This election has turned my thoughts to my Grandmother, Ruby Jewel Thompson.
She is a Southern Baptist who prays every morning kneeling on a stool in the closet. She, “takes,” her exercise at the local gym, and she regularly visits her Church’s homebound. She always asks how my partner, Alex (pronounced, “Ehlex,”) is doing when we talk, and she tells me she loves me at least three times. She tells me she wishes I’d call her more often; I should call her more often.
Though he was my biological Grandfather, I never met Ruby’s first husband; he died in a bar fight. He also beat my father and his younger siblings. Growing up, I remember their jokes. He’d say, “I’m only doing this because I love you,” and in their minds they’d say, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t hit me.” They’d joke about wishing they had tried getting down on their knees to vigorously pray. Maybe he’d have passed over them, bound from hurting them by their genuflection, a cartoonish nod to biblical lamb’s blood. Whenever I consider moments as a kid hearing the adults talk through these stories of abuse and trauma, contributions to our collective memory, there is one that usually haunts me. It starts with a pet goat and ends with my late Grandfather slitting its throat, in front of my Father and the other children.
After Ruby was widowed, she married J. A. Thompson. J. A. died almost two years ago. At the funeral, after they finished burying him and all the ceremony had passed, we walked up to the new grave with her, and she said, as a wistful passing comment to him and to everything, “Well…I’ll miss you my sweet.”
J. A. had been much kinder to Ruby. More wholesome images spring to mind when I think of them. Like, upon returning home on the night of my High School graduation, they fell asleep holding hands, leaning into each other on my parents’ couch.
There is another story of J.A. praying over my sister before going into surgery at the hospital. It was a minor procedure, but there he was vigorously praying. Tears flowing down his cheek, holding my big sis in his big love, God’s love.
Ruby and J.A. were deeply religious, and Ruby’s faith is no weaker after J.A.’s departure. Whatever the source, and she’d argue it’s God, her capacity to go on loving, given all that has happened, is profoundly impressive. It is probably what got her through all that life has given.
I haven’t asked Ruby (I call her Grandmother) who she voted for in the 2016 United States presidential election. I suspect she might have voted for Donald Trump or for no one.
Yet because of her story and of who she has proven herself to be, I know that she wishes me success, fulfillment and joy. When I was accepted to attend Harvard Divinity School, she’d say repeatedly with a kind of reverence and astonishment, “A Dutton is going to Harvard…” My success is her success; we are bound to each other. We chart paths that are inextricably linked, no matter who she is and who I am.
So I worried, when J.A. died, about her loneliness and about whether she’d be able to rediscover herself in a life without him. I worried about whether she’d have the help she needs to manage her house, and I worry about whether, soon, she will be able to find a retirement home that will invigorate her. I worry about whether she will be able to afford what she needs as time goes on.
I love her more deeply than I may typically see in myself. There is something binding in the journey she and I follow together, figuring out how to love, how to celebrate beauty in all its forms, and how to cope with fear and pain.
So, then, what will I say to her when I finally learn about how she used her vote? I don’t think I will say anything specifically about Mr. Trump. See, I don’t think it matters.
The things Mr. Trump’s election represents are merely exacerbated now, not new. We share the collective memory of our family. We remember the palpable fear and anxiety for body and spirit that abusive people create—people who threaten the livelihood and personhood of others we love with rhetoric and with action. Sometimes, it is all we can do, but to vigorously pray. There are millions of people in this society who, even before Donald Trump became President Elect, live each day with this kind of anxiety.
How much do we wish for my father and his other syblings a different beginning? And how much do we celebrate that I was able to chart a different path? Our tragedy and celebration is similar to the duality of experience for many others in the United States who struggle.
If there is something I would tell my Grandmother, it is that our family’s history requires that we struggle with them. For our future is theirs. We should have been struggling all along. It might be too late, but we must have faith that love will triumph. Indeed, it is surely the only thing that got us through all that life has given us; it is the lesson we are to pick up and use now.