Grandma had good genes. She grew up on a farm in northwest Nebraska in the early 1900s, and has 484 direct descendants.
I only know a few of them well. Within that sprawling extended family, 140 live in swing states. I’ve never met or spoken to most of them.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been calling random swing state voters whom I have also never met.
Those phone calls have been part of People’s Action’s deep canvassing phone banks — a new form of political activism that “puts more emphasis on listening and finding human connection through extended, empathetic conversations than the traditional check-a-box canvassing done by political campaigns.”
So when one of those phone banks was cancelled, it dawned on me: Why haven’t I deep canvassed with my own relatives?
I took advantage of the unanticipated free time to write an email to the 140 family members that live in swing states to talk about the upcoming elections. I knew that I would be swimming upstream, breaking the unspoken taboo about talking politics within my family.
I wondered: How to even bring up the topic? How to connect with relatives close by blood but distant — geographically, maybe even politically? How can I initiate an empathetic conversation?
Then I remembered Grandma.
I only had met Grandma Martha a few times. But after every visit — as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult — I always came away deeply moved by her quiet powerful presence, reigning from the kitchen, even in the midst of the chaos of dozens of children and grandchildren swarming her modest farm house.
So I decided to ask my relatives, “What would Grandma do?
I decided to retell a story about my Grandma, a story she used to tell us about her childhood:
At age 12, Grandma Martha went to a rural northeast Nebraska Catholic school. The nuns had a strict rule about not playing with boys.
Playing baseball with the boys led to writing penance on the blackboard after school.
Sledding in the snow with the boys. Another penance.
The last part of the story always stuck with me. Here’s how she described it in an autobiographical sketch she penned in 1994.
“Another time the 7th grade girls were told that Mother Superior was coming asking for girls to join the convent. We were all supposed to stand up, when asked who would join.
I got a dirty look and … another penance on the blackboard. Father [the parish priest] came in after school. Father said, ‘You didn’t lie. I will deal with Sister on this matter.’ I could go home.”
The matriarch of our sprawling mostly-Midwest family, at age 12 years old(!), chose to swim upstream big time. Pre-teen Grandma Martha refused to go along with a lie condoned by powerful figures in her religious school. She chose suffering with integrity over complacency with lies.
“… this state was pioneered by men and women who … were tough and strong. You have good genes.” - Donald Trump, to a mostly White Minnesota crowd, September 19, 2020.
My white grandma did, indeed, have good genes. Not because of her whiteness.
Truth. Courage. Speaking against power. Rejecting the status quo.
I made the case to my swing state relatives: These are values that are legacies of our Midwest pioneer ancestor’s genes. They are also important in this election.
What are the legacies of your ancestors’ genes?
Do you also have relatives in swing states that you haven’t talked to in a while — or ever?
What is becoming clear to many of us in this social-media-algorithm-fueled polarized electoral season it is that we need to talk.
Of the responses I received from some of my 140 swing state relatives, two came from cousins who were best friends in each others’ weddings. We discovered that one plans to vote for Trump, one for Biden. Now they plan to talk.
No matter who wins the election, this country won’t begin to heal until we reach out for meaningful conversation with those who disagree with us.
What are the values that you learned from your ancestors? How much are they relevant in this election?
There’s no better time to begin those conversations.
We need to talk.