12/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where It All Began for Obama (and All of Us)

I sunk into the cushy, expensive couch (so much more comfortable than the street find slumped against one wall in my Brooklyn apartment) and soaked up the sights and sounds of chaotic, emotional family life. At 24, living with two roommates in Brooklyn, facing a fridge with only condiments and beer, I sometimes craved the suffocating and lovely smell of a busy family dinnertime. When these cravings got acute, I would head to the Bronx home of my mentor/boss -- a big-haired feminist, the proverbial Jewish mother in every way (expect, for perhaps, the guilt, which contradicted her psychoanalytic training).

It wasn't just any night, I realized, as I tried to make out what the news anchor was saying over the sound of my mentor and her 14year-old daughter fighting about carbs. It was the night of the Democratic National Convention. John Kerry, our long-faced, ketchup-funded candidate, would take the stage and be cheered wildly no matter how underwhelming his speech.

This was the Democratic disposition of the moment -- forced optimism. We wanted George W. Bush out of the White House, by any means necessary. We would do anything to make it all seem destined, even if it involved trips in cramped vans to Ohio or memorizing what we supposedly liked about "our man." Anxious, liberal Americans were trying to develop a taste for Kerry like he was tofu. The texture took a little getting used to, and it was hardly inspiring without some major prep work.

I looked over at my mentor's mother -- sitting on the opposite couch. Her hair seemed to get redder the more that her Alzheimer's set in. She smiled pleasantly at me. "How are you doing?" I asked, a little too loud. "Oh just fine, dear," she said, then rocked back and forth a little and made a barely perceptible humming noise.

I tried to calculate how many presidential elections this old woman had witnessed. She had to be at least 80-years-old -- that meant twenty election cycles had churned to a resounding close -- big, white guy hand on Bible -- under her watch. I wondered if she'd cared, if she'd ever spoken fondly of one of the candidates the way that my grandmother had.

Maryanne -- my brilliant, bipolar, chain-smoking grandmother -- had died just a year prior, and I imagined her heaven featured JFK at the pearly gates. As a young mom, she'd been obsessed with him, making both of her children watch his every speech and swoon along with her. Just years before JFK's rise to stardom, my grandmother's brother, Dub -- a painter/cardiologist/communist -- had committed suicide. "If Dub had only lived long enough to see this, it would have made all the difference," my grandmother would say, shaking her head as JFK lit up the stage.

When he was assassinated, my grandmother locked herself in her bedroom and complained of a month-long migraine. When she finally emerged, she became unnaturally preoccupied with the idea that my dad would one day grow up to be president. The only way she could stomach the loss of her second hero -- first Dub, then JFK -- was to remake her son in the latter's image.

Needless to say, my dad didn't become the president of the United States. He became a bankruptcy lawyer in Colorado Springs. I'm sort of relieved, actually. I would have been about the same age as Chelsea Clinton -- 13 and the owner of lopsided breasts and skinny legs -- when she was forced into the spotlight. I can't imagine what the vicious press would have said about my frizzy hair or Esprit pantsuits.

In fact, I'd met many an adult who spoke about JFK with personal longing. My boyfriend's mother immigrated to New York from St. Vincent -- a tiny island in the Caribbean -- just in time to vote for JFK. She talked about his death as if it were not the death of a man, but the death of a dream. Her America was bloodied along with that 1963 white Ford Mercury Comet convertible. An otherwise tough-as-nails matriarch, she would tear up at the mere mention of her beloved politician's name, even 45 years later.

I found it fascinating and almost freakish. I had never experienced a personal connection with a political figure on any level. At 20 years-old, I'd stepped inside the voting booth at Columbia University's student center, and pulled the lever for (yes, I admit it) Nader. I didn't feel endeared or personally inspired so much as indignant. The whole electoral process disgusted me -- all that wasted money, all that spinning -- and at least Nader claimed to be apart from it. I knew Gore would win New York; I didn't think I had to be strategic. Plus, strategy -- as a wide-eyed sophomore quoting King and Gandhi and just discovering my own righteous inner theorist -- was exactly what I was least interested in.

Don't worry Nader haters, I got my due. Whenever my parents drive me to the airport after a visit home, my mom always picks some bizarre fight with me so that she can say goodbye with less sadness. As we drove down the epic road to Denver International Airport my first time home after the disaster of the 2000 election, she shouted, "You know you single-handedly elected George Bush, right? You know that, don't you?! I hold you responsible."

