Don't close your eyes

Election Day became Election Night, and then Election Morning... and at the end, I was glad my grandmother wasn't alive to see it.

click to enlarge This woman made me a liberal, thus setting me up for a lifetime of political heartbreak. - via Cathy Salustri
via Cathy Salustri
This woman made me a liberal, thus setting me up for a lifetime of political heartbreak.

I've blocked a lot of my marriage, for a myriad of reasons, but I remember the 2000 election as if they were yesterday. For all the ways we were mismatched, my husband and I shared political beliefs.

We voted. We went to work  — he worked at an ISP (the halcyon days before the dot-bomb) and I worked for Pinellas County Utilities. We came home from work. We had coffee and cigarettes on the back porch. We went to play tennis, something typically reserved for Friday night date night (tennis, the Clearwater Barnes & Noble and then Red Dwarf and Newsradio reruns on TiVo) but necessary because I needed to burn off energy before the polls closed. We had dinner. We sat in front of the TV.

I voted in my first presidential election in 1992, wholeheartedly in favor of Bill Clinton. My grandmother, a beautiful redhead, a crazy liberal outspoken pisser of a woman, grabbed hold of my ideals in the sixth grade. She'd pick me up from JFK Middle School, while my dad broke his ass on construction jobs and my mom worked for next to nothing making sure the doctors at the Diagnostic Clinic got their fair share (and she made barely a living wage) from the insurance companies. My grandma, my idol, worked part time for her nephew, and so had time to pick me up. My parents didn't get political — they registered to vote based on their middle initials: a D for my dad's David and an R for my mom's Rochelle — but my grandma did.

"What do you think of the idea that President Reagan doesn't remember where he was blah blah blah?" she would ask, and I think she was talking about the Iran Contra thing but really, I was 10; I didn't know. Something about candy?

"Uh, I don't know," I would say, staring down at my shoes, wishing they were Keds and not the K-Mart off-brand.

"Well, he says he doesn't remember, and I understand that. There's lots of things I don't remember," she said, steering her Chrysler LeBaron towards Clearwater Mall. "But you know what?"

"What?"

"If I were president, I'd sure as hell write it down."

Then she'd take me to Stuart's and buy me highly inappropriate — or so my mom said — underwear and pants.

And so it went. Grandma Grace von Ebbinghaus Samela worked in Harlem, joined the NAACP, triumphed over her Jewish roots which yes, were a liability, and went on, her greatest achievement her amazing daughter who raised me, an unapologetic liberal. My parents may not be politically vocal, but that didn't mean they take liberty lightly. I registered to vote April 25, 1990. I was 17, and I remember registering in the C-Mall at Clearwater High, in advance of my 18th birthday. Voting, my grandma taught me, mattered.

And so, in 1992, I voted for Bill Clinton, and when he won, my friend Linda and I went for a walk. We were about to graduate from St. Pete Junior College and move on to university, and when Clinton won, our world felt brighter. Shinier. We walked around her neighborhood and, drunk with 19-year-old optimism, we talked about how much better our lives would be with Bill Clinton. We would have opportunity; the economy would be better. We would have hope.

He had a good run, too. I disagreed with him on things, like deregulating media, but loved almost everything else. I couldn't fathom, then, in 2000, that the Dems would not sweep the nation.

And so we sat, my future ex-husband and I, sweaty with tennis grit (I suck at tennis, by the way) and barely able to eat, as we watched election returns.

Too close to call.

At 1:00 a.m., I couldn't hold out anymore. 

"Wake me up when we have a president," I told him, and the dog and I retired to our lower-middle class bedroom with stained pink carpet. 

I rose shortly before 8 — I was almost always late for work those days — angry that he hadn't woken me. I shook him to wake him.

Why didn't you wake me?

Because we don't have a president.

The next few months... well, if you were there, you don't need me to tell you. I remember sitting at the now-shuttered Pastino's Italian Restaurant with a co-worker while he told me it didn't matter. I knew it did, but I was young and who was I to argue? Maybe it didn't. I wanted to believe that.

It mattered. 9/11 happened. The dot bomb happened. Iraq. Osama Bin Laden. Hate happened.

I divorced, which was better for both of us, really. I moved south county. I started freelancing. I pretended politics didn't matter, even though it had upended my world. Barack Obama became president.

By then, I had new friends, and I sat in a Kenwood living room as he and our First Lady entered one of many inaugural balls. And I felt hope again. I wished my grandmother, now dead, could be there with me, and although it sounds prosaic, I like to think she was. I felt those stirrings of optimism, that America truly offered all of us opportunity. I remembered that long-ago hope I felt, walking around that suburban Clearwater neighborhood. It had been a long, dark eight years. I was ready for Barack Obama.

I was ready to continue riding that wave of optimism, ready to return to the markedly less controversial arms of the Clintons, ready to watch history being made as we welcomed our first woman president. I scoured a secret Hillary Facebook group, openly weeping at the stories of all these women who battled sexual abuse, oppression and hatred. I believed. This was our time, I told myself.

I was wrong.

Of course, I had doubts. I'm no dummy. I saw the rallies. I saw the red shirts. I watched someone at the polls yesterday, yelling at the sweet volunteers about rigging. I knew Trump — excuse me, President-elect Trump — had a following. I knew, bubbling just under the surface, was this festering pustule of hate.

What I didn't know was how big it was. In my heart, I never believed he would win. Love Trumps Hate.

Tonight, watching returns, I dozed. I woke shortly before 1 a.m.. I should go to bed, I thought, but then I remembered 2000. Going to bed then had been a mistake. Superstitious? Perhaps. But maybe if I don't go to bed, this won't be real.

And so, at 4 a.m., I can't sleep. I've turned off the telly. When news of Hillary's concession broke, I leaned into Barry and wept.

Tonight — this morning — I can feel my grandmother's presence in the room with me. But she isn't beside me, cheering for Barack Obama. Instead, we're at the Florida Holocaust Museum. She's older now; years of smoking have whittled her lungs, and to leave the house she needs a wheelchair. To honor her heritage, I've gotten her a membership at the museum, and we arrive on the anniversary of Hitler's suicide. I wheel her from display to display. She doesn't speak; her oxygen whispers every few seconds, but that's the only sound.

We stop in front of a small diorama: a cruise ship, showing little wooden people lined up on every deck.

My grandmother, my brave hero, twists around in her chair and looks at me. Her face crumples.

"We didn't do anything," she says.

"What do you mean, Grandma?"

"Those people — they wanted to come here. They got on that boat, they left Germany, came to America, and we were supposed to take them. And we didn't. We told them to leave.

"We sent them back to die."

And then, the memory is gone and I'm back in my bedroom. Barry sleeps fitfully a few feet away. Calypso, alarmed by my earlier hysterics, won't leave my side. Even the foster puppy looks at me warily, unwilling to sleep until I shut the laptop and go to bed.

We sent them back to die.

Until a few hours ago, I believed — with my whole heart — we would never do that again. Hate, until tonight, had no sanctified place.

This is a new America.

For the first time in my life, I'm glad my grandmother's already dead.

And I don't want to close my eyes.


About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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