Election Day 2008. Not a decade ago. A life ago.
We’d gotten up early. “O-Dark-Thirty,” I’d learn to call it in the in military parlance of my wife’s family. My mother-in-law, her dog and I were at a ticket counter at O’Hare. It was cold in Chicago. MaMa was anxious to get home. To North Carolina. She had to vote.
My job was to minimize her anxiousness and get her there. On the surface, not difficult. I’d often escorted the septuagenarian matriarch. As sons-in-law go, I’d passed a few gauntlets. However, there were things occurring beneath the surface we were still a couple of years from understanding. Today had enough trouble of its own.
That’s where I came in. I carried her bags, and kept her baggage in check.
Complicating her eagerness to get back to Fayetteville was MaMa’s persona. Her moods could be best illustrated in the commercials that parody the movie “Network” where folks throw open apartment windows and cry out for their monetary urgency. MaMa’s line would be: “It’s my way, and I want it now!”
MaMa didn’t take no mess, but could make one. Her Southern charm and sweetness could change to terse and testy before a blink ended. She had no patience with delays, and may perceive the briefest pause of a gate agent looking into fares or procedures as a slight. She might take things personally that weren’t. She might take things ethnically that weren’t.
In short, these traits didn’t go over well with humorless TSAs…these traits could cause the delay she wished to avoid…especially on a day like this when you’re in a hurry to fly home to vote and change the world.
MaMa grew up in an era when her people believed her vote could make a difference and other folks created elaborate schemes to prevent voting. To call a spade a spade, white folks made up stuff so that colored folks like her couldn’t vote. All the more reason she dedicated her life to teaching, encouraging young Negro children the value of school, was a voracious and Scrabble champion (specializing in two-letter words) until her mind betrayed her.
This day was among her sharpest, and that heritage of overcoming efforts to deny her the right to vote were all the more reason that — while she had enjoyed time with the family for the last week or so, when she realized just HOW close Election Day was, she let it be known for many days, “I’m ready to go home.” Often. For on this Election Day, an educated young Negro man was on the crest being the most important person on earth. MaMa was going home to make sure it happened.
To accommodate, I became Hoke to her Miss Daisy and rescheduled my work week to travel with her, though I preferred to be in Chicago. Seemed the place to be that day. To make this work, I’d voted early for the first time which was its own surreal experience.
Accompanying MaMa put me on three planes of reality at once: mine, the agent’s and MaMa’s fluctuating one. I had to take care of Ma-Mas’s real and anticipated needs on one end and address airport protocol on the other. Like, making sure Mr. Bouvier, her trusty canine companion, could accompany her in the cabin without an extra charge. There had been some question about that when she flew to visit us, alone, and that scenario is what precipitated my concierge role. It took Sleight of hand, misdirection, lengthening my fuse.
WHEELCHAIRS & BALLOT BOX
As I mentioned earlier, it would be a few years before we discovered her responses were not just a quirk of personality but escalating dementia which she masked for years before the word became a Google search. For now, when the agent said “dog” at the end of the sentence that started with “You have a cute…” I knew that was Hoke’s cue to say,
“MaMa, would you like to sit and wait for your chair while I wrap this up?”
It was my cue because I saw MaMa’s unwrinkled caramel countenance flush crimson. She responded with her honey-dripped, “Allll right!” a lash-fluttering drawl that Scarlett O’Hare would envy.
I got Mr. Bouvier’s seat, checked our bags and got our boarding passes for both flights – yes, we had a connection where part of this scenario would be repeated – and rejoined MaMa in the wheelchair parking lot at the same time that her attendant arrived.
“All good to go,” I said.
“They didn’t charge you for Boo, did they?”
The attendant extended his hands to assist her.
“Your chariot awaits,” said some relieved male’s voice. The four of us whisked away through security, to the gate, down the ramp, to our seats. All the while, MaMa smiled at speedily walking passengers with the satisfaction of a queen tended by her courtiers. Only The Royal Wave was missing…because her hands were busy slipping a couple of dollar bills into my hand to give to the attendant.
