Two Grandmothers, One Vote
In 2008 both of my grandmothers voted for Barack Obama. That’s right, Grandmothers. Both of them. They weren’t the only ones in the family that did so, certainly I too am a member of this family. But theirs were the votes that resonated with me most.
One of them, Mildred Faina, was 99 years old at the time. She made to 100 but is sadly no longer with us. Women did not have the right to vote in this country until she was 10 years old. She saw 18 Presidents take office, starting with William Howard Taft. The first person she ever voted for was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All four times.
Every election season is the most important election in a generation. I can only imagine the slew of “most important elections of a generation” she participated in. And yet when what would become her last election in 2008 came around her decision was very simple. She had been confined to the house for quite some time and my brother was charged with explaining her ballot. She was not much aware of the major issues surrounding the looming financial crisis; what would we have to say about Lehman Brothers and subprime lending to someone who was already in their 20s when the Great Depression began? She didn’t even know the VP running mates. She only knew one thing:
John McCain was just too old to be President.
That’s right. John McCain, that 72 year old whipper snapper 27 years her junior was unfit for the presidency because of his age. References to McCain’s age had been circulating at this point for quite some time. Still, there is something different about it coming from a nonagenarian.
There is also something about nonagenarians making statements that are rather inappropriate yet offer perspective. Mildred knew she was voting for an African American man. She knew the momentous historical significance of that decision. But as had become commonplace in our house, her reflection was tempered by her own sobering realization about how her own family would have reacted.
“If my parents knew whom I voted for they would have rolled over in their grave.”
Inappropriate? Yes. Offensive? Definitely. Yet what always stuck out to me most about that comment was that it was for her an honest reflection of just how long she has lived and how much the world had changed during that time. One could have only imagined how she’d reacted if she had known whom McCain’s running mate was.
The second one, Jonnie Iwata, is 77 and still with us. She was born in West Virginia during the Depression and moved to Southern California in the early 1950s. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who both has a paper subscription to the National Enquirer and regularly made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas every year to see Siegfried and Roy. In fact the one year she could not go was the same year Roy was mauled by that Tiger. She has never forgiven herself.
She’s also the first person in our family to have an iPad. I say this only to highlight her penchant for surprising decisions. I was visiting at her house around Thanksgiving a few weeks after Barack won. We were watching the news and David Gregory was on air discussing the transition from the Bush White House to the Obama White House. We were talking about the election in rather broad terms when I asked her about how she felt about all of this.
“Grandma isn’t it pretty crazy that Barack Obama is going to the White House.”
“Yeah I know. And the slaves built it!”
I’ll never forget that one. Both of my grandmothers, without any provocation, gave what for me became the most profound reactions to the election of the country’s first African American president. Were their enthusiastic statements somewhat problematic? Sure. Does their age excuse them from this? Of course not. And yet I couldn’t help but think about how both of them were the ones, the only ones at that, to make those realities explicit in our family. And they did so without any provocation or malice. After all, they were the ones voting for him.
The idea of the single issue voter has always intrigued me. How could there be one single thing so important to someone that they would vote for that above all else? I was once that person. In 2008 I wrote this note on Facebook about how I’m voting for Obama primarily because he treats me like an adult. Now the racial makeup of the candidate is not what political pundits and scientists have in mind when discussing the single issue voter (not explicitly anyway). And this is not to say that Barack Obama’s skin color is not a major factor in his success, or lack thereof, as President. We KNOW that is true.
And yet sometimes it is the single issue that matters the most. As I prepare to vote in this year’s election I am reminded of these comments, the women who made them, and what they have seen. They were simple. They were unapologetic. They were real.
They also said the most.