"Love you too, mom," I said, smiling to myself. You had to appreciate her passion. And her tactics of diversion.

This time around I was going to play it safe and vote for the establishment candidate. Though I didn't feel anything close to a connection to Kerry, I appreciated the footage of him as a young man, dressed in his army greens, testifying on Capitol Hill about the injustice of the Vietnam War. He had some nerve back then. And some really floppy hair.

My mentor's son plopped down on the couch next to his grandmother. "Hi Grandma, how ya doin?"

She absentmindedly patted his knee and said, "Fine dear, fine. How are you?"

"Pretty good, Grandma. Can't complain," he said, reaching for the remote and turning up the volume.

He was one of those 17 year-olds who was overlooked by all the Ugg wearing girls in his wildly expensive private high school because he was too nice, too thin, too into physics. But he would no doubt be a total heartbreaker once college and his fair share of testosterone kicked in.

"We've got a convention tonight, huh?" he said, looking in my direction. Just then his step-father bustled in and bellowed: "Let the artifice commence!" He was a prototypical radical academic--bellied, bearded, and allergic to sentimentality. I appreciated his anti-establishment perspective on life, though his insistence on trying to see things from the Egyptians' perspective during his wife's otherwise very sweet Passover seder seemed a little over the top.

My mentor and her daughter wandered in too, finding their own spots on the couches and chairs with good views of the oversized television. "Who is that?" my mentor asked to no one in particular.

"Dick Durbin," I answered, reading the name off the screen. "Not that I know who that is."

"He's a senator or something," her daughter said, looking up from the three IM windows open on her laptop.

"Very specific," her brother teased.

"Whatever, you don't know who he is," she bit back.

Like the long, motley string of opening acts I saw at a recent hip hop show, it appeared that Kerry would have his own hype men. I looked at the clock on my cell... mmm ... I wasn't sure I really wanted to stay for this whole long convention. It was nice sitting in the womb of family life for a minute, but I did have a life back in Brooklyn to attend to. Then again, if I left, I had little hope of catching any of it on my television. We had no cable, so much of our lazy evenings were spent adjusting the coat hanger on the top of the television or reclumping foil around its ends until we settled for watching snowy Gilmore Girls reruns on UPN.

The crowd cheered and a skinny light-skinned black guy with big ears walked towards the podium. He was wearing a simple black suit, silver tie, and a striking smile.

"Who'd they say this is?" my mentor asked, again, to no one in particular.

"Obama something honey," her husband answered. "They're bringing out all the stops to try to get the black and Latino vote."

"It appears to be working," I said, as the camera panned over a stout black man in a three piece suit standing up, arms outstretched. He looked like someone out of another era. I'd never heard of this guy (Bar...Bam...Obracka?) but apparently others had.

And then the skinny man started to speak: "Tonight is a particular honor to me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely."

Wow, honesty at a political rally? He had me at "let's face it."

He went on to tell the story of his father, a Kenyan sheep herder who had made it to school in America. It was there -- in that "magical place" -- that his father met his mother, a Kansan white girl from a working class family. "They would give me an African name." "Barack," he said, holding his long hand flat against his chest in a very tender way, "...meaning 'blessing,' believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success."

I looked at the family sprawled around me. They were, in many ways, a picture of tolerant America. A Jewish mother with two smart, resilient kids who adored their stepfather, a burly Italian guy who had three biracial children from his previous marriage to a Palestinian woman, and a sweet, red-haired grandma who went to a center for the elderly with Holocaust survivors. "Barack" didn't slide off the tongue, but they were the kind of people, the kind of Americans, who were up for learning a new name.

"I stand here today... aware that my parents' dreams live on in my precious daughters," Barack continued.

It was a beautiful idea, and a quintessentially American one. What are we -- as a country -- if not the sum total of our strange and wonderful families? What can possibly keep us going, moving beyond loss, if not the birth of little, giant-cheeked babies with thigh rolls and blank slate biographies that will one day be part of our family lore?