SWING DOWN SWEET CHARIOT
Queen MaMa and her court, with a new wheelchair attendant, hustled through the corridors at the Charlotte Airport which – despite my reminder as we settled down on the O’Hare leg – she had forgotten was on the agenda. As we sped through the cavernous surroundings between terminals, her eyes became more anxious .
“When do we get home,” she said. “Don’t let me miss…”
“We’ll be there in plenty of time.”
She slipped another pair of dollars into my hand.
Still, her silence was very loud.
Taking into account the layover, and despite flying into rain showers, we arrived in Fayetteville early afternoon, and were met at the airport by The Designated Neighbor, one of her girlfriends who was to drive us to the house. Had they been collegians, the sound these 70-something women emitted would have been a squeal. We’ll just say they were happy to reunite. Bouvier was relieved — which is the first thing he did upon reaching his backyard after being encased through two cars, two planes and two wheelchairs and four hours.
MaMa, meanwhile, cleaned herself up, put on her lipstick, her furry coat and allowed Hoke to drive her Mercury to the polls a few blocks away. He held the umbrella as she walked to the school house doors. More septuagenarian squeals.
“I wasn’t going to miss this!” she said, introducing Hoke as her son-in-law who made this possible.
Her girlfriends embraced and requested sugar as all his aunts and great aunts did when his mother took him to family gatherings. He hated the sugarfest then, but missed it today. And he missed her. And Dad. While he enjoyed the moment of being MaMa’s voting escort, he imagined doing the same for his mother. His mom, a long-time election judge in Indiana, died in the spring just before the primaries.
THE VOTES ARE IN
We dined at her favorite spot, The Golden Corral – her treat in lieu of a tip — then returned to the house to watch the election returns as you’d watch the Super Bowl, a favorite film, or when our clan coagulated to await the Negro Performer of the Week during black-and-white Ed Sullivan: We watched with awe and reverence, hearts pounding as the votes were totaled. And then:
“CBS Projects that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois will be the next President of the United States.”
As we watched the celebration from Grant Park in Chicago, only 45 minutes from our house, MaMa and I laughed at how far we had come to vote. Physically. Symbolically. And for her, personally. Like most of the people on TV – college students, Caucasian supporters, Jesse Jackson – we cried. We mused, “I never thought I’d live to see this!” A black man elected President of the United States. But, when MaMa said it, the phrase had deeper meaning. She sat, holding the wine glass she’d been saving for this occasion, and explained her tears:
“When I think of all he went through,” said began. Crimson flushed her face. “And there’s not a statue of him in this town.”
Him? Barack was just elected; how can there be a statue…? Jesse? After MaMa passed I found a Jesse Jackson for President button from the ’84 campaign in her effects, but Jesse was born in South Carolina, same town as my dad: Greenville. Who is ”Him?”
DEJA VU, SOUTHERN STYLE
When I met Vikki and we first visited her mother in Fayetteville, I struggled to remember why the city seemed so familiar though I had never been in North Carolina. MaMa filled in the blanks. Him was her brother, Bill Bowser, a noted disc jockey and civil rights activist in North Carolina in the 50s and 60s. Bill Bowser’s zeal and impact with the NAACP was to Fayetteville was what Dr. King and Medgar Evers were elsewhere. I had first heard of Fayetteville growing up because of sit-ins that became news items that reached all the way to Indiana. Those sit-ins were because of Bill Bowser, who fought to give Negroes the right to vote.
So, MaMa and I caught a plane so she could help Barack Obama validate her brother’s work.
LEGACY OF THE VOTE
I wrote a brief tale of this day in 2016 after our daughter – MaMa’s granddaughter – cast her first vote. We went as a family. Our candidate did not win. In the two years since, we have watch with great dismay and consternation, as the man who did win that Presidential election has dismantled virtually every law, policy, idea and – if he could – shred of evidence that Mr. Obama existed, much less won the election.
