My grandmother's housekeeper, Elizabeth, used to tell me, "Sweet Child, you was special made by da Lord. Day ain't but one a you." Then she'd lean forward, pat her knees and start laughing, laughs that came from her belly. Then I'd start laughing. I'm pretty sure Elizabeth and I held some kind of record for the most laughter in one day.
Elizabeth was a stocky-built, black woman. Most of the time, she wore a scarf tied up around her head and a red-and-white checkered apron, along with long dresses and comfortable black shoes. If she and Aunt Jemima stood next to one another, you'd swear they were twins.
Elizabeth had a big light up smile coupled with compassion and understanding in her velvet voice. When I was a little boy, any time I had a problem with anything, she always seemed to come up with a remedy. She was the very best at making everything "all better."
I was not quite 6 and living with my grandparents on their farm in Middle Tennessee. In the mornings, when Grand Mom, Miz Lena, took off to check on her hired hands out in the fields, I stuck around the house with Elizabeth. I'd follow her from room to room. We talked about all kinds of things. Mostly, it was me asking her questions and her answering them.
I remember asking her where colors came from. If you think about it, that's a difficult question. Not for Elizabeth. Right off the bat, she told me that all the colors of the world came from God. As a matter of fact, almost every one of her answers included God. She smiled real big and said, "Sweet Child, da Lord paint da sky and da creeks wiff da same brush." She was always saying delightful things like that.
Elizabeth was about 5-foot-6-inches tall and at least 3 feet wide. Yet, she seemed to glide rather than take steps. As pleasantly plump as she was, she looked healthy. Smooth skin. Well-kempt. She had a sweet disposition. Kinda like what you would expect from an angel.
That being stated, Elizabeth, all by herself, could flip a big mattress over in one svelt move. You wouldn't think so, by talking with her, but she chopped heads off chickens and slaughtered a pig or two. Snakes took off when they saw Elizabeth coming. If she felt like I or she was just the least bit in danger, she'd run them down and kill them deader than a doornail.
Elizabeth used to tell me, "Da Devil in dem snakes. When you gets da chance, you needs to kill da Devil." Metaphorically speaking, she was spot on.
Miz Lena was a disciplinarian. Whenever she laid into me, Elizabeth's eyes swelled up with empathetic tears. More than once, she consoled me. She always reminded me that Grand Mom loved me. She'd hug me tight and say, Sweet Child, I know it don't feels like it right dis minute, but yo grand mama lub you wiff all her heart." She made me feel a little better even though my butt stung.
Everybody who came to the house was happy to see Elizabeth. She remembered their names and little tidbits about their families. There was a friend of my grandparents, an old retired judge, who came over every year in the summer. He'd bring a jar of peppermint sticks to Elizabeth, and she'd bake him a big sack of her award-winning chocolate chip cookies. They shared the same birthday.
When the judge passed on, his wife asked Elizabeth to sing at his funeral. It was one of the last things the judge had requested. I wasn't there, but Grand Mom told me that by the end of Elizabeth's song, there wasn't a dry eye in the church.
Elizabeth and I sang all the time. I'd crawl up and sit across from Elizabeth at the ironing board in the den in one of Grand Mom's plastic-covered, cranberry-colored wingback chairs. We sang. No music. Just the back-and-forth sound of Elizabeth's iron running across the top of the ironing board, accentuated from time to time by sprays of starch and steam around the cuffs and collars of my grandfather's white dress shirts.
Most of the songs were church hymns. Elizabeth would sing the songs, and I'd join in for the chorus. She taught me "Jesus Loves Me." I gave it all I had when we got to the line, "The Bible tells me so." Sometimes, Miz Lena would come in and sit on the couch, light up a Salem, sip her coffee and listen. She never sang with us. I never ever heard Grand Mom sing anything. But she loved listening to Elizabeth.
I remember a Nat King Cole song that Grand Mom would ask Elizabeth to sing for her. It was called "Pretend." One of the verses was, "Remember, anyone can dream. And nothing's bad as it may seem. The little things you haven't got, could be a lot, if you pretend." Miz Lena would close her eyes and kinda sway to the melody Elizabeth so effortlessly sang.
Nat King Cole had a TV show that came on in the afternoon once a week. He had musical guests with whom he sang duets. Toward the end of the show, he played the piano and sang a couple of his tunes. He was like a black Liberace. He sang better than Liberace. Liberace was a better piano player.
In the early '70s, after I got out of the Marine Corps and moved back to Tennessee, I worked for a little radio station in Columbia. I did a morning show and sold advertising. There was a fellow, Lon Varnell, a former college basketball coach, who promoted concerts out of the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. I used to sell him a bunch of advertising.
Lon called and told me that he was bringing Liberace to town. I made sure that I got four first-row seats right in front of the stage. When I presented the tickets to Grand Mom, I thought she was gonna pop. I hadn't ever seen her so excited. She pulled out her mink and wore all her diamonds. We sat right next to then Gov. Winfield Dunn and his wife.
Within a few minutes, Miz Lena was Mr. and Mrs. Dunn's newfound best friend. They really seemed to hit it off. Grand Mom introduced me to them saying, "Governor and Mrs. Dunn, I'd like you to meet my grandson, Bill Stamps." That was the only time she ever called me Bill. It was always Butch or Honey Baby.
Liberace made his grand entrance, and every lady in the place was mesmerized. Especially Miz Lena. Liberace did a 45-minute set and took a break. He'd be back in 20 minutes.
I excused myself and went to find Lon. I asked him if I could meet Liberace. Lon took me over to a coatroom under a staircase. That was Liberace's make-do dressing room. Lon walked in and came right back out. He told me, "He said to come on in." I opened the door, and there was Liberace in his tuxedo shirt and underwear. He said, "Hi, I'm Lee. I hope you don't mind me changing while we talk."
I told him how much my grandmother loved him and that she, religiously, watched his TV show every week and just how much it would mean to me if he could say hello to her. He asked me where we were sitting, and I told him, "In the front row, right next to the governor." Liberace assured me that he would. Then he gave me the Liberace wink.
The lights went down, and a single spotlight followed Liberace to the stage. He sat down at the piano and played a couple of numbers. Then he asked the floor manager to bring up the lights. He stood up and here he came, right toward Miz Lena. I thought she'd be nervous. Quite to the contrary, she was cool as a cucumber.
Liberace shook hands with the governor and his wife. Then he looked at Grand Mom and reached for her hand. The one with the most diamonds. Liberace was wearing some pretty flashy diamonds himself. He kissed her hand and said, "I've worked hard for my jewelry. How did you get yours?" Without a blink, Grand Mom leaned toward the microphone and said, "Bein' good." She brought the house down. Liberace almost folded in two. It was a good night.
From that time forward, Grand Mom told anyone and everyone about meeting Liberace. And for several years to come, every December, Miz Lena received Christmas cards from the Dunn family.
Thanks for all the emails. I'm glad you're enjoying my little ditties. Have a happy Sunday, and remember to be good.
Bill Stamps' second book, "Southern Folks," is now available in a limited, hardback edition, signed and numbered. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.