Jennie Stevenson always carried a pistol. “She kept it in her bosom, all the time,” cousins and uncles would say to me at my in-laws’ family reunions. Jennie was my husband’s great-aunt. “She and her husband ran a hush-hush, and she might be dancing, but she’d have that pistol in her dress. Just in case.”
A hush-hush was a speakeasy, and Jennie and her husband ran one in their home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 1920s. Jennie was worried about robbery or fighting in their place. People knew Jennie, knew she’d protect herself and her house if she had to, but I never heard of her using the pistol there. She had used a gun before when she was younger, a teenage girl who’d fled a violent, abusive stepfather in Texas. The granddaughter of an enslaved woman, she had made her way to Oklahoma, and the legend was that she worked in a “place outside town, you know. One of those places.” There was a house in front, run by a white woman, for white customers; Jennie worked in the smaller house in back, for black customers. But one night, a white man forced his way into the back house and raped Jennie. She shot him in the head. She’d had a little pistol in her dress pocket.
During that same time, on the desolate prairies of eastern Colorado, my grandmother went to a dance at a one-room schoolhouse with three of her four sisters. She was nineteen, very small, with dark hair and big, dark eyes. The walls were lined with young men, but not a single one asked her to dance. She was forlorn until a young rancher named Robert Straight finally approached her. He was her sole suitor, and they were married shortly after.
My great-uncles and cousins, sitting in a small clapboard house in Nunn, Colorado, told me this story two years ago, glancing at me with some pity because I never knew my grandmother, who died long before I was born, whose life was short because of violence and poverty and hypertension. The story goes that when Robert Straight walked into that dance, he decided then and there that he wanted to marry Ruby. He’d gone around the schoolhouse and displayed his gun to every single man, telling them that if anyone asked her to dance, he’d shoot.
I keep thinking about those single weapons, hidden inside clothes, and how their presence changed two women’s lives. Jennie was a survivor of sexual violence — and she survived because she owned a gun. Ruby never knew about that hidden weapon and married a violent, abusive man who constantly threatened others with guns. She fled him again and again but always went back. She never shot a gun in her life.
I’ve raised three daughters whose heritage includes both Jennie and Ruby. I’ve taught them the history and weight of guns, never thinking that the world would be as random and lawless as the past. I’ve taught them to be wary and protective of themselves, their sisters, and their friends, and to take a long time to trust a man.
Even though their father took each daughter to the shooting range once and had them fire his shotgun at male targets, now they would never own guns or associate with people who do. Their lives are very different from ours: my husband and I met in junior high and grew up in a rough place during a rough time. But these rough times are far worse: we confess our fears to each other, as Americans living with the constant, soul-crushing worry of strangers with automatic weapons, or a disgruntled spouse, or student, or coworker, or neighbor with a rifle or handgun.
I recall so many times after national reports of rising crime such as carjackings and random murders seeing news accounts of an uptick of women at gun ranges, women buying handguns to conceal in their purses, women being encouraged to “protect themselves from predators.” I remember arguing with my husband about his guns: he, the son of a man who survived by hunting rabbits and squirrels with a rifle. I understood his desire for protection but hated that he owned five guns, that everyone we knew was armed, that the men talked constantly about their strategies for intruders. I didn’t like my girls hearing that.
When we divorced in 1997 and I found 48 shotgun shells tucked along the wooden moldings high on the plaster walls of our house, I realized how frightened he was, as a husband and father, that a stranger would invade our small home, would attack his family of four women.
We lived in the southern-California city where both of us were born and raised; violence was common when I was a teenager and young adult — but not gun violence. I remember walking downtown before or after my movie-theater job and men following me, harassing me, trying to get me into cars. Nobody ever pulled a gun on me. But during the recession of the 1980s and then the crack years of the 1990s, everything changed. Suddenly cheap little handguns were everywhere: people were robbed for jewelry, kids were shot while standing on corners. One day, at the YWCA day care, my daughters’ teacher found a handful of bullets on the playground and gave them to me to give to my husband. I have them still in my desk with other bullets we found in our yard and on the street nearby.
Back then, my husband worked in a juvenile correctional facility where boys of thirteen and fourteen told him that if he treated them badly, they would “pop a cap in his membrane” when they were released. I know that this job, which he had for twenty years, and the drug culture around us were the origins of his fears.
One night we went to the apartment of my childhood friend and her boyfriend to see their new baby. While we sat on the couch talking, a knock came at the door. Her boyfriend pulled a semi-automatic rifle from under the couch, waiting for the visitor to identify himself. We hadn’t known our friend was selling drugs — not just weed but crack, which meant dangerous customers. Back in our car, shaken, we looked at each other and knew we could never go back. We wouldn’t live like that, we told each other.
But those fears are different from our fears now. Now we are afraid of bullets flying from the ether. We watch security footage of the man who shot hundreds of people in Las Vegas. We see him laughing and eating and carrying the bags containing enough weaponry to attack a military battalion. It gives us nightmares.
He killed the daughters of people I know. They died because a man went to war against strangers.
This week, I keep thinking of two fictional women with guns and of why they fired them, how those images never left me. In the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of the first books I ever read as a child, Francie is a young girl attacked by a man on the stairwell in her apartment building; he pries her fingers from the spindles one by one, and then Francie’s mother, who had been scrubbing the stairs, shoots him through her apron. She fires into his genitals. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is menaced by a military deserter who calls her a spitfire and leers while climbing the stairs toward her; she shoots him in the face.
As women now — daughters and mothers and teachers and aunts and neighbors and nurses — we live in a nation where we are afraid of not only the stranger we were taught to watch for but also the air around us, at work and school and the mall and the auditorium. Being told to arm ourselves — whether we are men or women — will not assuage this fear.
How can we make sense of the air, when it feels as if phantom bullets are tracing the space around us, when the sniper is risen from everyday people.
Here in the room where I write, I have two black-and-white photographs from the 1920s. The only portraits made of two brave women: my grandmother Ruby, with her soft face and shy smile, weeks before she met my grandfather, and my father-in-law’s aunt Jennie, in a fur collar and imperious gaze, just after she became prosperous. I am small like Ruby but always prided myself that I would never be caught in a web of violence; I felt nothing but admiration for Jennie, who, after she made it to Los Angeles, helped raise dozens of children belonging to her relatives and friends, children who weren’t her own. Jennie was never bowed by fear.
If we told them what we are afraid of, they would be incredulous.
Susan Straight’s new short story “The Princess of Valencia,” about a mother and daughter and a nation changed by a mass shooting, has just been published by Amazon Original Stories. Her memoir, In the Country of Women, will be published in 2019 by Catapult.