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My grandmother’s gun
Two strands run together in my
childhood memories: my parents’ dislike of toy guns, and the way
my parents broke the news to us children that there were problems in
the world. I recall some early explanations of the notion that
one had to learn to distinguish between the problems one could and
should try to fix, and the problems we would somehow have to
learn to tolerate.
When I was four or five, my parents went to
some length trying to convince me that I did not need a cap gun to have
clothing that adequately resembled my movie hero, the cowboy Hopalong
Cassidy. When I was somewhat older, I did learn something
about guns in the Boy Scouts. But so far as I know, only one
member of our extended family owned a gun, or, perhaps I should say,
something that looked like a gun.
Among the things that didn’t look like a
gun was an object my father had brought back from World War Two.
He probably got it by exchange, as he’d been a communications officer
on the battleship USS New York. It was a tiny “Maus”, a key chain
ornament about the length of my thumb. It fired tiny blank
cartridges. In my high school years I did a magic act for school
talent shows and children’s parties, and my father occasionally let me
fire the “Maus” on stage. Its flash and bang were unexpectedly
large for its size and it was a convincing addition to a young amateur
While I now have friends and
relatives who hunt in season and enjoy the venison, we didn’t when I
was a child. We were Jewish, and notwithstanding the Biblical
story of Esau the huntsman, animals shot in the field are not kosher
and Jews don’t traditionally hunt. But one grandmother owned a
From the time
her husband had passed on in 1945 until it was demolished in slum
clearance in the late 1970's, my grandmother Elizabeth Sisson was
the sole proprietor of a small retail liquor store, People's
Liquors, on Dover Street (now East Berkeley Street).
It was almost in the shadow of the huge elevated railway station that
was then high over Washington Street two stops from the center of
Boston. We grandchildren adored visiting the store, in a
neighborhood so very different from our home suburb near Washington,
D.C. We loved the noise and vibration of the passing elevated
trains, being able to walk into the large display refrigerator,
and the chance to ride the trains between Grandmother’s house and the
Elizabeth was often alone in
the store. As the neighborhood declined petty crime increased somewhat,
and once or twice a year she was robbed, sometimes at gunpoint.
She kept at most a half day’s cash in the register, and felt this was
simply a part (however unpleasant) of doing business in the
old neighborhood. She said the robbers were mainly polite
and gave clear instructions. She gave them what was in the cash
register, waited for them to leave, and called the police and the
insurance man to assure them she was OK.
But then, one day, she was held up
by one of the neighborhood drunks. This, she said, was not
OK. He didn’t know what he was doing, didn’t give clear
instructions, and was obviously scared and uncertain. His gun,
she was afraid, might go off.
She talked with the police and insurance man.
She went to a gunsmith and selected a handgun. She then had essential
internal parts removed and welded so that the gun looked fine, but
could not fire and could not be repaired so that it would fire. She
wasn’t going to hurt anybody, and she wasn’t going to have the gun
stolen and used to hurt anybody. She brought the gun back to the
store, and had her son, my uncle Ralph, show it now and
then to some of the neighborhood drunks.
She reported that it had the desired deterrent
effect. She never again was held up by any of the neighborhood
drunks. It didn’t stop the professionals, she said: they
still came by once or twice a year and emptied the register. They
took the money, went away peacefully, and dealing with them she knew
that no one was going to get hurt. She could tolerate, she
said, dealing with professionals.
Edward Ordman (c) 2005
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