“So, grandmom. What’d ya think about the election? Ya know, about Obama winning?” The question seemed innocent enough. My grandmother is 92 years old, and it intrigued me to get the perspective of a woman who had lived through everything from the invention of Scotch Tape to the iPhone; from segregated troop battalions in World War II to the election of the first African American President of the United States. In other words, I thought she might have some wisdom to impart. But before she could even form an answer in her mind, my sister Erica turned to me with a look I imagine she would have given had I just asked our grandmother to expound upon the virtues of modern day sex toy technology, or the horrors of female circumcision in third-world countries. Apparently, I had just said something inappropriate.
“Are you insane?” my sister hissed.
I looked around the brunch table for understanding, only to find my mom hanging her head in despair. “I just got your father to come out of his coma,” she said, her head cast downward at her half-eaten omelet and cooling coffee. “And you just had to bring this up didn’t you?”
It was just after noon and we were gathered for brunch at the Flying W’s Avion Restaurant in Medford to celebrate my brother Tony’s 23rd birthday a week-and-a-half late due to his law school schedule preventing him from enjoying, well, anything besides law school. It was a cool, delightful, sunny morning in late autumn, but suddenly it seemed my question had cast a pall upon the proceedings. It was a buzz kill that could only have been topped had I just vomited on the table. “I may have to kill you,” Erica whispered under her breath. My brother just laughed while my father seethed a restrained seeth behind his gold-rimmed aviator Ray Bans.
I finally understood the problem.
Election night 2008 had been a prickly one at the DiUlio homestead. I visited my parents for dinner that evening and thought I would stick around to watch the returns. I thought it would be fun to see the night unfold alongside the two people most responsible for my political aptitude and passion. When I got there, however, my father, a devout, registered Republican, already seemed a little tense, even though not a single state’s polls had yet closed. I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision.
“She’s a poll watcher tonight. She volunteered to watch the polls. To guard them. In Willingboro.” He said this as though my mother had decided on a whim to fly down to Darfur to host a tea party for rape squads. “She’ll be home around 8:30.” He paused over the pasta he was cooking in a large pot. “I’ll tell you what, this is not going to be good. Not going to be good at all.” I couldn’t tell if he was talking about my mother’s volunteer work, the election, or the pasta in the pot. It may have been all three.
After dinner I had a few calls to make, and when I had finished, a number of state projections had come in. Obama was in the electoral lead. My dad sat on the couch with a face that suggested his mind was already going down a list of possible ways to terminate its own existence. I think I caught him somewhere between gunshot to the head and slowly feeding himself to an office paper shredder. He didn’t say anything when I came into the room, just looked up slowly with more than a trace of both insanity and despair. “Not good?” I asked. He didn’t answer, just turned back to the Fox News broadcast and its incessant, gabbing heads of expert opinion.
I didn’t press the matter. Didn’t try to cheer him up or lend any “it’s not over yet” perspective. In 27 years, I have come to know that trying to interfere with my father’s modes of coping with an unpleasant situation can be like trying to take food away from a dog mid-chew. You just. Don’t. Do it. This was, after all, the same man who once took off a brand new Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt after watching a particularly tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys, walked into the kitchen for a pair of scissors, and then proceeded to cut the garment into small strips he then tossed into the fire, one helpless, green strand at a time.
“I can’t believe he’s going to take North Carolina,” my father said. I took a seat next to him on the couch. “What are those morons down there thinking?”
“Well, look dad, first of all, they’re not morons just because they support a different candidate than you. And besides, North Carolina hasn’t even been called yet. So you can’t say he’s won North Carolina.” I looked at the fireplace and was pleased to see that it was dark and cold and fireless.
“Nicholas…he’s won it. Trust me.”
This was more or less how it went for the next hour or so while we watched the television and waited for my mom to return from her poll-watching duties, with every state that turned blue suddenly designated the moron capitol of America. When my mother finally arrived, she was in exceedingly bright spirits, her post-volunteerism glow radiating impossibly against the closing dark of my dad’s quiet rage. “It was really a beautiful experience,” she told us. “Just wonderful. I feel so uplifted right now. Apparently, everything is going very smoothly tonight. No problems with voting or anything like that. Very good to hear.”
I knew what was coming next. “Well, I guess you didn’t hear about the Black Panthers in Philadelphia tonight.” Oh boy. “They had billy clubs. Billy clubs, Elizabeth!” Here we go. “And they were trying to intimidate voters coming from coming in.”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t hear about any of that. And I don’t think it really matters.” My mom was getting dangerously close to her “keep bringin’ me down and I’ll take you down” tone of voice. My dad wisely backed off.
“Uh huh. Okay.” He went back to watching the returns and drawing further and further into himself as if there was a calm, magical land hidden somewhere deep in his body where a smiling John McCain was ready to welcome him with open arms and a smile that suggested, “Don’t worry Ed. Everything will be okay. Here. Come rest your head on my war-weary shoulder.”
