My Vote By Mail ballot arrived the other day. If it were up to me, I would go down to the polls and vote in person, but I don’t have that choice anymore. A few years back, my local election clerk decided to save money by requiring everyone to vote by mail, like it or not. When my ballot arrives, it sits on my kitchen table until I get around to filling it out. And every time I see that ballot sitting there, surrounded by election pamphlets and voter-information booklets and chattering family members discussing how we’re going to vote this year, I think about my grandmother.
Grandma was born in 1916, just a few years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in America. As far as I know, she voted in every election—including every primary and every local election—she was eligible for, throughout her entire life. Certainly by the time I was old enough to remember, Grandma took her vote seriously. She liked to talk politics and she had a funny story she used to tell her grandchildren about her voting experiences. It’s that story that makes me think of her whenever my ballot arrives in the mail.
I should tell you a little more about her. A bright, vivacious brunette, she made people around her happy to be alive. She loved to laugh, and she loved to make others laugh. Even toward the end of her life, when her world had been narrowed to four grungy, grim walls in a nursing home, she took immense delight in practical jokes she played on others—and laughed hardest of all when others played one on her. She played checkers with me when I was small, and never let me win. Her stubborn refusal to throw the game made the day I finally beat her at it (I was twelve years old) one of the most bittersweet memories of my life.
In 1933, when she was barely of age, she married my grandfather, my mother’s dad. They had three children together, and then they divorced. I’m not sure what year they were divorced, but it had to have been in the mid-1940s, possibly as late as 1950. In any case, it was back when divorce was a scandal and a shame, not the everyday matter it seems to be today. Grandma never spoke ill of the man she married, but when pressed, she would sometimes say something like, “I will say one thing for him. He never beat me while I was pregnant. He was always worried about hurting the baby.” That should give you an idea of the causes that led to their divorce, and maybe help explain why I think of her every time my ballot comes in the mail.
Ten years before I was born, she married her second husband—my Grandpa Jim. He wasn’t related to me by birth, but Grandpa Jim is the grandpa I remember from my childhood. He adored my grandma and treated her like a queen, often saying that she was the best thing that ever happened to him. But that was later. I wanted to tell you the funny story from the time of her first marriage, back in the late 1940s.
Grandma did love her practical jokes. It cracked her up any time she was able to get one over on someone else—and all the better if the person really had it coming to them. For example, we used to have a family friend who was a single young man. When that man would come over for a visit, he and Grandma often swapped friendly insults. Oh, that sounds awful—but it was all in good fun, and both enjoyed it, and neither ever walked away hurt. But Grandma might have taken it too far the night our friend brought his friend over, a young ladyfriend he had high hopes for. He’d apparently briefed her on the drill beforehand, because as he introduced her to my grandma, he tossed his ladyfriend a grin that plainly said, “Hey, watch this!” Then he said something snarky to Grandma, a mild little insult of the kind they traded all the time. My grandmother smiled, an innocent, sweet little smile, and … didn’t reply in kind. Our friend, not quick on the uptake, tried another insult. And then another. With every insult, Grandma smiled even more sweetly, if that were possible. And—again, uncharacteristically—she never returned the favor. She just smiled that sweet little smile, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. By the time the evening was over, the potential ladyfriend was shooting horrified looks of accusing disbelief at the young man. How dare he be so unkind to this sweet little old lady!? As they walked out the door, my grandma turned to me and winked. “That’ll give them something to talk about on the way home,” she murmured.
As I said, a practical joker.
Her first husband may not have appreciated her humor, her liveliness, her independent spirit. That’s just a surmise on my part, but I think family stories might bear it out. Grandma didn’t talk much about their lives together, but I know they shared a common interest in politics. And that brings us to her favorite story about voting, the one that makes me think of her when I see my ballot sitting on the kitchen table, surrounded by my family members.
It seems that every election season, Grandma’s first husband—remember, the man who never beat her when she was pregnant—would avidly read the papers to make up his mind who the best candidates were. He would get out a little notepad, Grandma said, and take detailed notes. He would listen to campaign speeches, read the opinion pages, and occasionally even pick up the phone to call a candidate. By the time Election Day arrived, he had made up his mind.
But not just his own mind. Not him. He had also made up his wife’s mind. You see, he’d done the research, so he knew what was best. He had a plan.
On Election Day, he would drive her into to town with him. Then he would hand her his little notepad, the one with all the candidates and issues marked on it. “This is how we’re voting,” he would tell her as he handed it to her. “You just vote for these folks, right down the line. I did the research for you.” Once inside the polling place, he would give her a few last-minute instructions. He would watch as the poll workers ushered her into her private voting booth and she closed the curtain behind her. But he couldn’t watch her vote. It was private.
Grandma would always pause at this point in the story, and give me a grin. “And then, do you know what I did?” she would ask, hazel eyes sparkling with glee as she approached the punchline. “Why, I voted exactly the way I wanted to, all the way down the line! And he never knew!”
And that is why I think of my grandmother, every time my can’t-opt-out Vote By Mail ballot arrives on my kitchen table. It makes me mad, every time. More than that, it makes me sad.
My grandma passed away several years ago, but I still wonder: How many other abused women might be out there, who would quietly (and safely) vote their own desires in private … if only they could?