Itry and fail to work out the origin of this saying. The playwright Joseph Stein used a version of it in Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevya explains to his Jewish daughter why it would be foolhardy to marry a Gentile. It appears that Stein didn’t invent the phrase, but who did? Various memes say that it’s an African proverb. Someone on AllPoetry calls it an ‘old country saying’. I like that.
I now know that I come from ‘country’, from seven generations’ worth of modest family homesteads in Kentucky mountains and Indiana fields. Entry to the home of my grandfather’s uncle was through a window, for no one bothered to make repairs when the lintel over the door fell down and the wall collapsed. On one of my grandfather’s visits, he found his cousin limping badly. His own father had shot him in the knee with a hunting rifle in a dispute over a ‘country prostitute’.
My immediate family was far removed from guns and feuds in the holler, so I never heard these tales as a youngster. Nor was I told how Grandpa had reached his uncle’s house, or how he had sustained himself on the way. A solitary bicycle journey of 20 miles was long for a 10-year-old, so en route, he shot grey squirrels with a rifle that he kept slung across his back, bouncing against his bony young shoulderblades as he rode. Threading the squirrels onto makeshift spits of green wood, he roasted them over a fire built by the roadside.
I look through boxes of vintage family photographs, folks standing alongside mules or farm implements, casually holding their guns. Familiar-featured people against unfamiliar backdrops. I am both of them and not of them.