My Mother’s Ballot

Tuesday, 8 November 2016 was a day my 82 year old mother had been looking forward to since 1956, the year she voted in her first Presidential election. It was the day she was finally going to get to do what she’d been longing to do for 60 years – vote for a woman to hold the highest office in the United States. When my mother fell into a coma in the early morning hours of November 1st, her husband and family, doctors and nurses, friends and acquaintances all united in one goal: doing everything in their power to get her to wake up and vote. Everyone who knew her considered it an outrage that she might miss the election she’d been waiting for her entire adult life.

My parents always went to the polls in person. It was their tradition from the time my mother was old enough to vote. One year and one month after she cast her first vote in a Presidential election (1956 – Eisenhower v. Stevenson), I would be born into a family which imbued politics, cinema and television with equal drama, despite their unequal gravity.

My mother thought almost all politicians to be stupid fools, and often heard her say: “If only a woman…,” a phrase I attributed to wishful thinking. I inherited my mother’s ambition, her curiosity, her restlessness, her desire to develop her intellect – but I knew, even as a young girl, the opportunities awaiting me would never have been available to my own mother.

In the gap between the time in which it would take me to grow up enough to overthrow the patriarchy and the annoyingly restrictive present of my suburban American childhood, I never considered just how my own mother had been robbed of her own hopes and ambitions by the era and circumstances into which she was born. In my childish eyes, my mother had spent her adult life enabling the very system which oppressed her, and I didn’t understand how she got there or the context into which she had come into existence.

My mother was born in 1933, the year Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. In Depression-era East Los Angeles, my grandparents expanded their small, first-generation immigrant family and welcoming my mother, Carole.

Carole didn’t have a middle name, and when asked why frequently replies: “Because my parents couldn’t afford to give me one.”  Curious and clever, Carole did well in school but her aspirations to higher education were dictated by her sex – female, and her perceived usefulness. The day after she graduated High School, Carole got her first job as a secretary, and began paying rent to her parents the following week. She had begged them to send her to college instead of her older brother, knowing full her brother wouldn’t “do anything” with the education she herself longed for, and he fulfilled her prophecy by leaving college as an undergraduate to join the military, forever dashing her hopes of a formal higher education. She greatly admired Margaret Mead, and would have loved to have studied Cultural Anthropology. Instead she turned her curious and probing attention to human behavior in her own habitat – the post WWII era Southern California rapidly acculturating Jewish community.

Insightful and in possession of chutzpah disproportionate to the limits of her social position, Carole assessed her prospects with both sober reality and calculating ambition. All around her, other young Jewish women were joining the working class with the skills they’d acquired in American public schools. Unlike the previous generation of immigrants, she wouldn’t be doing piecework or peddling – Carole could deftly use a typewriter and an adding machine. Finally able to exert sovereignty over her own body via the independence of a paycheck, she dressed herself as fashionably as her budget would allow, ate in restaurants (to the horror of her mother, a renown cook whose own daughter eschewed the culinary arts), and dated young Jewish men of her acquaintance whenever the opportunity arose. When she met Rick, the man she was to marry and who would become my father, she knew she had struck gold.

Rick was an only child, born in Chicago and raised after age 13 in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. Handsome, hard-working, modern and worldly (he had traveled! Outside of California!), a catch by anyone’s standards, Rick had a professional man – a pharmacist – whose parents seemed “sophisticated, sophisticated and fancy” people in the eyes of my simple, modest, blue collar maternal grandparents. His father was a pharmacist, his mother a mink coat wearing, diamond ring flashing, Cadillac driving Zsa Zsa Gabor lookalike. Rick had graduated High School, began university studies in San Francisco only to be called away by the Korean War. After his military service, he returned to Southern California and began a career as a traveling salesman, eventually becoming a Vice President for the corporate cosmetics manufacturer he represented before quitting his job with his best friend and going into business for themselves.

Rick was more than excellent husband material. He was the vehicle through which Carole could and would achieve upward mobility, leaving East Los Angeles for the Exposition Park area, and then upon the birth of myself and then my sister, joined countless other eagerly acculturating post-war professionals in possession of a GI Bill mortgage in the mass migration to the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley.

Raising their daughters through the elections of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and their grandchildren through the elections of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II and Obama, Carole and Rick walked to their precinct to cast their ballots. Rain or shine, good times or bad, candidates they were passionate about and candidates they were indifferent to – they proudly voted in person, and my mother would spend the next 4 years of any given election year cycle complaining about the “stupid idiots” in Washington were incompetent, and lamenting about how a woman – almost any woman, in fact – could do better.

When Hillary Clinton ran for the nomination in 2006, my mother supported her only to have her hopes swallowed up by the Democratic Party’s nomination of Barack Obama. Women younger than she who took women like Hillary – women like herself – for granted, had aligned their interests with a “progressive” male candidate. Like the good Democrat she was raised to be, Carole was a team player and would vote for Obama twice, but each time she knew she was biding her time. She, like Hillary, knew that if she was patient and clever, her time would come.

