Before we were old enough to go to school, my brother and I stayed with our grandmother each day while my parents worked, and each morning when we arrived there was oatmeal topped with melting pats of butter awaiting us. She gave us free rein to run wild, to indulge our sense of play. She and my grandfather lived just down the street from my parents’ house, and there were times growing up I would run to her first if my knees were skinned or my heart broken.
Despite her general sweetness, she contained a pronounced streak of unruliness. From her I learned that it’s okay not to be well behaved all the time. When I was thirteen I found a pack of cigarettes stashed in her purse while exploring in the back of her closet, and she caught me staring at them, my eyes brimming with curiosity. “Bring them here,” she said. She took me to the glider on the front porch, lit one, and handed it to me. “Go on.” She lit one for herself and took a deep drag. We sat there together in silence, smoking. I never found cigarettes in the house again.
In the South of my childhood it was customary to spank, and my grandmother saw no reason to be an exception to this rule. There was a large bush in her backyard, and whenever my brother and I committed a misdeed that warranted a spanking, she took us out there to choose our switch. She heightened the psychological drama by insisting there were invisible, biting bugs covering the branches. After we carefully picked the twig we thought would do the least harm, she cut it off and we ran into the house as fast as we could to hide. She normally found us cowering under the covers of the bed, half terrified and half giggling, and proceeded to whack the covers dramatically until remorse set in. It never hurt of course.
Her sense of justice was clear and easy to grasp: never start a fight, never instigate a wrong—but if a wrong were done to you, you’d better retaliate. The first time she met the man who became my husband she pointed her shrunken, 77-year-old finger toward his face and threatened, “If you hurt my granddaughter, I’ll whoop you.” He had no doubt she would at least try. This code was so ingrained a feature of my grandmother’s character that even today her children and grandchildren regale themselves with accounts of her inflexible enforcement of it. There is one story she told to us again and again.
My grandmother only held one job outside the home, during the Second World War. Like many women of her generation, especially in Tennessee, she didn’t finish high school, and at the age of 16 she went to work at a local textile mill. She was used to being the youngest. She was the youngest of a bevy of siblings who all adored each other, and now she was the youngest woman working at the mill. Some of the older women took to her and kept her under their wing, as the women in her life had always done and as she in turn would do for me.
But the older women couldn’t always be around, and the mill was dangerous. People got hurt, bled. The noise of the machines was deafening, and the air was dense with fiber and dust. The work was monotonous—endlessly hypnotic repetitions of the same task. To forestall tedium, she regularly asked to be swapped around from one job to another. To hear my grandmother tell it, she had everyone there wrapped around her finger, especially her bosses, all of them men, of course.
One day she was stationed beside a man she didn’t know. He was probably in his forties, as she recalled it later. It started out with him occasionally bumping into her but as the days went on progressed into what she referred to as “getting fresh.” She never told us particulars, but it’s clear he was grabbing and touching her in ways that were unwelcome. Though she would never have used the term, she was enduring repeated sexual harassment by a man decades her senior. I don’t know exactly why she never told her bosses or the women she worked with, but I suspect she was afraid. Maybe they’d think she was inviting it somehow.
As this went on, my grandmother grew increasingly infuriated and her sense of justice was galvanized. She made a plan. There were sharp knitting needles all around the mill, and she put one in the pocket of her smock. Whenever she told the next part of the story, her face would beam with pride. “I saw him coming close to grab me, and I took hold of the needle in my hand so the sharp end was pointing out.” As she spoke, she held her hand out as if still dangerously armed. “And I stabbed him…just a little.”
She took great delight in recounting how loudly the man screamed and how high he jumped. He ran to the boss’s office yelling, “She stabbed me!” My grandmother ran in behind him. It was an accident, she sobbed, they just collided—he stabbed himself! The commotion caught everyone’s attention, and the older women came rushing to my grandmother’s defense. Of course she didn’t stab him, they protested; she’s just a child. Nobody spoke what all must have suspected, that the man had been taking liberties with my grandmother’s body. The boss told her to be more careful and sent her back to the floor. The man didn’t lose his job, of course. What is more surprising is that my grandmother didn’t lose hers either. The situation was made to blow over—but just maybe the man thought twice before forcefully touching another woman. At least I tell myself he did.
My grandmother was proud of the justice she served, and the story quickly became a part of her repertoire. But in these repetitions she never treated it as a story of sexual assault so much as an example of her pert insistence on just reprisals. I simply don’t think she had the vocabulary we now possess to express what exactly had happened to her. I’m bothered that I only recently came to see the truth of this story. How terrified and powerless she must have felt to take matters into her own hands, a girl of sixteen against a man older than her father.
Many years later, when she was in her eighties, she had a heart attack during dinner while sitting across the table from me. I rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital and stayed with her all that night, sleeping on the foldout chair beside her bed. What I remember most was how adamant she was that only women see her undressed, help her use the bathroom or shower. She didn’t even want a man to bring her a bedpan. This was a woman mortified by the idea of a strange man so much as seeing her body against her will. She stabbed not out of feistiness but fear.
I wish I had realized these things about my grandmother when I was younger. I needed her help in my own moments of having my body touched and exposed in ways I did not want. And there have been many, especially in my adolescent years when I mistook boys’ too insistent hands as signs of approval, even affection. This brought me a lot of pain, and I endured it in unnecessary silence. I believe she could have helped me find my voice, if only I would have listened to hers more carefully.
She forgot so much in the confusion of her final years as she succumbed gradually to dementia. By the end she was living in the world of her childhood, surrounded by her siblings and parents, who all had died before her. But she never forgot gouging that man with the knitting needle, never stopped recounting that story. I don’t think it was a memory steeped in pain but rather remained a way for her to articulate that although she was small, frail, and her mind blunted, she was still someone to be reckoned with.
Sexual harassment is a legacy of aggression inherited by one generation of women after another, and we have far too often had to extract justice on our own or simply go without. Even if I’ve never been able to achieve my grandmother’s brand of recompense against those whose hands have violated me, I am inspired by her now to raise not a knitting needle but a pen and say “me too.”
–Stephanie McCarter writes and teaches in Sewanee, Tennessee. Her essays have also appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, and Eidolon.