Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Lost Vote

My father’s family came to this country in 1911 from Southern Italy. By the early 1920’s my grandfather, by all accounts a gentle man who wielded an iron sledgehammer of control over the lives of his wife and children, insisted that everyone be naturalized. He also insisted that voting was not an option for the male members of the family. Women were not allowed to vote, except for my Irish mother who did pretty much what she pleased. On the night before every election the men gathered for food and fighting, wine and fighting, sweets and fighting - sometimes fist fighting. Although, I could never figure out what the hell they were fighting about, they were all Democrats. Nonetheless, they were at it until time to go vote and sometimes report to the emergency room in that order.

When Grandpa died and my papa inherited the iron sledgehammer, Grandma came to live with us. Since my father was even more fanatical about voting then my grandfather he demanded that my grandmother vote. I remember the day he told her. The look in her eyes was abject terror. This was a peasant, born into a peasant’s world. She told my father that she was afraid the police would come and take her if she didn’t vote the right way. The old man in his infinite wisdom assigned me to help her because she didn’t read English and because my mother, the granddaughter of a Suffragette, was highly suspect of family sedition – being a Republican.

For several elections, local, state and off year, we struggled to gather information, think about it, make a choice and go vote. I went with her into the voting booth because everyone knew she could not negotiate the language. She would often say to me, "What do you think little rabbit?"

"What can I think Granny?" I replied. "I am nine."

Finally there came an election that she got very excited about. We gathered all the information we could from newspapers, television and the radio. She wore a campaign button everywhere she went. I bought her a poster for her bedroom door with my allowance. She told people she met on the street that she was going to vote for the “little Irish boy who wants to be President.”

Four days before Halloween 1960, some 50 years ago on this day, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke and died. She never got to cast her vote. I would have loved to cast it for her, but that wasn’t possible. I am sure there are cynics out there who would say that the election was rigged in Chicago by Daily, or that he didn’t need her vote anyway. I think he would have been happy to have it.

I loved and respected my grandmother. She was a courageous woman, genetically predisposed to optimism and hope. She was born and raised in an Italian vineyard. She worked there much of her life, giving birth to two of her sons on the ground next to the vines. She came to this country with her husband and gave birth to eight more children, burying four of them along the way. She left her quasi
feudal world and traveled several centuries into the middle part of the 20th all in one lifetime. Yes, I think Kennedy would have been happy to have her vote.

Even though her love was unconditional, I don’t know if she would respect the woman I have become. Our sense of duty, family, honor and loyalty are light years apart. She would be terrified of my religion as she was terrified of my mother’s mother who taught me. Still, I believe that wherever she is she understands that every vote I cast is cast in part to make up for her lost vote and all the lost votes of the generations of women who were kept from voting. The Franchise is not a right; it is a legacy, a light in the darkness, a path out of oppression. My grandmother was a peasant who learned to be a free woman. Why in hell would anyone want to stop voting and go backward?

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