Editor’s note: This essay tells a story of domestic violence that may be triggering to survivors. If you are a victim of domestic violence and in need of support, the domestic violence hotline is 800-799-7233.
My grandmother yelled at me twice in her 93 years of life. Once was because I used the wrong mayonnaise in potato salad.
The other was the night she killed her husband.
I relive that night on orange-tinted spring evenings that fade to blue and then black, when the sun is at a certain angle and I’ve opened the windows to catch the air.
That night George, my step-grandfather, said he wanted to go to McConnells, South Carolina, our home place, to visit my Aunt Babe and my cousin, Rabbit. He invited me to go with him and Grandma, which I wanted desperately to do. He knew I loved McConnells.
“Come on, Teenee.” Like many from Appalachia, George pronounced my name “Teenee,” not “Tina.”
“No,” Grandma said. “You stay here.” And the way her gravelly voice lowered, the Matt Dillon edge in the way she spoke to me while looking at him, pinned me in my chair. So I stayed put.
I was in fourth grade, wearing Winnie the Pooh pajamas and working out my spelling list.
That night, George did not come back home with Grandma.
To let you know up front – so you can stop reading if you think I’m glorifying death or weapons, and because they aren’t the point of the story – my grandma shot and killed George while they were out. Another set of cousins found him lying dead in the road. Grandma was sentenced to 21 years on a charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Writing this is harder than I thought it would be. Talking about my grandmother is a joy for me; but now, some 45 years later, I’m the age she was when she was imprisoned. Seven years from now, I’ll be the same age Grandma was when she was released on parole. If Grandma had not made me stay home that night, who knows what would have happened to her and then to me—to my mom, still in the house, and to my great-grandmother who had yet to come home.
Harder to wrestle with, after two-plus years of a pandemic, is unwanted confinement and the way it scratches into your mind. When we first locked down for the pandemic, I felt a crackle in the air that wasn’t pandemic-related. I thought if we all quieted ourselves and listened, we would hear what we needed to hear.
But to think that way is a privilege enjoyed by someone who works from home and who has grown, independent children; it is the result of being overly sensitive. On another level, it’s also a privilege of someone who had a grandma like mine, who made us sit quietly during storms and let God do God’s work, who believed in deep, soul-level listening, in meting out the connectivity of the world.
Grandma was what someone in another era might have called “a broad.” She taught third and fourth grade for years, but she cheated at cards, gambled on the horses, laughed from her gut. When she looked at you, all you thought was a secret fell away. She never judged, except when someone used the incorrect mayonnaise in potato salad.
Tall and hour-glassed, Grandma wore heels and silk and satin dresses on regular outings and the fabric swished gently on her legs. She’d take me to the McCrory’s dime store, the site of a history-making lunch counter sit-in, where my uncle, Willie “Dub” Thomas, and eight of his friends – the Friendship Nine – were arrested and jailed. She would get a hot dog and Pepsi for me, although she’d never get anything to eat. She’d buy a bottle of Jean Nate bath splash before joining me at the lunch counter. Then she’d simply sit and grin at the White waitress, who would give a slight chin-up nod for reasons I didn’t understand then.
For much of my childhood, Grandma lived and taught in Virginia, where she dropped many of her “broad” tendencies and wrote poems and award-winning plays for her third graders. But as soon as school was out, she’d get into her big bottle-green Ford or her blue Chevy Catalina and head south, roll into our Rock Hill driveway, grin and offer her cheek for a kiss. Later, after she’d changed out of her good dress, she’d allow me to snuggle on her lap.
During inevitable storms, Grandma would dust us both with baby powder, which mingled with the Jean Nate to create her unique scent. We would lie in bed together, listening to rain and thunder. She’d fan us both with a church fan in a futile attempt to keep us cool.
“Just be still,” she’d whisper, “and let the Lord do
During summer and holiday breaks, if Grandma’s car moved from the driveway, I was in it riding shotgun, inhaling secondhand smoke from the cigarette she held close to the window. Pretty often, she’d take me to a backroom card game at her friend’s funeral parlor, or to a place I know now was an old-style juke joint. She’d sit me down with a bottle of Pepsi and a bag of peanuts and tell me, “Be a good girl. And don’t tell your mother where we are.”
One summer, when she arrived at our house, a tall, broad-shouldered man unfolded his way out of the passenger side, and Grandma was grinning her big grin.
“This is George,” she said. “We got married.”
Shortly afterward, Grandma went back to Virginia to work. George got a job in Rock Hill, and he stayed.
“I married him,” Grandma later wrote, “because he seemed so nice and kind. But that was the other side of him.”
For all Grandma’s deep-seeing ways, she didn’t understand early enough that George was a jealous person with a drinking problem and a mean streak. “He was double-jointed,” she wrote, “and he didn’t know his strength. He could pick up 300 pounds as easy as I can pick up 10.”
“To tell the truth, I was so afraid of him,” she wrote. “But I didn’t let him know that.”
Grandma’s story is like those of many abused and subsequently incarcerated women. She married a nice man who drank a little. The man began to drink more. The man became jealous of Grandma’s friends, suspicious of her actions. He timed her trips home from school whenever they were in Virginia together. He accused her of having sex with other men on her way to Rock Hill. He began to hit her, one time bloodying her eye so badly she mentioned it at her trial.
