You are sitting in Mass when your phone rings.
Vibrates, actually. Thank goodness. Because this cell-phones-in-church business is a pet peeve of yours. "That better be God calling," you always think to yourself when this happens to someone else.
Your own phone ordinarily spends Sunday mornings in the car. But Grandpa Joe can't shake this pneumonia and there's no telling when the nursing home might need to reach you. So here you are, clutching a buzzy little machine and leaving Mass as fast as can be managed respectfully.
"Hello. Yes. What is it?" you answer as soon as you're outside.
"Hello," says someone whose voice you don't recognize. "I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill ..."
"I'm sorry. This isn't a good time."
"... the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist ..."
"I asked politely," you say. "I'm going to hang up now."
The voice keeps on speaking. Like it's a recording. You hang up. Your phone buzzes again.
"Hello," says someone whose voice you don't recognize, and you start to hang up. "I'm calling for my great-great grandchild."
"I beg your pardon," you blurt into the phone. "Did you say you're calling for ...?"
"Yes, for my great-great grandchild. I'm calling for you, dear."
"No time to explain. Just be a good descendant and answer me two questions: Have you heard of Al Smith and did your grandfather ever learn to chew bubblegum with his mouth closed?"
"Well, no. And, um, no."
"Well, we'll have to fix that," she says.
"Grandpa Joe's gum-chewing?"
"No, not that. That little boy's a lost cause. Has been since at least 1923. That's why we love him, though, isn't it? No, we've got to make sure you know about Al Smith. Governor of New York. First Catholic with a real shot at the presidency. 1928. Democrat. Lost to Hoover."
"A Catholic? Before JFK?"
"Let me guess, dear. Public schools?"
"Yes. Good ones."
"Well, Great-great-grandma Frances will set you straight. By the time I'm done with you, you'll vote for who you want to vote for. You won't let anybody scare you out of it. That's the lesson of Al Smith. Dear, we figured nobody would ever forget that lesson. Not after 1928. Especially after the mess Hoover left. But each day, we look down at you and your time and your next election and we realize the same thing could happen again."
"I don't know what to say."
"How could you know, dear? This is quite irregular. Well, how to begin? I've got a whole load of stories that the New York Times wrote back in 1928."
"Excuse me, Great-great-grandma Frances. Are you saying you brought a bunch of old newspapers with you to heaven?"
"No, dear. Of course not. They provide something called Internet here. Whenever you get here, I'll show you how to work it. It lets me research. For instance, there's a Jan. 24 page-one story. Here's the headline: 'Heflin Continues Catholic Attack.' Heflin was a U.S. senator from Alabama. A Democrat. But he wouldn't vote for Al Smith. Because Smith was a Catholic. Heflin liked to talk about how Al Smith being Catholic would drive him to annex Mexico. I guess maybe the idea was that Mexico would add more Catholics to the U.S. population. So Heflin spent two hours speaking on the U.S. Senate floor about this. He lashed out at the newspapers of his home state 'which have attacked his onslaughts against the Catholics and Governor Smith. He intimated that they are Catholic controlled and he promised to attend to them when he goes back to Alabama.'
"Then, let's see, dear. There's an Oct. 28 story with complaints from injured veterans in federal hospitals. The veterans said the hospital had shut off its radios when Al Smith was on the air giving a speech.
"There's also an Oct. 27 story about efforts to strike voters from the rolls in predominately Democratic wards of New Jersey. There's an Oct. 26 story in which the head of the Kansas Democratic Central Committee asks the leaders of the state's public colleges to 'call off their Catholic baiters' and 'make it possible for students in State schools to openly support' Smith's candidacy. There's coverage of a fundraising letter for an anti-Catholic publication printed in Washington. Here's a quote from the letter: 'The Fellowship Forum is read each week by more than a million Americans who believe as it does that the election of Al Smith will mean further Romanizing our Government."
"Romanizing, dear. As in, Roman Catholic. Us. Goodness, there's also coverage of literature handed out at Republican events. The pamphlets quoted a 'Baptist sermon attacking Governor Smith as a religious fanatic who believed that the Catholic Church was the only Church that should be permitted to exist.' Oh, and here's one of my favorites: a prominent man from Newark who announced his support to Smith after the Republican National Committee quoted him -- falsely -- as saying he'd be voting for Hoover to 'keeps the Roman Catholics out of the White House.'
"Are you saying you're telephoning me from heaven to ask me to vote for Barack Obama?"
"Not at all, dear. No, you make your own choice. I wouldn't know how to help you. You've got one vice presidential candidate and two presidential candidates who never would have been in a national election back in my day. A president with African blood? A lady vice president? A 72-year-old president? You don't ask a person born in the 19th Century to sort that out for you. That Biden fellow is the only one who could have been a candidate in my day. But you know," she says suddenly speaking in a stage whisper. "that Biden fellow is a Catholic. He'd probably just up and annex Mexico."
She's cackling now. Great-great-grandma Frances can't stop laughing. You realize that she sounds just like you when you crack yourself up. And just like Grandpa Joe. You want her to keep on like that forever.
But she stops and says, "Let me read you just one more thing. Because it's remarkable. It's a letter to the editor sent in by Paul Davier, some former Republican from Montclair, New Jersey. Here's some of what he wrote: 'Just what the Republican candidate's connection is with all the organized bigots is hard to determine. His own organization's recognition of the sectarian warrior, Mrs. Willebrandt, certainly implicates his candidacy very definitely. Besides, whether he likes it or not, he has the support of the whole lot of them. It is not by platitudes, by high-sounding phrases on tolerance, by general statements arraigning no one specifically, that Hoover can shake off the suspicion, more and more certain, that he condones the slimy whisperers who are gathering up votes for him. A real statesman would not hesitate to take the reins in his own hands and stamp out the evil.'"
"Wow," you say, realizing that Mass is over and people are streaming out of church now. "Great-great-grandma Frances?"
"Can I gather some people and have you repeat everything you just said?"
"No, no. Of course not. What would those good people think of you if they learned you'd left Mass to talk to a dead lady on your phone? Besides, dear, I trust you to spread the word. You'll find a way."