When my great-aunt Vera married my grandfather’s younger brother, my family grew substantially more interesting. Vera is a woman with her own style. She’s worn fishnet stocking since she was in her 20s (circa 1945) and has the same sunglasses—green lenses in a swooping, cat-eye style—that she purchased at the local soda fountain and drug store in the 1960s. She dresses in fashionable suits (straight skirt and matching jacket) year round, always neatly accented with some sort of gold brooch and matching earrings.
Born and raised in southern Virginia, Vera is a dab hand with a rifle and once shot a snake out of a giant oak. “The dang thing was after some robin eggs,” she explained to me once over potato salad at a family reunion. “You see, when a bird nests in my oak tree, I sorta feel responsible for it.” She stabbed her plastic fork in the air to underscore each word: “No snake gets my birds.”
Vera’s husband, my great-uncle Clyde, gets her a new convertible every year—always the latest model, always tricked out to the nines. And as she’s aged, the sight of Vera’s set and curl covered in a snug scarf, and her tinted cat glasses peeking above the steering wheel in her convertible, have attracted an increasing amount of attention. Not always the good kind.
My fondness for Aunt Vera is made all the stronger by an incident she weathered several years ago. South central Virginia is experiencing the worst recession anyone there can remember. The textile mills are gone, as are most of the furniture factories. Downtown buildings may as well be covered in funeral shrouds. And of course, crime has increased.
On one particular summer evening, Vera happened to stop at a downtown traffic light hen a group of hoodlums (her word) started making cat calls to her from the sidewalk. She watched the light nervously, hoping it would change. The intersection was completely deserted. One of the young men noticed her nervousness, and it affected him like catnip to a tom. He walked toward her car, his friends egging him on from the side of the street.
“You gotta sweet ride there, granny.”
Vera pursed her lips and kept staring straight ahead. However, she let one hand slip from the steering wheel, easing it toward a compartment below the driver’s seat.
“In fact,” the man continued with a grin, “I’d say that’s too much car for an old woman like you.”
He had reached her car door now. She saw him glance around. There were still no other cars, and the light insisted on staying red. He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a knife. There was a click as the blade extended smoothly from its handle. He smiled, loving the power he was exerting over her.
“So what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna open this door, and you’re gonna get out, and I’m gonna have myself one fine automobile.”
Aunt Vera brought up her own hand, pointing her pistol directly into the man’s face. “No. What I’m gonna do is watch you get your d–n hand off my car and walk back over there to your lowlife friends. And then I’m gonna drive away as soon as this light turns green, and I’m gonna go to the police station. I reckon they’ll be here directly.”
The man was already backing away. His friends had scattered.
“Vera,” I said to her, my congealed salad and over-boiled green beans completely forgotten. “That was dangerous! What if one of those guys had a gun?”
She chuckled and raised her Dixie cup of iced tea toward me. “Nothing says crazy like an old woman in a nice car holding a pistol.”
To be sure, I don’t endorse Vera’s actions that day as the best possible solution. She was lucky to come out of the situation. But I do applaud her pluck and her determination not to be a statistic on the area’s annual crime report. And she continues to be my favorite dining companion at the annual family reunion.
Angela Dove is an award-winning humor columnist and the author of the true crime memoir No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the reverberations of murder (Berkley/Penguin, 2009). She welcomes feedback at www.AngelaDove.com