“I would have killed him that night if I had had my gun,” she later wrote of that incident. “I was ashamed for anyone to see it.
“He would tell me that he was going to blow my brains out and pretend that I had killed myself,” Grandma wrote. “I would wake up at night, and he would be standing over me, shaking his head. … People have asked me why didn’t I leave him [but] he would tell me ‘if you try to leave me, I will come to Colonial Beach and blow you to bits,’ and I am sure he would have done exactly what he said.”
I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was I had a big bear of a grandpa who’d take me fishing and pull the leeches from my legs.
The night Grandma and George went to McConnells, George had been drinking heavily. He hit her as she was driving, which caused her to pull over to the side of the road. He pulled a gun, but because he had been drinking, Grandma was able to grab the gun from him.
He lunged. She fired. He kept coming. She kept shooting.
When she realized what she had done, she tried to get him into the car to go to the hospital, but he was too heavy.
She drove back to town alone and walked into the kitchen, where I had remained.
“Where’s George?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Didn’t he come back with you?”
“Tina, I said I don’t know!”
I watched in silence as she paced the kitchen.
None of us knew.
If you listen to the stories of abused women who have been imprisoned, this theme comes up again and again. They didn’t tell. They were ashamed. They were sick and tired of being sick, tired, frightened, beaten over the head with bottles, of coming home after work to a spouse who grabbed them at the door to ask why their trip home had taken them a minute longer than usual. They were worried about the safety and future of their children. And the one time they decided they couldn’t take any more, the one time they acted on the thought “Do I want this for the rest of my life?” every moment of fear and shame and anger, the memory of every black eye, of every broken bone, came out, and what was left at their feet was a heaping pile of a mess. Plus a prison sentence.
Where Grandma’s story differs somewhat centers on her level of education and her profession. She had a degree in education. She’d taught for decades by the time she met George.
My grandmother didn’t take life, death or God lightly. She settled into life in prison as best as she could, and she listened and watched. She saw her incarcerated sisters would fare poorly when they were released, and much of that suffering would be due to education. Some of them couldn’t even read, Grandma said.
Other than visiting Grandma once in the county jail, I never saw her behind iron bars. We visited often but always saw her in the community room.
It’s painfully easy, however, to imagine Grandma lying on a flat mattress in an iron-doored cell, waiting for God’s direction in a cinderblock hellhole. She knew these women were more than the numbers assigned to them, that they were part of something bigger and stronger than the cells that tried to confine their minds and hearts. She also saw they needed more than a sentence filled with laundry duty.
And so did she.
You heal yourself by healing others, according to Susan Cain, author of the 2022 book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Grandma sat in the silence of her cell; she heard what God needed her to hear. She saw the Divine in the women around her. She saw they all needed something to help heal their inner and outer wounds. She didn’t think she was better than anybody, and she believed them all to be more than their situation.
So in 1977, my grandmother started an actual school inside the razor-wired South Carolina Women’s Correctional Institution. She taught them using the same methods she used for her third and fourth graders.
“I helped 18 ladies get their GED,” Grandma wrote.
This rang in my mind as I read a news article shortly before Grandma died, and I called her.
“So the story I’m reading says it’s rumored that some states determine the size of future prisons by the test scores of third graders,” I said.
“Hm,” Grandma said.
Part of the school-to-prison pipeline is a “symbiotic relationship between urban neighborhoods, public education, and the criminal justice system,” wrote Carla Shed, a Columbia University scholar, in an Oct. 2015 article in The Atlantic.
The other part of the pipeline, also linked to the education-criminal justice pairing, is more subtle. The US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that two-thirds of children who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
A Dec. 2019 article by the National Council for State Legislatures said, “Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn.’ If they are not proficient readers when they begin fourth grade, as much as half of the curriculum they will be taught will be incomprehensible.”
If children are learning to read until the end of third grade, and then reading to learn once they begin fourth grade, then any child who does not properly learn words, phrases, vocabulary – all the things that go into reading – loses the ability to fully comprehend what they’re reading after fourth grade. The child falls farther behind each year, such that remediation cannot keep pace with social promotion. As comprehension falls away and school policing – in some cases – rises, other problems creep in: low self-esteem being one, labeling being another.
Low self-esteem alone can keep a woman locked in a situation for far too long. But if she is sent to prison, is released and can’t read at a fourth-grade level, what chances does she have? She now has a criminal record. She can’t get a job or an apartment.
What’s left for her except to return to the swirl of what sent her to the prison to begin with?
“Didn’t you tell me,” I asked Grandma, “that the women you taught were reading on only a third-grade level?”
“Yes,” Grandma replied. “My students in Virginia were doing harder work. It was so sad.”
Grandma wasn’t the least bit fazed she had stumbled upon a statistic – and bucked the system for 18 women – decades before the rest of the country caught on.
“I suppose I’m writing this now because it could help someone.” Grandma left these words in a stack of handwritten memories. “Women, particularly Black women, too often keep these things to themselves. So many women die because they don’t tell. So many babies and children die of violence,” she wrote.
The night I wrote this piece, I was awakened by a clap of thunder and a frightened cat jumping onto the bed. I had wished for a storm so I could sprinkle baby powder into the sheets and listen to thunder and wait for God to do her work. And there it was.