When It Was All Over
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
We felt cocky enough to bring two bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne to election night dinner at the new Royal Thai restaurant in Atlantic Highlands, my mother’s town. The Jersey Shore community is home to Republicans and Democrats adequately civil to hold simultaneous events in adjacent rooms at The Shore Casino. It is where Mother and Father settled in for the last legs of their careers; where he retired and she refused to; where he keeled over in the kitchen one afternoon and she sat on the stairs and wept; where she has spent the last twelve years missing him; where I was visiting from California to help prepare her for the move into my sister’s home; where it occurred to me, sitting at the restaurant table with family and friends and their new baby, achingly eager but still afraid to celebrate, that Mother and the nation were both in the throes of a momentous transition.
The champagne on ice, awaiting absolute confirmation of an Obama-Biden win, we looked along the restaurant’s rich, red walls, through the front window and across First Avenue to the local Republican Headquarters. McCain-Palin supporters were gathering in the storefront, waiting for the first polls to close, sipping drinks, and I wished I’d brought Father’s binoculars. Not to spy, but, come eight o’clock or so, to see what their faces would surely reveal. We joked cavalierly, at Republicans’ expense, proposing a Tina Fey v. Sarah Palin contest in 2012. We fretted the fate of same-sex marriage, twisting in the winds of three states' ballot measures. Marriage is a human right, we argued with absent opponents. Are homosexuals the twenty-first century niggers?
Still we waited, waited to know for sure, distracting our lust for resolution with the exotic flavors of a country that has survived its own history of transitions and avoidance thereof. We introduced Mother to the pleasures of Thai food — the savory curries and warm coconut milk, the spicy peanut sauce and sweet noodles — while she worried about making creamed chipped beef in an unfamiliar kitchen. We delighted in the wonderment of the baby and turned silent on the pending angst of her parents, two men who know intimately the slings of fearful hatred.
And then Barack Obama won.
We drank the Clicquot, wept for the joy of revived hope, for the sorrow of Mother’s fading independence, for the cruel rejection of our friends’ humanity, for the evolving wisdom of our nation.
The next day, Mother said, “I don’t want to give up my home,” and I abandoned her to her mourning, counting between sobs the Obama bumper stickers on the Garden State Parkway.
At Newark Airport, the rental car return agent held my door and asked how I was doing. “Happy,” I decided, “happy that Obama has won.” She hugged me.
I landed in San Diego in time to drive north to Fallbrook, jump into a gown and drive on to a Marine Corps Birthday Ball, where a four-star general explained to my husband why he voted for Obama. I dared mention it at our table, and the other guests looked uncomfortable and had no comment.
The next morning, one of the coffee and muffin regulars at the old soda fountain counter-cum-café said the general was an idiot, lambasted Obama as an inarticulate incompetent and stormed out, the new government more than he could publicly bear.
That evening, Mother called to say she would certainly stay at my sister’s only until the summer, when she would return to her own home, with stairs she can no longer climb and Father’s books slowly disintegrating and rooms gathering dust and losing memories, the permanent departure from the house in which they grew old together more than she can bear without him.
Sunday, I drove to the gate at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and watched the sentry’s eyes land on the Obama sticker, still centered on my windshield. He smiled, asked, “How are you today, Ma’am?”
“Happy, happy that Obama won.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” he said.
I could have hugged him.
Instead, I drove to the ocean, inhaling the spray of Santa Ana-swept crests, wondering how we will rid the state of a constitutional amendment that denies people the right to marriage, wondering how it would feel to live on without a spouse of fifty years, wondering what successes Obama will give us as his enemies decry him, how profound will be the moment when one of my own — when a woman — is elected president, if Mother will live to see it, wondering how many more of our warriors and those they would help will be shattered before we know some peace, how the world got to be so huge and so intimate and so chaotic, how cool it would be to just plop in the white Pacific sand with one of those frou-frou drinks in a coconut shell and not a thought of anything but my navel.
I laughed and cried and kept driving, and imagined the young and newly widowed Madame Clicquot having said in 1805, with more gravitas than typically afforded the phrase, “C’est la vie.”
This is life.
©2008 Kit-Bacon Gressitt