A queer feminist pays tribute to the woman who shaped her.

It’s taken some time to prepare myself to tell an important story—maybe the most important story in my life to date. This story is not of a feminist activist of politician. It is the story of a woman who meant everything to this feminist, to me—a person who shaped me into the confident, strong, bold queer feminist I am today. She left me on May 25, 2016 and, with her, she took a piece of my heart which will never be replaced.

Joyce Lucille Grier was born on March 2, 1926, not even a decade after women were granted the right to vote nationwide and just in time for the Great Depression. Her parents, Dewitt and Willie were a poor, but hardworking couple with one older son, Billy Joe. Dewitt and Willie lived, worked, and built a family in Grand Saline—a small, east Texas town named for its salt mine, Morton Salt.

A few years after Joyce’s birth, her younger brother Robert Lee was welcomed to the Grier home, completing their family of five and ensuring Joyce’s spot as the only daughter. Joyce was a blue eyed, toe-headed (what we call kids with very light blonde hair), small town girl who always did things her way.

She worked alongside her family, attended school (often without shoes as a result of their poverty), and managed to sneak the occasional cigarette with her brothers.

During high school, Joyce’s female classmates were, one by one, leaving traditional education as they found husbands. Marrying and starting a family, for other poor women in her community, took precedence over education. But, Joyce was different. She was a revolutionary, albeit an unaware one.

This attractive, thin, blonde woman graduated high school as a single woman, making her somewhat of an anomaly in her world.

Upon graduation, Joyce would once again unassumingly live outside the norm in moving into her own apartment alone in the downtown neighborhood of her small town. She began working at the local soda shop/pharmacy nearby, which would soon be the setting of the beginning of her love story.

While Joyce was enjoying the life of a young, single, independent woman in the 1940s, William “Bill” Griffith Stevenson, a much older, yet still single man was traveling the world working for an oil company. They would later have a chance meeting which would alter the course of Joyce’s life.

Bill, the youngest by several years of seven children, grew up in Maypearl, a small town south of Dallas.  A naturally intelligent man, Bill attended college at Baylor University. However, his undergraduate education was cut short when his mother became ill. 

At this time, all of Bill’s older siblings were married with families, leaving him to care for his mother. When his mother passed and he had the time to pursue marriage and family, his window of opportunity to find love, by the standards of that time, had closed. Being the sensible, yet serene man that he was, he found work with a thriving company and traveled the world.

Although exciting world travels don’t typically involve visits to Grand Saline, Texas, Bill’s work fatefully sent him to Joyce’s hometown. During his short stay, he patronized the soda shop and was instantly attracted to the effortlessly beautiful employee.

To Bill’s delight, the attraction was mutual and an unexplainable soul connection soon followed. While Bill was undoubtedly enjoying his time in this forgotten town, his job soon demanded that he move on. Knowing that he had met a special, one of a kind woman, he took a shot and asked that she join him. Joyce obliged and they were married soon after.

What transpired over the next 30-something years is the stuff of great love stories. The Stevensons traveled the world from Canada to Calcutta. A transient duo that knew home was not a specific place, but rather the state of being together.

They established an unshakable bond of partnership, love, and family. Despite the fact that a doctor had told Joyce at an early age that her physical limitations wouldn’t allow for her to have children, they unexpectedly conceived during their time in India.

Joyce and Bill welcomed their daughter Lee on October 20, 1959. Joyce in her 30s and Bill in his 50s at the time of Lee’s birth, the Stevensons maintained their tradition of the non-traditional.

Work and travel continued for some time after Lee’s birth, but eventually Bill elected to accept an engineering position at Texas Instruments in Dallas establishing some consistency for the family of three. The Stevensons soon returned to Joyce’s hometown of Grand Saline where Lee completed the latter half of her secondary education and ultimately graduated from the very same high school as her mother.

Joyce and Bill spent their years together aware of the age difference and what this would ultimately mean for their version of forever. When Bill was in his 70s, he developed emphysema. Joyce, by all accounts, a woman much too young to prepare for widowhood, spent those years caring for her husband, her love, her partner. At the age of 72, Bill passed leaving behind his wife in her 50s and his daughter in her early 20s.

Knowing that Joyce had much life to live after Bill’s passing, we might presume she would move on and find a partner to share in her remaining years. But, to that, Joyce would respond and I quote, “Why would I want to marry again when I already had the best?”

After Bill’s passing, Joyce wouldn’t so much as go on a date. In her mind, she had had her great love and, although their time together was short, for her, it would suffice for a lifetime.

Being the resilient woman that she was, Joyce picked up the pieces and managed to find joy in the years to come after Bill’s passing. She was granted a new kind of fulfillment in watching her only child Lee graduate college, marry, and have a daughter and two sons. Her grandchildren brought a new kind of love into her life. And Joyce spent the next several years deeply involved in the lives of her daughter and grandchildren – much of the time living in a house right next door.

Lee’s daughter and Joyce’s only granddaughter is me. I know Joyce Lucille Grier Stevenson, that small town, thin, smart, bold, independent woman, as simply “Nana.” From the beginning, we were bonded in a way that, even as an adult, I can’t explain.

  Nana and I spent countless hours engaging in meaningful conversations on things that mattered—politics, social justice, current events. We fried squash, played dominoes, and watched Hollywood Squares with Joan Rivers. She’d tell me stories about Bill, my Papa Stevenson, who passed just a few years before I was born, but remained a real presence in my life. 

My need to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in is a direct result of Nana’s hand in my upbringing. My courage and what we refer to in the South as “gumption” are characteristics passed down from her.

Even my occasional self-indulgent sarcasm was developed during my years with her. To this day, my wife insists that, upon meeting Nana, she understood from where I gained my sometimes unconventional and unexpected sensibility.

This woman, who had such a powerful impact on who I have become, was no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or bell Hooks. But, she was a revolutionary in her own right—building a life on her own terms and rarely following the rules.

While she never wrote a book on gender equality or made an influential speech for reproductive rights, she is and will always be my most important feminist shero. Although I understand my grieving process is far from over, I’m determined to carry on the legacy of love and strength that my Nana gave to me.

Nana—living without you is more difficult than I can put into words; I feel the pain under my skin, in my bones. My life will never feel quite right without you in it. But, I promise to live it as a woman with fortitude, with resiliency, and with a touch of irony and sarcasm—just like you.