I thought about my grandmother again. My father. Myself. There had been so much loss in our family, so much mental illness and debt and sadness. But there had also been so much regeneration, therapy, bravery, and love. My grandmother had always wanted to be a writer, but never had the economic or mental stability to make her dream happen. My father had given me stability in spades. Now I was a writer, living in New York, wearing her dream like a beautiful, old coat everywhere I went.

"That is the true genius of America," he went on, "a faith in simple dreams, an insistence in small miracles."

The network flashed a screen shot of a young white teenager with rumpled hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He held his hands, fingers braided together, in front of his chin -- as if in shock.

I knew exactly what he was thinking: "Holy shit. Who is this man?" I was starting to feel a warmth in my belly that had never, in my 24 years on earth, been brought on by a political speech -- only by the end of Shawshank Redemption, the day my brother graduated from high school, a passionate lecture by my favorite political science professor.

I tuned in again in time to hear him shout, "Eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white!"

I thought of my boyfriend -- "a black youth" from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn who was plucked from his dilapidated neighborhood school after an IQ test and sent to a Manhattan private school through a program called Prep for Prep. He'd told me stories about watching his new white friends get into cabs after school as he walked to the train station. He was embarrassed to be in his uniform when the subway doors finally opened at Nostrand. He would take off his jacket, stuff it in his backpack, and hope that he wouldn't run into any of his old friends.

"People don't expect government to solve all of their problems," Barack reported, "but they sense deep within their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot in life. They know we can do better."

"Deep within their bones?" I'd never heard a politician use words like this. Poets maybe. A teacher at a moment of real inspiration, but never a man in a suit at a podium.

"And they want that choice in this election. We offer that choice. Our party has chosen a man to lead us who embodies the best this country has to offer. And that man is..."

You. I thought to myself as Barack paused for dramatic effect. It is you that embodies what is most good and possible about this country. It is you that reminds me of my brilliant grandmother and my favorite movies and my complex boyfriend and, well, of my own heart. It is you that is making politics, for the first time, personal for me.

The convention audience waved huge blue and white signs with Obama's name on them in big capital letters. A large black woman in a bright red shirt held up one finger in the air. I thought I knew what she was thinking too. You're the one, Obama.

"John Kerry." Ugh.

But there was more. Obama started talking about, Shamus, a young man he had met -- a Marine who was committed to fighting in Iraq because he believed he had a duty to protect his country. I flashed to my cousin Lang, a guitar-playing guy who had joined the Marines straight out of high school, eager to make his dad proud and feel like his life had some kind of purpose beyond the woods of his tiny mountain town of his youth. He wanted to see the world. I wrote him letters during his stint in Iraq, each time wondering what I could possibly say of comfort to my own flesh and blood fighting in a dangerous war I didn't believe in.

"Are we serving Shamus as well as he's serving us?" Barack asked. The face of a young woman with porcelain-skin filled the screen. She looked like she was going to cry.

"For alongside our famous individualism," Barack waxed, "there's another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we're all connected as one people."

I remembered reading Rousseau, curled up in my dorm bed, swooning over every word about the importance of responsibility, not just rights, of community, not just individuality. I remembered my dad, sitting cross-legged on his meditation pillow in the dark, a string of wooden mala beads slowly making their way through his big, comforting hands; Buddhism, for him, was most centrally about interdependence. I remembered September 11th, walking the halls of my dorm to make sure that everyone was okay, watching the suited refugees make their way up to 116th with high heels and suitcases in hand, feeling acutely interconnected with every American.

I was totally emotionally engaged, as if riding a wave of Obama's words and I could feel it rising higher and higher into the sky...

It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work.

Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

I'm not talking about blind optimism... I'm talking about something more substantial... the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes America has a place for him too...

At this, the crowd went insane. It seemed to catch even Obama off guard, as he sucked in his breath and looked overcome with the effect that his authentic passion and fiercely beautiful story was having. I realized I was holding my breath. It was the most beautiful political moment I'd ever witnessed. It was as if the crowd was screaming, "Yes, there is a place for you! There is a place for us all!"

And then he ended: "Out of this long political darkness, a brighter day will come."

As he walked off the stage, a beautiful black woman -- Michelle, his wife, I would later learn -- in a white suit approached him and gave him a huge hug. The spell broken, I looked around the living room. The six of us, just ten minutes before, a loud, cynical, sprawling crew, was now mesmerized.

"Who did you say that was?" my mentor asked again.