An Appalachian Commedia

A tale of two West Virginian grandmothers and Dante’s Beatrice as the face of the Divine love and mercy.

Bill Borror / 10.5.23

In Four Acts



Appalachia, in fact, is a very matriarchal culture. We revere our grandmothers and mothers … In Appalachia, everyone has a fierce granny story.

-Anthony Harkins, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy

I hope to write of her what has never been written of any woman. And then may it be pleasing to Him who is the Lord of courtesy, that my soul might go to see the glory of its lady, that is of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously gazes on the face of Him qui est per omnia secula benedictus: who is blessed throughout all the ages.

-Dante, The Vita Nuova

Walking into the light of a spring day, my friend Jim and I were recapping the Dante Ph.D. seminar we had just been a part of. We had designed this class ourselves, recruiting two of the best medieval literature students in the school and going to one of our professors to ask if he would preside over a literary and theological exploration of The Divine Comedy. Our teacher (who, while a student at Oxford, regularly had tea with C.S. Lewis) had introduced us to Charles Williams’s masterpiece The Figure of Beatrice. This remarkable poetic work traces Dante’s Beatrice from a boyhood crush to the feminine representation of transcendent beauty to an icon of the Divine love and mercy that literally leads Dante to Paradise. For a few hours each week that semester, we could have easily been breathing the air of Magdalen College.

“My wife is my Beatrice,” Jim said suddenly, and fortunately I looked at him before making some wisecrack. He was beaming with tears in his eyes. “She is the face of God’s mercy to me.” I suddenly felt stuck on some lower plane of Hell, hanging out with Virgil. “How about you, Bill?” he asked. I thought for an instant about my maternal grandmother, who because of dementia no longer recognized me, but I said nothing.

Nearly a decade later, I was sitting in a therapist’s office trying to make sense of my broken internal and personal life. The topic that day had been how struggles with my father somehow reappear in my adult relationships. I had shared some of my insight into him — how his mother had been a distant woman who was never able to show much affection or love. The counselor asked me where I saw the face of mercy and love. Suddenly I was over come with a sense of grace and love that, for that moment, overwhelmed both my grief and sense of failure. “My maternal grandmother,” I said, in a broken voice, “is my Beatrice.”

My two grandmothers, both dead for years now, are more than shapers of my parents and childhood. They serve a similar function for me as the cast of characters in The Divine Comedy; they are what translator Dorothy Sayers calls symbolic personages that represent the fruit of both saying yes to the gift of the Divine mercy and the little hells produced in our lives when mercy is rejected. Dante took from Good Friday to Easter and a hundred cantos to tell his story. What follows is not brilliant poetry, but at least it is short, and it is in English.


My nature, by God’s mercy is made such
As your calamities can nowise shake
Nor these dark fires have any power to touch
-Dante, Inferno, Canto II, 91-93

Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
-Jason Isbell

Mercy is a grace, but it is a journey and a story as well. There are hellish times in every life where it is either rejected or withheld; there are purging struggles where it slowly works its way through psychic scar tissue. And then there are those fleeting, fierce moments where it brands its eternal mark on our very souls. Dorothy Sayers observes that for Dante the fire that torments in Hell and purifies in Purgatory is the same light of God (Purgatory, 16). This is also ultimately “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”; the final line and destiny in Paradise.

The name she gave was Caroline,
Daughter of a miner, her ways were free
It seemed to me
That sunshine walked beside her
-Townes Van Zandt

Matthew Brandt, Birch SP03A, 2021. Pyrograph on Birch plywood with gold leaf, 71 x 41 x 3/4 in.

My grandmothers were born exactly a week apart in 1912, in adjacent counties in West Virginia. Their early childhoods were both marked by poverty and limited access to education, and both of their homes were thrown into upheaval when their parents divorced.

One of my maternal grandmother’s earliest memories is waiting in desperation to see if her father survived a coal mine collapse. He did but several dozen men did not. But my grandmother did not escape the damage of a broken childhood. Her mother had affairs and her father left the coal mines of West Virginia for the emerging car industry of Detroit. My grandmother ended up living with her grandmother and an uncle in an environment of abuse and neglect. She escaped by being hired out to work for a wealthy family that seem to have treated her decently. There is a scattering of pictures from her teen years and early adult years of a pretty and wounded young woman trying to smile. My paternal grandmother experienced less disruption but plenty of deprivation. She was able to stay with her mother and siblings. Her father remained in the picture but often lived in drunken squalor.