Needless to say, my father never found that place, and once Ohio was called for Obama, the night was over. My mother had settled in with a glass of red wine and we both stole furtive glances at the mustached man beside us now rubbing his temples every two minutes and sighing a sigh that suggested the world was, in fact, about to come to an end.
“Are you alright, Ed?” my mom asked him. I could tell by the timidity of her voice that she was thinking about the burning sweatshirt incident too.
“No. I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“Well that’s ridiculous. You’re going to let this make you sick.”
“Do you want a valium?”
“Well look, relax. It’s not going to do any good working yourself up like that.” Then she whispered to me, “I’m really worried about him. He could have a stroke or something.” I patted my dad on the shoulder and rubbed his back. If there was an entry wound, I probably would have tried to suck the Democrat poison from his veins. He needed to relax. After all, how could I possibly deal with the fallout if my farther died because of this. Oh Nick, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. How did it happen?
Well, it began with a simple headache on election night. And then he just stroked out as soon as they called Florida. Right there on the couch. Bam. He just lost it.
Who would ever take me seriously again?
Thankfully, my dad didn’t have a stroke. He just went up to bed, signing off with the cheerful adieu of, “Welcome to the People’s Republic of America. I hope you all enjoy socialism.” Before any of the speeches were made, before any of the confetti was tossed, before any of Oprah’s tears were shed, my father slept the sleep of one last denial, wondering if perhaps when he awoke the next morning news would greet him that a mistake had been made and that John McCain was the actual victor. Or maybe the entire affair would have been a dream. Or maybe aliens would have swooped down from the sky during his victory speech and abducted the senator from Illinois for purposes of interstellar probing. Just maybe.
But it hadn’t been a dream, and my dad’s face at brunch the following Sunday told of his resignation to that fact. Meanwhile, my sister still had murder in her eyes.
“You always have to be the agitator, don’t you? Always have to stir it up.” The thing is, Erica had a particularly significant stake in the matter and was no more anxious to talk post-election sociology than our dad was. See, she had made it known since September that she was going to buck the paternal Republican trend and vote for Mr. Obama. I knew how significant that was. I was there when my father found out about this conviction of hers, and the entire time I had my fingers on the ready to dial 9-1-1 because of how deeply I feared his head was going to erupt into a gruesome explosion of blood and bones right there on the spot.
“Hey, everybody simmer down.” It was time I started defending myself. The tension was getting rather ridiculous. “I was just wondering what grandmom thought about the whole thing, okay? The woman’s 92, alright? Aren’t you interested in that at all? This doesn’t have to be a whole big, freakin’ ordeal.”
Silence. All eyes were now on my grandmother; my sweet, little Italian grandmother who clearly had no concept of the war zone into which she was about to walk. “Well,” she started, diminutively, “I think some of his ideas sound very good. And—”
“I’m sure the Germans thought some of Hitler’s ideas sounded pretty good as well.” It was a muted retort from my dad, but everyone heard it. Thankfully, everyone also ignored it.
“Mom, I think he means what do you think about Obama being the first black President?” My mother was steering a sinking ship. “Does that mean anything to you?”
“Oh, well, yeah. It’s…well…I mean—” and here my grandmother looked to me. “Wasn’t there a black man back in the 1800’s or something who won the election?”
“Mom, are you kidding me?” My mother was doing all she could not to take her mother-in-law by the shoulders and shake some sense into her feeble frame. “Are you seriously asking this? You think we’ve had an African American president before?”
“Well, Elizabeth, I was just saying…”
My grandmother may be 92, but she’s neither unintelligent nor senile. She knows fully well that no African American man has ever been elected to the office of President. She knows the historic significance of what occurred on November 4, 2008. I like to think her confusion was nothing more than the result of being blinded by the maelstrom of DiUlio chaos surrounding her that morning over brunch. It could happen to anybody, really. I mean, if I were in her shoes, I probably would have begun wondering if the Oval Office wasn’t made of cheese and that it was once run by a cat named Ginger along with his trusted sidekick Twinkles.
After my grandmother’s 1800’s comment the conversation dissolved rather quickly. My dad began raising the inevitable right-wing, talk-radio-inspired topic of questioning Obama’s proper citizenship (a petty one, for sure) while my mom gave her mother-in-law an abbreviated lesson in American political history. My sister, all the while, continued shooting me dagger glances and whispering surreptitious threats—“Sleep gangsta style tonight brother. One eye open, one hand on the gun.”—as my brother took up his usual Swiss neutrality in the entire matter. Me, I just continued enjoying my plate of strawberry pancakes and french toast with whipped cream, laughing to myself about what an interesting four years it’s going to be.