This column originally appeared in the Times Free Press in November 2017 and is included in Bill Stamps' book "Miz Lena."
Some of my fondest and most memorable holidays are those of Thanksgivings at my grandmother's home in Middle Tennessee. Way back in the 1950s, when I was, as my Uncle JT used to call me, "knee-high to a grasshopper."
JT was my favorite uncle. He was actually one of six great-uncles. All brothers of my grandmother, Miz Lena. He was the youngest and certainly the most colorful of the bunch. JT told blue jokes and had an eye for the gals. They used to say that JT could talk you into or out of anything. He was always getting me into trouble.
When JT came home from the war, Grand Mom gave him two pigs and cut off 20 acres from her farm to help him get started. He grew from there. JT ended up with three places, not counting his home. Two of them were strictly crop farms. Corn, cotton and tobacco. The smallest of the three was a pig farm.
JT cared more about his pigs than he did pretty much anything else. He raised prize Herefords and Hampshires. There were a half-dozen little potbellies running around as well. JT told me that I could have one, if I could catch it. I wore those little pigs out. Never did catch one.
JT would lie back on the porch, pop open a PBR and watch me. He'd yell out words of encouragement and laugh real big. He was one of those ruggedly handsome men. A farmer's tan. Not that tall. Kinda stocky. Million-dollar smile. Twinkling steel-blue eyes. A mop of sun-streaked wavy hair. He looked like a movie star.
After I had given it all I had, JT said, "Budro, I think you done run off all my profit on them pigs. Come on and go in there to the kitchen and git one of the girls to git you a soda pop."
JT had people living on and tending to his farms. Black families and country white folks. They all loved him.
I'd get a Coke, come back outside and sit right up next to him. We'd talk. Man talk.
He'd ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would say I wanted to be a farmer, just like him. JT patted my back and told me I'd be a good farmer. He said, "It's the best job God ever come up with. It's hard work, but it's an honest living."
Sometimes, he'd tell me stories about his time overseas. Never any war stories. Mostly about how beautiful the farms and the people of France and Italy were. He spoke, almost in a reverent tone, of their good nature. He said, "Farmers are all the same anywhere in the world. JT, like my grandmother and the rest of their siblings, had been raised up on a farm over in Giles County.
Anytime JT went into town, I'd beg him to let me go with him.
He'd say, "Ask Lena. If she says it's awright, then it's fine with me. Be sure to tell her that I'm tired and I'm gonna let you drive." JT and Grand Mom constantly kidded each other.
Most of the time she'd let me go. Grand Mom, so JT could hear her, would say, "You can go, but, Honey Baby, if he tells you to get outta the car and into a truck fulla pigs, you run to the phone and call me."
She was referring to the time that JT and I pulled into a gas station, and he traded his shiny maroon Buick convertible to a good old boy for his flatbed truck full of pigs. The very next day, a policeman knocked on JT's front door. Turned out the truck and the pigs had been stolen.
They never did catch the good old boy, nor did they find JT's Buick.
Miz Lena's antique, cherry-wood, dining room table sat 12. It was decorated with red poinsettias, bowls of mixed nuts and her special china she'd bought from her favorite New Orleans antique store. In the center of the table, she had a big blue bowl, filled with very realistic-looking plastic fruit. Bananas, red apples, oranges and green grapes.
The day before our Thanksgiving meal, Miz Lena would have her housekeeper, Elizabeth, clean and spray the bowl of plastic fruit with "soap water." Grand Mom was sure proud of that arrangement.
Above her buffet was a painting of President James K. Polk, which she had bought at auction. "Mr. Polk," she would proudly point out, "was one of the best presidents we ever had. He come up outta Columby."
Not Columbia, but Columby. That's the way she talked.
Miz Lena had been friends with a fellow who owned a hardware store and was the father of the revered Tennessee senator, Mr. Estes Kefauver. He was a Democrat. So was Miz Lena.
I remember a little desk plaque Grand Mom had in her office that read, "The voting is over. The election has passed. I'll kiss your elephant, if you'll kiss my ass."
One Thanksgiving, Mr. Kefauver and his family came to the house to celebrate the holiday with us all. The grownups sat around the "big table." We kids, my brothers, a slew of cousins I hadn't seen for a year and a few others sat together in the adjoining room. Folding chairs and card tables with white tablecloths. Seems like I was always the oldest kid.
Miz Lena decided that I would say the Thanksgiving blessing. JT and I rehearsed a prayer that he told me that Grand Mom would think was "real funny."
After we were all seated, Miz Lena looked down the table and said, "Mr. Kefauver, my oldest grandson has a special Thanksgiving blessing he'd like to say in your honor and on behalf of our family." She smiled and with great pride, very lovingly said, "Go ahead, Honey Baby."
I stood next to Grand Mom. Her arm around my waist. Everyone bowed their heads and held hands around the table. I looked over at JT, with his head bowed. He was already red-faced and grinning from ear to ear. I recited the prayer he taught me.
"Good bread. Good meat. Good God, let us eat."
I thought my grandmother was having a heart attack! Dead silence at the table, except for JT's snickering and snorting. Miz Lena's grasp around my waist tightened, and she started with her "woop woop" sounds that she made when she was nervous. I didn't dare look at her. All I could see was JT's twinkling eyes, his white teeth and the drop-jaw shock on everyone else's faces.
Miz Lena said, "Please excuse us. We'll be right back." She grabbed me by the elbow, and in to the kitchen we went.
Behind the closed door, she said, "Looka here, you do anything else to embarrass me today, and I'm gonna jerk a knot in your tail." I never did understand that saying, but I knew all too well what it meant. She turned me around and said, "Now you get yoreself back out there, and I don't want to hear another peep outta you. You understand?" I told her I did.
When dinner was over and Elizabeth and one of her "church sisters" were serving the grownups coffee, JT called me in from the front yard to tell me he was sorry he got me in trouble. Maybe we could make it all better.
He said that the best way of getting around getting a "whoopin" after company left was to do something funny. "Kinda ease the pain," he said.
JT had placed some real green grapes in Grand Mom's blue bowl of wax fruit. He told me, "Just walk in there and tell everyone how sorry you are about the prayer, and then reach over there to the bowl and start eatin' them grapes. I promise you Lena will think it's "real funny."
I did. After the company left, Miz Lena proceeded to jerk a knot in my tail.
Hope your Thanksgiving will be most memorable. In your blessings, please include our servicemen and women stationed all over the world, many in harm's way, who are the heart, soul and pride of America.
Bill Stamps' books, "Miz Lena" and "Southern Folks," are available on Amazon. For signed copies, email firstname.lastname@example.org.