I am glad I do not know more of the details. I know that as young mothers and wives while taking care of their own families, they each cared for the parent who had caused them the most pain. My maternal grandmother tenderly cared for her broken mother for months as she suffered and died. She had forgiven her. No one can ever remember her saying a disparaging word about her or for that matter anyone else. My Grandmother Borror, according to my dad, would periodically find her father drunk and sick in some filthy apartment, bring him home, clean him up, and nurse him back to health. She was the dutiful daughter but, one senses, at great cost.


This mountain is so formed that it is always wearisome when one begins the ascent, but becomes easier the higher one climbs.

Purgatory, Canto IV, 88-90

“Neither Creator nor creature ever,
Son,” he began, “was destitute of love
Natural or spiritual; and thou knowest it.”

Purgatory, Canto XVII, 91-93

My grandmothers would both marry in 1934 and each would give birth to a daughter a few years later, with other children to follow. Their husbands would end up working together and the families would occasionally socialize. They would become in-laws in 1959 when my parents married. I would be their first grandchild, born the following year.

But this is where the similarities ended. From an early age the contrasts between my two grandmothers was part of the rhythm of my childhood. Grandma Shirley was light, joy, and unconditional love — lots of hugs and kisses. Grandma Borror was reserved, stern, and serious — short hugs only. Grandma Shirley was fresh baked pie; Grandma Borror was sauerkraut. Christmas at Grandma Shirley’s was magic, every inch of the house decorated and full of laughter, with simple, amazing Christmas presents that made you feel like she knew your soul. Grandma Borror had a small artificial tree and gave us new JCPenney underwear every Christmas so that if we had to go to the hospital, we would not be “embarrsed.” Grandma Shirley played games with us, took us fishing and on picnics, showed us her flower gardens. Grandma Borror was good to us in her own way, but you also spent a lot of time trying to sit still, particularly if we were unluckily there on a Saturday night and The Lawrence Welk Show was on. To this day, the sight of an accordion can evoke violent thoughts in me. Grandma Borror would take us to church and wanted me to be a preacher, though I don’t remember her ever talking about her faith. Grandma Shirley taught us to pray, read us Bible stories, and wanted us to know her friend Jesus.

I have often said in the midst of all my intellectual doubts and studies that I have never been able to shake my Grandmother Shirley’s Jesus. I also have joked that I am a pastor in spite of the fact that that is what Grandma Borror wanted. I am sure both realities are more complicated than that. But there is something of the purgation of their lives, and the struggle to allow mercy to win, and the beauty of when it does, which has shaped my life and, because of what I do, the lives of hundreds of others.


“Direct your mind and gratitude,” she said,
“to God, who raised us up to His first star.
We seemed to be enveloped in a cloud
as brilliant, hard, and polished as a diamond
struck by a ray of sunlight.”

Paradise, Canto II, 22-33

Almost heaven, West Virginia …
Take me home, country roads

-John Denver, Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert

This year, in West Virginia, Easter Tuesday is a beautiful spring day; it is also the day of my mother’s funeral, and everyone has left. I walk up the hill from the stone that bears the names of my parents to the one bearing the name of my paternal grandmother: Olive W. Borror 1912-1996. Not far from this stone is the one that bears the name of my cousin Jamie. Jamie was moderately high on the spectrum, and the person who could calm and reach her, more than anyone else, was Olive Borror. An autistic grandchild late in life brought out the tenderest and best parts of my grandmother. Jamie, who lived for only a few years after my grandmother died, was her Beatrice. Mercy had the final word.

As I make my way back to the car, something within me requires balance more than closure. So my wife and I drive for about half an hour through the hills to another graveyard. I walk up another hill (in West Virginia, everywhere is up a hill) and stand in front of the grave of my maternal grandmother: Hattie D. Shirley 1912-1998; I had officiated her funeral on Good Friday of that year, almost exactly 25 years from today. I put a handful of flowers left over from Mom’s service and place them on the ground in front of her mother’s name.

I remember asking my mother once if Grandma Shirley was as good as I remember her. I had begun to question how much of my memory was hagiographic embellishment. My mother had been recovering from a stroke at the time, and her cognitive functions had begun to suffer. So she asked me to tell her what I remembered, and I did, in the beatific language that I so often used. But my mother closed her eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, she was so much better.”

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

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4 responses to “An Appalachian Commedia”

  1. Dona Gallagher says:

    I never knew my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, Miss Lucy, is at the top of the hierarchy of most cherished memories. There is not a day. I don’t remember her with love and gratitude.

  2. Julie says:

    My two grandmothers were very different women, but both of them showered me with their love and time and taught me about their best friend, Jesus. It is because of them that I understand grace.

  3. Isaac Kimball says:

    This was beautiful

  4. Laura E. Lucht says:

    Beautiful, indeed.

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