When I was a little kid growing up in Tennessee in the 1950s, I used to think that all people were good. I believed with all my heart that if I did good to others, they would do good by me. Through the years, I've learned that's not always so. It runs about 50-50, if you're lucky.
It's a shame that people have changed — or maybe they haven't, and I just wasn't paying attention. Still, it feels like something's off-center. I'd hate to think that when you get full-grown, all the innocence in the world fades to nothing left.
I was taught to live by the Golden Rule. If you don't know what that is, then that could be part of the problem. Some have a thwarted idea of what it means.
I know people who are paranoid and always on the ready and believe that they should do unto others before the others do unto them. That's a tough way to live. It's one of the main reasons I left Los Angeles.
We, as a society, spend far too much time worrying about what others think about us, fretting about whether we fit in or how well we're liked. At the end of the day, it's what we think of ourselves that really matters.
You know, like Shakespeare wrote in the first act of "Hamlet": "To thine own self be true." I had to look up who said that. I thought there was an outside chance it might have come from the Bible.
The words "thine," "thou" and "thee" always trip me up.
My grandmother, Miz Lena, is partially responsible for the confusion. All my growing-up years, she constantly misquoted the Good Book.
To this day, I'm still a little confused. Miz Lena sort of bent verses to make them work for her. Not only that, but in her world, there were several more than Ten Commandments. It seemed like there was one for every mistake I made.
There was a commandment for me running through the house. Another one for getting to bed on time. A couple on how to deal with others. One for lying. She had several pertaining to me doing exactly what she said to do. I remember thinking that the Lord talked and expressed himself a lot like my grandmother.
When it came to me eating everything I was served, Miz Lena would say, "Thou shalt eat ever thing on yore plate that yore Grand Mama cooks fer yuh." She'd follow her commandment with a reminder to me that it wasn't her rule. It was God's. Then came the story of the starving children in Africa who would just love to have what we were eating.
Only once, I made a comment about maybe we should box up all the Brussels sprouts and send them to those African kids. Surely, God would smile down upon us for giving to those hungry children. That didn't go over well.
Constantly, Miz Lena mixed a little Shakespeare and the Bible with a dab of Granny Goose nursery rhymes and sometimes even a newspaper comic-strip character.
She would say something about Romeo and Juliet going up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Romeo fell down, broke his crown and so on. When I told her that I was pretty sure that she meant Jack and Jill, she'd say, "Yeah and them too."
Grand Mom was like so many other Southern women of those times. She was completely devoted to making sure I knew what she felt I needed to know. She covered a lot of ground. I didn't take notes. I could have used me one of those little tape recorders.
Once in a while, Popeye made it into the mix. I'm sure that the only thing Grand Mom knew about Popeye was that he ate his spinach and it made him strong. That's what most parents told their kids.
With Miz Lena it was much different. She was short, not so sweet and to the point. She'd stand over me and my plate of vegetables and say, "Looka here, Popeye didn't eat his spinach, and he up and died."
Popeye was one of the few newspaper cartoon characters Miz Lena knew anything about. Grand Mom really didn't read much of the paper. She went straight for the obituaries and circled the names of the recently and dearly departed that she knew. From there, she scheduled her "grand entrances" to the respective funerals.
My grandfather read the paper from front to back page. He used to tell me that reading the paper was good for your eye muscles. Every morning, as soon as he got to the kitchen table, he opened the paper wide.
All you saw of him were his sleeves, cuff links, his big hands, the steam from his coffee and the billowing of Viceroy cigarette smoke that escaped to the right through the slightly ajar picture window. Every couple of minutes, he'd bring the newspaper down to turn the pages. He'd look over at me and wink. He knew I was waiting.
Grand Mom sat next to him and talked up a storm. When she let up, Grand Dad, with his head buried in the newspaper, would grunt to her. It was one of those "I'm listening, but just barely" grunts. That was good enough for Miz Lena. She'd go right back to talking, and Grand Dad would grunt some more.
Eventually, Grand Dad would say, "Well, let's see what Li'l Abner is up to." That perked me up. It meant that it was finally time for him to read what he called the "funny papers" to me.
Li'l Abner and his family were my favorite newspaper cartoon characters. Mostly because Grand Dad would read it to me in his Li'l Abner voices.
Grand Dad was from Michigan. All the years he lived in the South, he never picked up a Southern accent. So his connotations and inflections of the hillbilly characters in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip sounded like a Northerner trying to talk like a Tennessean.
When he did Li'l Abner's voice, he sounded like the TV cartoon character Yogi Bear. He did his best. It was the most extroverted and animated he ever got. He may not have sounded Southern, but he was very entertaining,
He had different voices for Li'l Abner's parents, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Abner's very voluptuous wife, Daisy Mae, and all the other cartoon residents of the little Appalachian town in which they lived, called Dogpatch.
Daisy Mae was blond-headed, ran around in a polka-dot and rather revealing halter top and blue-jean cutoffs. Li'l Abner and the rest of the men wore rolled-up sleeves, boots and bib overalls.
After Li'l Abner, came the comic strip "Blondie." As you might assume, she was a curly-haired blonde, married to Dagwood Bumstead. Dagwood worked for a little fellow with thick eyeglasses and a moustache named Mr. Dithers. Grand Dad did Mr. Dithers in his regular voice. I think he saw the "Blondie" characters as Yankees.
Dagwood's hair was parted down the middle and slicked back. If he got frazzled, his hair stuck out on the sides. It was the same way with Grand Dad's hair.
Dagwood was constantly making himself huge, piled-high sandwiches and trying to get some sleep on the couch. The same with Grand Dad.
Blondie would wake up Dagwood and make him take out the trash or do some odd job around the house. Again, same went for Grand Dad. Miz Lena was Grand Dad's Blondie. It was funny, when he did Blondie's voice, he made her sound like she was an old, cackling, Halloween witch.
On Sundays, Grand Dad handed me the paper, and I read "Dick Tracy" to him. I made Mr. Tracy sound a little like James Cagney. From the time that I began reading, Grand Dad would start laughing. I think he got a kick out of my interpretations of the characters. Mornings at the breakfast table were happy.
I'm afraid those mornings of happiness and innocence are gone forever. Those of you reading this newspaper and this little ditty probably have a greater appreciation for how it was back then than those who get their news hunched over a computer and sipping on a $6 Styrofoam cup of coffee.
I will always be partial to newspapers. They remind me of past happy mornings. They're a big part of the weave of American values and traditions that I pray will never go away.
Sundays, right after a big lunch, I'd tiptoe into the den and there would be Grand Dad, peacefully slouched on the couch, his glasses hanging at the tip of his nose, snoring to beat the band, with the open newspaper laid across his lap. Grand Mom let him be.
Starting today, spend some time with your kids. You can help keep them innocent for a little while longer and create happy, lifetime memories for them just by, very simply, reading them the "funny papers."
Thanks for my memories, Grand Dad.
Bill Stamps' books, "Miz Lena" and "Southern Folks," are available on Amazon. For signed copies, email email@example.com.