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The personal and the political: Happy Birthday, Grandma, and happy election eve, America

By November 5, 2012 2 Comments

Well, tomorrow’s the big day. After tomorrow, the attack ads and campaign coverage will be over, and sweet little Abigael will be able to stop crying about “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney.

Today’s a big day too. It’s my grandma Bratt’s 92nd birthday. Ninety-two! (Yes, mother of fellow 12er James Bratt!) May there be birthday cake in abundance at the Holland Home.

This year, I’m grateful as ever for Grandma, and in awe of how much history she’s witnessed in her lifetime.
I started thinking more about that recently when I heard the memories shared by the oldest delegate at this year’s Democratic National Convention, 97-year-old Elzena Johnson:

Watch Delegate Elzena Johnson, 97, Voted for FDR, Recalls Poll Tax on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to go and cast a vote without ever having seen a television ad for a candidate, without robocalls, without the internet, without Facebook and Twitter, even without Saturday Night Live parodies carrying us through the process. Surely someone must be researching the extent to which all of these technologies and new sources of information (and misinformation) are shaping the way we participate in our democracy.

Today I thought I’d just share a few historical tidbits I turned up in the process of exploring what the political and presidential landscape was like all those decades ago when my grandmother was a youngster. It sure helps me take the long view!

On November 2, 1920, just three days before my grandma was born, the first election was held in which all American women could cast their vote, thanks to the ratification of the 19th amendment. The popular vote skyrocketed that year as a result. Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge beat James Cox and FDR, replacing Woodrow Wilson in the White House. I wonder if my great-grandmother and her peers felt like they were bringing daughters into the world in a new era of opportunity and equality.

On my grandma’s 20th birthday, November 5, 1940, FDR defeated Wendell Willkie and Charles McNary (who?) and became the only president to be elected to a third term. Four years later, on Nov. 7, 1944, in the thick of the second World War, Roosevelt defeated Thomas Dewey and John Bricker (who?) and was elected to a fourth term (can you imagine?). 1944 was also the last election in which the democratic candidate carried every southern state (can you imagine?). Then FDR died just a few months into that fourth term, in April 1945, less than a month before war in Europe ended.

A few short months later, on August 3, 1945, my grandma married my grandpa, who had returned from military service overseas. Three days later, on August 6, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

My grandma was 28 when Harry Truman’s second term began in January, 1949, and a presidential inauguration was televised for the first time. I wonder if she watched it; I’m pretty sure they didn’t have a TV for another decade or so after that.

In 1951, the 22nd amendment was ratified, prohibiting a president from serving more than two terms. No more 12-year runs like FDR had.

In 1952, when my grandma was the age I am now, Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson.

I wonder if I’ll witness as many major shifts in our nation as my grandma has. What a lot can change in just a couple generations. I and my peers take women’s right to vote for granted, though we’re still dealing with getting paid 72 cents for every dollar a man earns, and we have no idea how much longer it will be before one of the ladies in our country’s “binders full of women” might get elected President of the United States.

As for me, here in 2012, I’ve already cast my ballot in the early voting period in Nashville (thusly, I can stop paying attention to the TV ads for local and state elections, where “pro-gun” is praise and smearing comes in the form of “agrees with something/anything Obama did”). The poll attendant eagerly told those of us in line that a 101-year-old man had been in to vote that day. A few minutes later, she had everyone in the room pause to applaud for an 18-year-old who was voting for the first time. The rest of us fall somewhere in between those bookends of democratic participation. And we hope for progress in our country, however we construe it. Some are hoping for a repeat of the historic election of a non-white man, some hope the new president will make history as the first Mormon in office. And there are those who want to turn the clock of history back, as I was uncomfortably reminded by seeing Merlin Miller on my ballot as the presidential candidate of the American Third Position Party, or “A3P,” which stands for the promotion of white interests and “ethnic separatism” in general. Not surprisingly, the A3P was formed shortly after Obama was elected as president. They’re on the ballot in a few other states, including New Jersey and Colorado. Reading their website makes me queasy. Not to mention that Miller’s running mate is Virginia Abernethy, a retired Vanderbilt professor of psychiatry and anthropology who holds degrees from Wellesley, Vanderbilt and Harvard. She’s opposed to all immigration, and with Miller wants to restore and preserve European American identity and values.

I hope that when I’m 92 (God willing), America is a lot further along in the pursuit of “liberty and justice for all,” and that young people will still have enough faith in democracy to participate in it and not just tweet about it. Oh, and that I won’t be witness to any World Wars. Is that too much to ask? I hope not.

A parting image: here’s my grandma meeting her first great-grandchild for the first time, back in 2008, wordlessly exchanging some wisdom with the newest generation. Happy birthday, Grandma, and thanks for all the love you’ve given me since my arrival in this fair country back during the Carter administration!


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