My Grandmother’s Pistol: A Lesson in Love from the Appalachian Foothills

A reflection by Sarah

I’ve heard it said that the stories of ordinary people are the ones that teach the most extraordinary lessons. Generally, I find that to be true. But my maternal grandmother, Hester, is far from ordinary. I have never known her to blend in with a crowd, whether it is due the bright colors she enjoys wearing regardless of season, her extroverted nature, or her unusual name which she insists sounds like one that might be given to an old horse. (In reality, her parents chose it to rhyme with the one they assigned her twin brother, Lester.) Though raised in a culture that tends to value women’s domestic skills over contributions to serious conversation, she’s never bashful when it comes to voicing an opinion. My grandmother is willing to try almost anything at least once, jovially poking fun at her own mishaps along the way. As children, my sister and I tested this frequently by challenging her to games we invented. When I was very young, she would cut old grocery bags into paper dolls for me, embellishing them in permanent marker with the zaniest dress designs imaginable. And when I played center for my elementary school’s girls’ basketball team, she rarely missed a game and could out-cheer even the loudest and most obnoxious rebel yells emanating from the other side of the gymnasium.

But irrespective of these realities, my relationship with my grandmother hasn’t always been the best or the closest. In part, this has been a product of my own sense of peculiarity relative to the rest of my family. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt—as my mother would put it—like the “odd duck.” This is true even without accounting for sexual orientation as a factor. As a child, I never fit very well within the cultural norms and expectations surrounding me. Though born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, I suppose I’ve always been more of a city person at heart. Almost every man in past generations of my family, especially on my mother’s side, has made his living through manual labor or some kind of skilled trade. Almost every woman has been a homemaker, though a few have worked as secretaries and in similar positions. From early on, it was clear that I was bookish and my aptitudes in these other areas would be sparse. One would never know it now, but I used to believe that I was shy and introverted simply because at large gatherings, I could never determine a topic of conversation that would last more than a couple of minutes with most other members of my family.

Even as delightfully unusual as my grandmother is, she has a lot in common with my other relatives. There are many ways in which she has lived the life of the average Appalachian woman of her time. She is the only daughter who survived into adulthood in a large family of Irish ancestry. Her mother, my great-grandmother Maudie, was a homemaker. Her father, my great-grandfather Leroy, worked and provided for her family’s basic needs, but spent most of his life consumed by alcoholism. Due in part to the instability of her home environment, as a teenager my grandmother received permission from her mother to marry my grandfather, a coal miner, who was 21 at the time. A little more than a year later, she gave birth to my mother. My two aunts came along three and thirteen years later. A devout Baptist for decades now, my grandmother came to faith as a young woman who had grown up unchurched. She has spent almost her entire life in one Eastern Kentucky town, and her worldview is not very different from that of most people in the local area. Because of this, I haven’t always known how to be myself around her.

Last year at Christmas, Lindsey and I were in Eastern Kentucky visiting my parents. My sister and her husband had also come in for the holidays. As all of us were relaxing in my parents’ living room, the telephone rang and my mother answered. It was my grandmother, and she wanted to see us—all of us. She had expressed a desire to meet Lindsey. Immediately, my protective instinct overshadowed any feelings of gladness for the opportunity to see her. I began searching my mental Rolodex for every memory I could recall that would give me some expectation for what might happen when she would meet Lindsey. I remembered that I hadn’t even needed to come out to my grandmother years ago—she had asked my mother point blank if I was gay. She had stated matter-of-factly and without judgment that the possibility was revealed to her in a dream. But I also remembered a smattering of incidents from when I was much younger. If anything related to the gay community ever made the news, nearly every member of my family reacted by ranting about “homosexual perversion.” I couldn’t remember if my grandmother herself had ever spoken those words, but my anxiety escalated when I thought about how much she loves Duck Dynasty, as it was only a couple of days after Phil Robertson had come under fire for his crude remarks about gay sex. I began to dread the visit with everything in me.

As we piled into my mother’s car and made our way toward my grandparents’ house, I prepared for how I would defend Lindsey if necessary. I practiced the words in my head, seeking the most appropriate tone that would communicate disapproval without being rude. I had told Lindsey that the visit would hopefully be brief, and would likely be unpleasant. It was neither. Never in my life have I been so thankful to watch myself eat crow. We arrived, and from the moment my grandmother opened the door to let us in, her face was lit with elation. She wanted hugs from everyone, greeting each of us as enthusiastically as she possibly could with her oxygen tank trailing closely behind.

By the time I realized she was welcoming Lindsey without reservation, she had already taken out a notepad and pencil to record Lindsey’s birthday so she wouldn’t forget what day to send a card. Ever gregarious, my grandmother began discussing her usual favorite topics: happenings around the community, how many souls were saved at her church’s Christmas pageant, and her late father’s rifle. The pinnacle of our time together came when guns entered the conversation and my grandfather decided it was time to show off his gun collection to my brother-in-law (who, ironically, has never used a gun). Not wanting to miss the action, my grandmother reached swiftly behind her recliner and brought forth a large revolver, which she brandished high into the air. “Here’s my pistol!” she declared with gusto as Lindsey’s eyes became increasingly saucer-like. I couldn’t recollect the last time I had laughed so hard. My grandmother thought Lindsey’s stunned reaction was brilliant and hilarious. I chortled while explaining to Lindsey that in Appalachian culture, showing one’s daughter’s (or granddaughter’s) significant other a gun is just a way of saying, “I like you, and you’re going to be welcomed as part of the family, but you had better not hurt my kid!” Once Lindsey saw that this was a sort of acceptance ritual rather than a threat to life or limb, both of us realized that in this space, we felt completely at home and incredibly loved.

I think it was the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, “Every man is in some way my superior, and in that I learn of him.” Though I believe in theory that these words provide good wisdom for cultivating the virtue of humility, I must admit that I struggle with where this applies to my family. To say that we’ve had difficult points in our interpersonal relationships would be the understatement of the century. But today, I thank God for bringing me to cognizance of one respect in which my grandmother is very much my superior. As I observed the pure, unconditional kindness and love she showed Lindsey that day last December, I could think no other thought than, “This is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.” That day, my grandmother’s understanding of sin and how that might apply to us was not her primary theological concern. The question of whether we are celibate or sexually active wasn’t important to her. She only cared that we were there, offering her the chance embrace us warmly in her home. I imagine that when my parents share this piece of writing with her and she finds out for the first time that we are celibate, this fact will continue to be irrelevant in her determination of how best to love us. Through a simple visit with a simple, country woman, I received a priceless gift: a reminder of the two great commandments Christ gave us in Matthew 22. I had already known my grandmother Hester to be a dedicated practitioner of the first. Her witness to the second has made an imprint on my heart and mind that I hope will remain forever.

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