Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Eleven Election Memories

1. 1972: Taking a walk around the block shortly after we moved to New Jersey, when I was five or six. A kid from around the corner stood in my way on the sidewalk and demanded "Who are your parents voting for? We're voting for Nixon." I wasn't sure what to say; I was pretty sure we were voting for McGovern, but I didn't want to get into a big fight. (In retrospect, that kid's parents must have been among the very few Nixon voters in our suburb, which might have been better described as an annex of the Upper West Side, but with lawns.)

2. Maybe the same year, or if later, not much later; or maybe even earlier, before we left New York: my mom taking me to vote with her, in an elementary school gym. I remember the crowds of people; the repurposing, for an important grownup purpose, of a place that was normally for kids; the dark privacy of the voting booth, with its half-curtain that my mom let me pull shut, and the mysterious and very very cool levers.

3. Summer, 1980, In the back seat of the car, driving home from a family vacation with my dad, his girlfriend, and her kids (I think my brother was at camp), listening to Reagan accepting the Republican nomination on the car radio. "He's going to win," my dad's girlfriend declared, in the definitive way she said a lot of things, and me feeling like that couldn't be true, he couldn't win, because he was wrong; everyone I knew hated him, so how could he win?

4. 1984: My first election, by absentee ballot, from college. I filled out the ballot in the third floor common room: filled in the little oval for Mondale and Ferraro, slipped it in the envelope, and thought that it should feel more momentous somehow, not so prosaic.

5. 1988: I'd moved to Brooklyn, but my registration was still on the Upper West Side where I'd lived in my cousin's apartment for the summer right after graduation, so I took the subway up to vote. When I signed the voting rolls, I saw my cousin's name, listed just above mine though she was in Boston by then. Finally, I got to vote in the way I thought of as real: the lines, the booth, the curtain, the levers. If you wanted, you could pull one big lever at the top to vote the straight Democratic line, but I voted each position separately, just to hear that satisfying thunk.

6. 1990-1991 or so: Once again, I registered to vote right after moving (to Seattle, this time) and then moved to a different neighborhood shortly afterwards. It took me a year or two to change my registration, so in the meantime I went back to vote with the friend from whom I'd sublet when I first moved, and at whose address I'd registered. We usually made an evening of it; I'd go over to her house for dinner, and then we'd walk over to the local elementary school. I was disappointed that out on the West Coast there were no levers or curtained booths: just flimsy little structures like at the DMV, and paper ballots with ovals to fill in, like a standardized test.

Later, the friend and I fell in love and got married. So you could say, I guess, that those voting dinners were among the Renaissance Woman's and my first dates. Though we didn't think of it that way at the time.

7. 1992: Walking bach from the voting booth to my apartment, buzzing with it, all around me the excitement and buzz that maybe, finally, somebody good was going to win. Everybody: us young hipster types, scraggly old guys on the street, waiting and watching TV and listening to the radio and asking each other if we'd voted. My friend in San Francisco said there was partying in the street that night.

8. 1992, just after the election, going over to a friend's group house and seeing in the hallway a cut-out article from the New York Times: a checklist of Clinton's campaign promises, so readers at home could keep track of whether and how he fulfilled them during his presidency. I still think of that article, and wonder how it scored out in the end. I wasn't keeping track, by then.

9. 2000: I was taking Tuesday afternoons off that fall to cover at home while RW taught an indexing class. So I was home the afternoon of Election Day, just me and the baby Mermaid Girl, hanging out in the living room and listening to NPR. When they announced that Gore had taken Florida, I clapped her little hands together for her, chanting "Gore won Florida! Gore won Florida!" I felt like I could see it all laid out ahead of me: this baby's future, her early childhood, the start of her school years, all with a President who'd be looking out for her and for us and for the things we believe in. It sounds corny, but that's how I felt.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

10. 2004: After we dragged ourselves and four-year-old MG to a MoveOn meeting wherein our child was inadvertently introduced to the concept of American Girl dolls, RW somehow blinked at the wrong time and ended up a Precinct Leader, and we spent several days just before the election doorbelling our neighbors. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, just the act of doing something made me feel a little better about the impending election: crunching through the autumn leaves, talking to people, getting out the vote. On the day itself, I tried to be optimistic, but in hindsight the main thing I remember is a pervasive feeling of gloom and despair. Like we'd done all we could, and that was something, but there was no way this could end well.

11. Today. When I woke MG up I couldn't resist a little plug: "This is a very important day!" I tweedled, while she groaned and pulled the covers back over her head. She dawdled, as usual, and then tried to convince me that she didn't have time to brush her teeth-- did I want her to be late?? Then she insisted that the tag on the back of her jeans was bothering her, and I had to cut it off right away, yes, while she was brushing. When--predictably-- the scissors poked her during that attempt, she burst into tears, her mouth full of toothpaste. "This is going to be a bad day," she sobbed. "I can just tell. Already."

It was all I could do not to yell, You take that back! But I just said, "You don't know that for sure," and handed her her backpack and shoved her out the door. Her mind isn't really on the election; it's here, on the here and now, her breakfast and the homework in her backpack and whether she has gym today. I wish I could take her to see me vote like some of my invisible friends are doing. I wish I could even take her to the Democrats Abroad party this evening, but it's at a pub and kids aren't allowed.

So we'll be here, tonight, me and my daughter and my mother (RW will be at work), watching the news feeds and listening to the radio, and waiting. And hoping MG's words this morning weren't prophetic, but rather a sop to the Evil Eye. And hoping she remembers today.


Blogger Tall Kate said...

Love this retrospective! I walked down to the polling place with my kiddos this morning, and we talked about how important it all is . . . mostly, here in MA, about ballot question 1, because that's concrete. But I'm also on tenterhooks about the presidential election (duh) and how prop 8 fares in CA . . . Sorry to ramble on!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Arwen said...

I particularly love being reminded of the feeling of the gym repurposed for adult concerns. That was always so amazing to me.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Susan Paris said...

I brought our son with me to vote today, a 12 year old sixth grader. We voted at the High School gym, where we caucused for Clinton lo those many months ago.

I let him fill in the little bubble with the black marker. "There," I said. "Someday you can tell your kids that you filled in a vote cast for the first African-American president of the United States."

I believe that childhood is almost entirely ahistorical, as it is lived. But I think he got a sense of it. "Yah," he said.

1:39 PM  

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