Unlike Hillary, when her time came, Carole was in a coma! For three days and three nights her husband and family held their collective breaths, prayed, wept, threatened, promised, cajoled, and otherwise rained guilt and motivation down upon her unconscious head as she lay in a hospital bed in the ICU. “Wake up, Dramma! You have to vote for Hillary Clinton!” begged her granddaughter. “Mom! Wake up! You can’t let Trump win; you have to vote next week!” I implored in heartfelt harmony with my sister.

Was it the fine medical care, the prayers, the hours of show tunes sung acapella by her daughters and grandchildren (particularly from the Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond canons), the confessions of childhood transgressions by her exhausted and punch-drunk with anxiety daughters recited over her unconscious head late at night, designed to provoke her wrath and thus awaken her, or was it the threat of missing the opportunity to vote for Hillary which finally woke her up? Nobody knows.  All we know is that on the morning of Friday, November 4th, my mother’s eyes and hands began to flutter, and by the early evening she was fully awake. The neurologist said she was “the one percent” of patients with this outcome – consciousness restored and no brain damage – after surviving an indeterminate amount of time without oxygen and multiple EEG’s showing no real brain activity except for the stem region. Her awakening was clearly a miracle, for which we thank God, but almost immediately upon regaining consciousness and discovering the election was only days away, she began to become very agitated. “I have to vote! I have to get out of here so I can vote!” she told the doctors, soon after they removed the breathing tube which had been keeping her alive before she awoke. “You’re not going anywhere, not until you’re better” responded the hospital staff, seeing in the vast white bed only the tiny, wizened figure of an elderly patient connected to tubes and IV lines, and not even perceiving the accumulated weight of a lifetime of hopes and dreams, “what if’s” and “if only’s,” the decades of pent-up desire beneath her blue hospital gown.

“Mom, California is going to go to Hillary, it doesn’t matter if you vote, and she’s still going to carry the state,” I said soothingly. She shot me a look combining desperation to be understood with pity upon a daughter she had raised who turned out to be so dense. “It matters!” she responded, “It matters to me.”

Enter Facebook, and my plaintive post about missing the election. The digital hive mind quickly sourced a solution – the volunteer office of the hospital itself. Upon interrogation, I discovered that yes; the volunteer staff would gladly travel all the way from West Hills in the San Fernando Valley to Norwalk (a distance of 43.5 miles), where the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters was located, to obtain ballots for those confined to their hospital beds on the day of November 8th.

The day before the election, they brought her a printed form which she signed and we witnessed – permission to give her ballot to a representative of the hospital. The volunteer could only collect the ballots the morning of Election Day in Norwalk, and deliver them back to the hospital in West Hills that afternoon. We were to pick up her ballot from the volunteer office in the afternoon, have her fill it out along with another form authorizing her husband to deliver it on her behalf. The ballot and that formed needed to be delivered to a polling location before the polls closed at 8pm.

Because Tuesday, November 8th was also the day my mother was moved from the hospital to the Jewish Home for the Aged’s physical rehabilitation center in Reseda, the logistical management which went into procuring, delivering and depositing the ballot took 7 and a half hours of combined driving time, the collaboration of a dozen people, and by the time it was over, several vodka martinis (for me and my father, who successfully made the ballot drop-off deadline, paperwork in hand, by less than a handful of minutes), served in mid-century cocktail glasses my parents had received as an engagement gift the year before my mother voted in her first Presidential election.

My mother still doesn’t understand how she could have fallen asleep for 3 days and nights, only to awake to a world where the nightmare she’d been waiting to vanquish with the power of her vote and what she had believed to be the rising tide of history had risen up to eclipse her dream of the first female President of the United States. I still don’t understand how a woman who waited her entire life to see her country elect a female leader could have had defeat snatched from the mouth of victory as she herself was defeating her own seemingly insurmountable odds.  I do, however, understand how important my mother’s ballot was and is to her. More than just the ballot she would cast for her 16th consecutive Presidential election – it was her first opportunity ever to vote for an American woman for leader of the free world. She would basically rise from the dead without a scratch on her to be able to make that vote happen.

My mother’s ballot fell between the cracks of history. She was born in a time and place, in social and cultural circumstances which would limit her choices before she ever knew what those choices might be. It took a village to bring her proxy to the ballot box. In the end, the only people for whom her vote counted were those in her family. We, her daughters and granddaughters, her grandsons and her great-grandsons, will pass on her story as a part of family legend and lore. Carole’s ballot was against all odds, so too is the future of women in American politics. Her descendants will remember her through story and legend, until she becomes in family history the Depression-era born, Los Angeles raised, mid century acculturated Jewish American suburban female ghost of Tom Joad:

“I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s an election, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a ballot box, so citizens can vote, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s some male career politician running against a more qualified woman, I’ll be there too.”

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