My father never voted. He waited his whole life for a candidate who would be worthy of his vote but somehow it never happened. Dad was not one of those who believe that if you don’t vote you can’t complain. Instead, he complained early and often about the candidates who seemed to waste no time in falling to his lowest expectations once they were in office. After he didn’t vote, he spent the next four years pointing out the the all too predictable flaws of the winner. “Did you see what he did?” he’d growl triumphantly. “Good thing I didn’t vote for him!”
For my mother on the other hand, Election Day was a red letter event. In Warland, Montana, population 48, the occasions for dress up were not frequent and she planned her Election Day wardrobe carefully. She wore a slim black skirt with the hem just above the ankle, a long black jacket, and a pancake shaped hat, tilted over one eye, with a peacock feather shooting out at an angle perilous to neighboring eyes. It was, in fact, her only dress up outfit. Then because November is the wettest month in that part of Montana, her three inch heels and feathered hat went into a paper bag she carried as we struggled into sturdy overshoes for the two mile hike to the one room school house where the voting was held. We went around by the road because you couldn’t take the short cut across the railroad track while dressed to kill. I was three going on four the year she turned twenty one, but I’m told I marched along proudly beside her; went with her into the mysterious booth and when the curtain was pulled, I played in the mud puddles around her feet while she cast her vote. Afterwards my mother said, “Now, Deetee” (Yes, she called me Deetee, but don’t you try it.) “this is a very important day. No matter what, you must vote in every election. Every election.” Obviously in the presence of the sacred, I promised, “I will.” and was rewarded with a big Tootsie Roll. I grew up with the clear understanding that this is how I paid my dues. Pretty typical of my generation. One friend still requires that her nieces and nephews show evidence of voter registration before they get their coming of age birthday present.
In many years my father’s approach has seemed the only sensible one but remembering Mom’s optimistic joy in her privilege to vote, I’ve kept my promise and never missed an election, primary or general.
As they grew, our children went with us to the polls and we required the same promise from them. Do they remember the first time they voted? Youngest son Patrick recalls, “And how!… in ‘88 I voted absentee in college for Norm Dicks cause he appointed (brother) Ross to USNA (the United States Naval Academy) Ol’ Norm was good on jobs, education and getting me a room of my own.”
In what would be her last election, my Mom voted for Bill Clinton, “I have decided to give the young man a chance,” she said with the regal air of one who has an immense favor to confer.
Most people don’t vote in person anymore. My kids report that they’re “Still voting absentee; I think the only time I’ve been in a voting booth was 1992. I’ve had nearly perfect nonattendance all these years”. Another writes, “I voted once in a voting booth. It’s overrated,” They say it makes much more sense to study the ballot at home with their spouse, sit together with a cup of coffee and mark their ballots. But it’s not for me.
So tomorrow morning, I’ll take a sentimental journey. I’ll dress carefully, and present myself at Chloe Clark Elementary School and even though I’ll be using a marking pen with the ballot on a rickety white plastic table, my privacy being semi-preserved with flimsy cardboard partitions, I will uphold that proud promise to my mother and in the presence of my neighbors, I will vote.
Sometimes you can go home again.