At the time I had no idea why I wore a pair of earrings that belonged to my late mother or a bracelet that my grandmother was given by her mother before she left Lithuania as a sixteen year old, never to see her mother again.
My husband and I each took the day off from work on this day, Tuesday, November 4, election day. Our assignment was to drive Philadelphians who were ill, old, or had no transportation and lived difficult distances to their polling places so that they could vote for Barack Obama. We began our assignment in early morning, right after we voted in the safe enclave of our downtown neighborhood.
I worked for President Kennedy in my youth, and there I witnessed brilliant campaign organization first hand. But I never could have dreamed of the detailed organization of the Obama team. Voters who needed rides were carefully listed following months of canvassing. Maps with clear, concise contact information were within fingertips of all who needed them. This precision not only existed in Philadelphia, but all over the nation.
Many of the neighborhoods we were sent to were dangerous, even in daylight. Their streets, as night fell, were dark and frightening. It was our responsibility to wait for those in our care until they completed voting and make sure that they arrived home safely. Our travels took us to many neighborhoods, to random homes surrounded by isolated ones and to homeless shelters. The polling places were in schools, community centers, and even one funeral home.
Without exception the people we took to the polls carried the elegance of the history they knew they were making. Absentee ballots had been readily available for all whom we drove, but they each wanted to vote themselves, several for the first time in their lives.
There was the very elderly African American woman crippled by arthritis and with horrific asthma, who had not been out of her home for weeks, other than to see her doctors. We were not able to arrive at her home until about 11 a.m., but she was been dressed and ready to go hours before. In order to walk, my husband and I had to support her: "The only presidents I have voted for were Roosevelt, Kennedy, and now Obama. I have hope again."
Because she had difficulty standing and seeing, I went into the polling place with her to explain the ballot and help her find the correct place to cast her votes. When she voted for Barack Obama she whispered that she could not remember a time in her life when she felt as healthy and proud. "The air feels better," she explained. An African American poll watcher who heard our conversation told me that she was 79 years old, and she never believed she would live to see what she was seeing: "Barack is going to win big," she predicted. "He has shown the world that it is the inside of people that matter. We will all be better because of it."
A thirty one year old woman whose father is Hispanic and whose mother is White voted for the first time. She had recently moved, but all of her necessary papers and registration were in order. At the polling place, however, one of the women in charge questioned her in a demeaning and inappropriate tone. The young woman grew silent and began to leave the polling place.
Seeing what had happened, I told the belligerent interrogator that I was from Obama's headquarters, had seen the young woman's papers, had driven her to the polling place, and that all was in perfect order. She was shown to the polling booth. A few seconds later she came out and asked me to join her as she was confused by the ballot. Together we went over everything, and when my young charge pushed the yellow vote button, she put her arms around me and wept.
On the way home she told my husband and me more about her life. Her common law husband was involved with drugs. Her five year old son looked at Obama's photo wherever he could find it, stating that he was going to grow up to be just like him.
There was the thirty year old man who lived in a shelter, who had finally found work, also voting for the first time. "What difference would it have made before?" he asked.
When my husband and I stopped for a sandwich, our waitress saw my Obama button and began to cry. She explained that she was a single mom who worked two jobs. Her employer at the diner where we stopped to eat gave her time off to vote: "I was so afraid I would not be able to vote! I am White and color blind. My twelve year old and I love Obama. His Dad does nothing for him. Obama is the one teaching him how to be a man."
Later that night as screams of joy resounded in the streets throughout our center city neighborhood, I realized why I was still wearing the earrings and bracelet that I had been fingering throughout the day and evening.
All of the chapters of a life are based on the lives of family members who come before us. I adored both my exquisite, artistic mother and brave, determined grandmother. How I missed their presence on this extraordinary day in the life of America. By holding on to something that had been each of theirs, I was not only bringing them with me. I was thanking them for believing, promising and living the truths that days like today can really happen.