Written by Payton Denney
My regional manager thinks I’m a gorilla. Our relationship is marked with a history of bad communication. On one recent occasion, he called me to obtain feedback on a software decision. Frustrated that I was not providing a helpful answer, he sighed and said, “Before I make a final decision, I wanted to consult the 800-pound gorilla.” I confirmed that he meant me. It was not a mistake. The refreshing thing about men is that they will tell the truth to your face.
In true female “my feelings aren’t hurt” fashion, I Googled it. According to the Urban Dictionary, the “800-pound gorilla” is “an overbearing entity in a specific industry or sphere of activity. A seemingly unbeatable presence always to be reckoned with; whose experience, influence, and skill threaten to defeat competitors with little effort.” The phrase is rooted in a joke: “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?” (The answer: “Anywhere it wants.”) And there you have it.
As a businesswoman, I have been called a lot of names. No person, let alone a southern female, wants to be known as aggressive. When thrown your way, it stings. However, persistence and grit are often camouflaged as aggression. And the practice of name calling isn’t new.
My Dad’s mother was a self-made, nationally known, coin dealer in the 1960s. It was a tough business, and this red-headed, Jesus-loving woman stuck out like a sore thumb among her peers. One of my favorite stories about her was told by my uncle a few years ago during her memorial service. We were sitting in the church that she founded as he reminisced.
During a coin show, accompanied by my uncle who was a teenager at the time, my Nana presented her briefcase of rare coins to a dealer. When the man on the other end of the transaction commented that he couldn’t believe “this broad” was trying to pull one over on him, my Nana shut her case, turned on her heels and walked away. The poor fool had no idea who he was dealing with.
Chasing her out of the building, the man implored her to change her mind. He said, “Why are you upset? I talk to everyone that way.”
To which my Nana responded, “You won’t talk to me like that. I’m not a broad. I’m a lady.”
He bought every coin in her case at her price. But most importantly, he gave her the respect she demanded. To this day, the most complete set of Carson City Silver Dollars in existence is held at the Smithsonian. My Nana assembled it.
The term “broad” was defined as a woman who sings loud, parties hard, and is often abrasive, sarcastic and in-your-face — all of which my grandmother was none. Often men who felt threatened by strong-willed, successful women would call them broads in a derogatory sense.
But being an independent, assertive woman is nothing of which to be ashamed. It also doesn’t make you a broad.
It’s been said that those who possess grit are able to self-regulate and postpone their need for positive reinforcement while working diligently on a task. Perhaps this is why women, especially mothers, are the people in my life who are the grittiest. Motherhood is a selfless, delayed gratification, slow-growing, recognition-deprived job. Grit gives us the traction we need to stay the course when quitting would be easier.
I come by my grit naturally. My mother was dealt a rotten hand at the age of 47, when my father suddenly passed away. I was a senior in high school and would be leaving for college in less than 12 months. She was facing an empty nest. It was not how she had planned, but she never allowed me to even consider changing my plans. There was work to be done. She went back to school to earn the credits she needed to update her teaching certificate. Less than a year later, she was back in the classroom teaching, and I was off to college. Only now, as I am an adult, did she admit to wanting me to stay home. To this day, she is the toughest woman I know.
While my mama is the toughest in my experience, my life has been marked by the influence of countless strong women. I spent a lot of my early days surrounded by aunts and cousins. Every night I came home to one very sassy sister. It was here that I learned of love, not because I earned it but because I was part of a larger family. When life threw a curveball, we gathered around my grandmother’s dining table to plan our corresponding swing.
As a young adult, I entered college grieving. Most everyone I knew had two parents at home. I was in new, awkward territory. But a clan of Baton Rouge friends took me under their wing and welcomed me. They taught me that friendship is about showing up and tough conversations. It’s about having a place where people tell you the truth and celebrate the authentic you. These ladies gave me room to fly but equipped me with a compass to find my way home.
Within the past year, I entered a decade that classified me as middle-aged. That feels super awkward to type. Awkward but appropriate. Because the women that I have met in the past decade are helping me to navigate a slew of poignant life lessons. It’s here that I learned that being gritty does not necessitate going it alone. More than anything, this crew has taught me the word “we” and showed me how to use it. We’re finding that people don’t need answers, they just need to talk, which is great considering that we rarely have an answer to give, especially with life’s most difficult questions. I’ve often found my way when one of these friends offers a question back to me in response to my question. It’s proven to be the missing piece I need to work my own puzzle. That piece guides me back to the compass the group before gifted me to guide me to the home established by my family so many years ago.
Looking back, I can only imagine how difficult trying to balance motherhood and run a business during the 1960s and ‘70s must have been. Like me, my Nana had 3 children: two boys and one girl. One of those kiddos was my dad. He’s probably the reason she prayed so much. I am certain that my Nana didn’t have a girl tribe. Her help came from another source.
My uncle, Cap, being a snarky teenager, once challenged my Nana to a game of pool. She not only never played, but she didn’t know how to properly hold the cue. He knew this and was looking forward to the victory and bragging rights that would result. With each shot, my grandmother would awkwardly hold the cue and say “Lord, please help me with this shot.”
Cap watched as the cue ball ricocheted around the table eventually knocking the intended target into the pocket. This continued multiple times, “Lord, please help me with this shot,” until three balls remained on the table. In between the cue ball and the eight-ball was Cap’s single remaining striped ball.
As Nana leaned forward to make her final shot, Cap smirked and said, “Even God, can’t help you with this shot.”
Once again, she prayed, “Lord, help me with this shot.”
Cap relived the details of that moment, “She struck the cue ball. It hopped over my ball and hit the eight-ball. She sunk the shot. I threw down my pool cue and said, ‘I’m not going to play you both.’”
See that was the thing about my Nana. She literally walked with God every day of her life. He was her “ever-present help in times of trouble.” She withheld nothing from Him — not even a game of pool. My Nana’s grit came from God. In fact, all grit is God-given. And the last time I checked the creation story, we’re all related. Therefore, we all have the potential to channel our perseverance gene despite being confronted by significant obstacles. All we have to do is ask.
This past year, each fearless female I know had to choose to hit the grit engagement button — to have the courage and show the strength of character. Much to our surprise the more honest we were about our challenges and the more we included God in our struggles, the stronger we became. The pain became bearable because we carried the weight together. Maybe we are broads. Maybe we have to be aggressive to get the results needed by those weaker than us. Perhaps that appears apelike to some. Hear me when I say, “That’s not my problem.” We have work to do, and so do you.