The language, demeanor, insensitivity of the current President has created a uncivil Civil War and high-tech Reconstruction. In the process, the hope and potential of our nation that seemed so possible ten years ago have – in 24 months – been replaced by suspicion, despair and disenfranchisement. The current President has achieved many of his goals, some helpful such as economic ideas. However, in the long run this Chief Executive’s greatest achievement has been to make America grate again.
LEARN MORE: How Trump Improved My Life
From his inaugural address to his latest 280 character tirade, the current President and those who follow his style, has negated the greatness seemingly thrust upon us in Mr. Obama’s first victory. : The sense of unity. The possibility of hope. Despite the limited goodness around the country, economic prosperity for some for example, unlike November 2016, our national psyche, our morale, less resembles Barack’s,”Yes, we can” than Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Despair and die.” I wonder what MaMa, Mother, Dad and my father-in-law The Colonel would say, not to mention Uncle Billy.
However you voted, whomever you support, no one voted for what we have, even if it is the outgrowth of an Obama backlash.
TEN YEARS AFTER
Whether it’s publicly mocking opponents, disparaging freedom of the press, misunderstanding and misappropriating freedom of speech, or inflaming division through his us-against-them rhetoric (pick your own “them”), we see this despair around us. Social media posts. Animus in the guise of campaign literature. Is it little reason that so many young people – those inspired by the campaign of 2008 on both sides of the aisle – are reluctant to go into pubic service? That so many are refusing to vote?
The current President is only partially responsible. He has lowered the bar, yes, for rudeness and juvenile public official behavior, that behavior is only enhanced by those of both parties who replicate and therefore model the bully, and, worse, those of his inner circle of supporters who should call him on it and don’t.
The sadness of our electoral process today is that potential voices of reason or effective public servants chose to not participate in political discourse because debate means shouting match; victory seems to be survival of the nastiest. Our current leaders do not campaign with compassion; we are losing our desire to forgive.
VOTING, BECAUSE WE CAN
By the time Mr. Obama ran for re-election, we had moved MaMa and Mr. Boo to Illinois. Health reasons. She was not able to vote. After she passed in 2013, Boo moved in with us and made his own statement about the 2016 election. We’ll just say we didn’t realize we we’d dropped our “I voted” sticker until Boo lifted a hindquarter for relief. Can you say metaphor?
Earlier this year at a Martin Luther King Day celebration, Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, offered an opinion about why the 2016 election turned out so differently. Among her observations was that African-Americans who could vote didn’t; that some had been given a false sense of success because of Obama’s tenure. If nothing else, the last two years are a great wakeup call. “Vote,” she said last January, “especially at the local level” where the vote has the most impact.
Mary Mitchell’s workshop, and election day with MaMa, came back to mind over the weekend when our daughter, home from college for trimester break, woke up on Saturday morning asking my wife and me, “When are we going to vote?”
Not if. Not do we have to. When ARE we. Her statement was encouraging. In the two years since she has voted and gone to college she has matured and grown in stature. This request not only elevated her in our eyes, would that MaMa and Uncle Billy were here, too. So, we’re heading to the polls now. As a family. Despite the despair and Reconstructionists around us. Despite the horrid option of choosing between two evils.
Voting is the least we can do. We vote to honor a woman on the throes of dementia is driven to endure TSA in two states. We vote because her granddaughter drove three hours and get up before noon to continue the legacy. We vote because her great-uncle was willing to be fire-hosed, bashed in the head and lose his job and marched in Washington in ’63 just so he could walk a few blocks to do so in ’66. We vote because, as #TheDghtrUnit, “I complain about the government a lot, and I don’t feel right complaining if I don’t vote.”
We vote because we’ve learned that, bad choice and all, we ought make sure we take our Facebook angst to the polls. Despite the investigations and what ever Russian hackers might want you to think, your voice is best heard at the ballot box. Ask your MaMa.