In the fall of 1996, the political climate in America was hot. President William Jefferson Clinton, aka “Bill” was running for his second term, in a race against Bob Dole and Ross Perot. While I had turned 18 a couple short months before, I was not registered to vote. I was preoccupied living the life of a high school senior who was thinking about college, keeping my grades up, and working a part time job. At that time, I lived at home with my Mom, my siblings and my Mema (my Mom’s mom).
My Mema was working at Tyson in Springdale at the Berry Street Plant, where she had worked for decades. She stood all day on a line breading chicken and breathing in flour. Some years later she would end up with what she liked to call “a touch” of the emphysema. Despite her long history of smoking, she swore avidly that she acquired this illness due to the flour from the chicken plant. It didn’t matter what science was brought to the table, or what other suggestion anyone may have had about the illness. She would swear until the end that Tyson was to blame.
At the end of each day, she would come in from work, tired, and she would make dinner for us kids. Mom was working second shift at Rockline. I would help with dinner when Mema wanted me to and do the dishes after dinner no matter what. We had something of a routine going. After all the business was done, we settled in together to watch T.V. Without fail, Mema watched the evening news. The reports were dominated by political debates, each side throwing out their carefully crafted soundbites, hoping they would take root with the millions of voters who connected with their fellow countrymen and women via national broadcast.
Sometimes the back and forth gave me a headache. As the news rolled on, each point being made, Mema had a comment for every bit. Her opinions were shaped by her life experiences and influenced by what those around her felt and argued for. As she rattled off this and that after each point, I realized it was almost impossible to figure out which side she supported. She had something negative to say about everyone. I remember specifically feeling like she was not a fan of President Clinton, though I cannot quote anything specific that led me to feel that way.
After the news was over, we relaxed into the shows we liked to watch together. Every Thursday night we watched Friends. It seemed like an unlikely show for Mema to love, but oh how much fun we had watching it together. The evening the episode aired where Ross and Monica’s grandmother died and hundreds of packets of Sweet ‘N Low rained from the closet shelf, Mema and I sat in the living room together laughing until we cried. Tears ran down our faces. Just as we settled down, she giggled that low giggle that came out when she couldn’t control it. The mirth started all over again. I’ll never watch that episode in rerun and not hear her giggling beside me.
When Election Day rolled around, I was not in school. “Why don’t you come with me to vote?” Mema had said to me. Excited at the prospect, I readily agreed. The sun was bright and though it was November, it was not cold. We stood in line together, pushing the umbrella stroller with my youngest brother Dustin riding cordially along. I felt a little worried that our entourage might be a bit much to take into the voting booth. Surprisingly, no one had a problem with it at all. That was how the three of us ended up standing huddled together in the small enclosed voting area.
Mema made her way down the ballot, making her selections. I carefully watched what she was doing. When she got to the questions about the president, she let out a dramatic sigh. “Well, Bethie-Roo, should we vote for our boy Clinton?” she asked me. The endearment Bethie-Roo was saved for particularly happy moments. She was in a good mood. I was more than a little surprised by her question. I hadn’t seen it coming at all. She had not appeared to be leaning that way in her daily commentary. “Well,” I replied, “I guess so.” She let out a little conspiratorial chuckle, and just like that the vote was cast.
She never asked me not to tell anyone, but I never divulged her secret until now. We never discussed it but somehow, I understood the privacy of the choice that she made there. Now that she is gone from this world, there’s no privacy left to protect.
There has never been a time I have entered a voting booth since then that I haven’t thought of that day. My first voting experience was Mema’s vote for Clinton. The vote where she brought two grandchildren, one in a stroller, with her into the voting booth and then asked me for my opinion.
What a privilege it was. What a privilege it still is.