was her own. I loved her right back. At that time in my life, I needed someone who was soft and compassionate.
Elizabeth showed me how to cup my hands and close my eyes when I prayed. She advised me to always give thanks to the Lord for all the good before I asked him for anything.
She was the appointed one who applied Mercurochrome to my scrapes and cuts and then blew on the red-colored stuff to dilute the sting. If I sobbed about it, big, empathetic tears would bubble up and roll down her cheeks, her speaking to me soothingly, "Don't worry, Sweet Boy, it goin' away in a minute," and she'd blow on it some more.
Ever since we'd moved into town, I kept asking Grand Mom if we could go swimming. She wouldn't let us go to a public pool. Finally, Miz Lena commissioned Booker, Elizabeth's husband, to seek out a new swimming hole. He found one. There was a wide spot in a blue-green creek under a little brick-and-rock, vine-covered bridge on the way into town. Not too deep, just in case Elizabeth would have to wade in to get to me.
Miz Lena dropped Elizabeth and me off at the end of the bridge, and we'd walk down a path from there.
Miz Lena said, "Elizabeth, I'm goin' into town for just a bit and visit with Mr. Pilsley at Farmers and Merchants Bank. Then, I gotta stop into Taylor Hardware and pick me up some hinges, and then I'll come back by here and pick you up. I'll blow the horn twice, and y'all come runnin'. Be listenin' for me, and watch out for broken glass and snakes."
And with that, my little grandmother, in her big bubble-shaped, light green Cadillac was off! At a snail's pace. Wherever she went, it was at a few miles under the posted speed limit with several cars trailing behind her. In those days, no one would think of honking their horn at a little lady who could just barely see up over the steering wheel.
She'd say, "I can't hep it if they didn't plan their day out better. I'm not gonna run off in the ditch just so they can get somewhere."
Oftentimes on the way back home, Grand Mom would pull into the Cottage Grocery for a piece of candy. It was a little store, an old, whitewashed, wooden structure with an awning that stretched out and covered an Esso gas pump out front. There was a chipped and flickering Nehi Orange Soda neon sign in the front window and a black-screen front door with a Sunbeam Bread advertisement stuck to it.
The store was owned and run by an older couple who lived in the back. They never smiled.
Grand Mom reached back and said, "Elizabeth, here's a half-dollar. Y'all go on in there and git yuh a piece a candy each. Git me a peppermint and a pack of Salems. Hustle up now. I got things still left to do."
When you entered the store, there was an oscillating, stand-up fan to the right that pushed around a mixed aroma of fried chicken, cigarette smoke and Pine-Sol. The old scuffed-up hardwood floor made a creaking noise with your every step.
Sometimes, the pull-to curtains that separated the old couple's rear living quarters from the store were left open. You could see the old lady sitting at the kitchen table, staring at space and smoking.
The old man was always up front at the elevated counter, sitting in a brown, high-back, wooden chair, listening to nasal country music, static and all, coming out of a black-and-chrome portable radio with lots of Scotch tape wrapped around it.
You could just see the top of the old man's white head, his exhale of grayish-white cigarette smoke drifting toward an open window.
As we walked toward him, he stood up and immediately gave Elizabeth a disapproving scowl.
He was a little thin man with deep lines in his forehead and wrinkles around his eyes. Thin-lipped. A flappy, unironed, frayed and faded white shirt buttoned all the way up. His fingers and fingernails were yellowish-brown, stained from chain-smoking. He looked like he just woke up and was mad at the world.
A large clear glass jar with a glass top sat beside the cash register. It was filled with penny-a-piece, cone-shaped chocolates. Soft chocolate on the outside and white cream inside. I loved them. So did Elizabeth. We called them Chocolate Drops.
Elizabeth set the half-dollar on the counter and stepped back. I said, "May we have one peppermint stick, a pack of Salems and three Chocolate Drops please." Even though Grand Mom had said only one candy piece each, I was kind of sneaky. I'd eat one piece in the store before we got back to the car and eat the other piece in front of Grand Mom. Elizabeth never said anything.
The old man looked down at me and said, "You mean you want a peppermint and three n—— toes?" In those days, that was the crude rural slang name for the chocolate pieces. Then the old man sneered down at Elizabeth. She stared at the floor. Out of embarrassment and in honor of Elizabeth, I changed the candy selection to peppermints, and we returned to the car.
It was probably our unhappy demeanor, maybe Miz Lena's intuition or her noticing that Elizabeth and I had ordered peppermint sticks. Grand Mom asked, "What's the matter with you two?" I explained what had happened. She said, "You two wait right here." And off she went, fast walking, her omnipresent yardstick in her hand.
I sat on Elizabeth's lap, and we both watched through the car window, under the Nehi sign and through the store window, my wonderful little grandmother with her arms waving and pointing her yard stick at the little old man. She was wearing him out with a "Come to Jesus" tongue-thrashing that only Miz Lena could deliver. You could see the old man, not saying a word, almost standing at attention and looking down. She was really giving it to him.
Grand Mom returned to the car, and we took off toward the house. Tears began to run down Elizabeth's face and spatter on my arm. It made me begin to sob. You could hear Grand Mom sniffling. And then Miz Lena said, "I'm sorry, Elizabeth."
Not too long after that incident, Grand Mom put up the money for her grocer from out in the country, Gilly Truelove, to open a little store about a mile down the road from the bridge and a little closer to town.
From then on, that's where we went for our favorite candy. It sat right up front beside Gilly's cash register in a clear glass jar with a glass top. There was a little piece of tablet paper Scotch-taped to it. It read "Chocolate Drops." They were always free to Elizabeth and me.
Elizabeth ended up working for Grand Mom for almost 40 years. I'm sure Miz Lena and Elizabeth are residing in heaven together. They're probably up there in the clouds having some laughs. And I bet you that they're known to be the very best of friends, and couldn't care less what anybody thinks about it.
Bill Stamps' books "Miz Lena" and "Southern Folks" are available on Amazon.