A letter to my President
Dear President Obama,
We’ve never met. Even still, I want to tell you a bit about my family. I want you to know how much you have touched and inspired my children. I want you to hear that you, your family, and the grace with which all of you have shown to the highest office in our land stirs me to action.
You see, I grew up on a steady diet of politics. We ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner at my house. But to understand this you have to understand why. It wasn’t just because we lived in Washington, DC. It was because our history demanded it.
My father’s parents — both born in the US as the children of Italian immigrants — never graduated from high school. My grandfather quit school when he was 12 to work on a vegetable cart. He had to, since his mother, who had been married at 15 and had 5 children in 7 years, was widowed at 22. And so he gave up his shot in order to protect his family by providing for them as best he could. His mother, by the way, worked in the sweat shops. She alone managed to convince the elevator operator to bring the lift back down if she arrived, breathless after getting 5 children taken care of on her own, moments after it had taken its final ascent for the day. They did it for her because she simply would not lose a day’s wages.
My grandfather fought for his country in WWII — a time of his life I know nothing about as he could not speak of it. His wife, who had dreams of becoming a famous fashion designer started, but did not complete, high school. She poured her fashion dreams into endless knits and purls, weaving sweater after sweater, day after day until her fingers could no longer work the needles. Her earliest days were marked by a family on the run as her mother tried desperately to make rent each month. Often, they couldn’t. Then she and her sisters would have to sleep on the streets until they could find their next attempt at a new life.
My father? He just kept knocking down walls. High school. College. Medical School. (top in his class!). NIH for 25 years. Director of the Pediatric Cancer Institute. Physician in Chief at Boston Children’s. Dean of Stanford Medical School. Most importantly, an endlessly dedicated servant to children in crisis.
My mother’s parents were also the children of immigrants, this time from Ireland. My grandmother had 7 children and somehow still managed to complete not one, but two Masters’ degrees. At night. With 7 children. I, who consider myself to be pretty capable, have 2 children and I can barely untie my shoes after dinner. Her husband died young, leaving her and her oldest children to look after the younger ones. My mother famously cried on her wedding night because she was leaving her siblings.
And what did she do? High school. College. Masters in Early Childhood. Total dedication to children and their needs. Worked on the Hill as a child advocate, helping to secure the initial funding for HeadStart. Took a spot in the Carter Administration. Went back to school for a doctorate when her youngest (me!) went to college. Now writing a book of teaching cases to support early childhood educators.
My family never took their achievements for granted. They knew where they came from and what got them to where they were. They poured this knowledge with steadfast integrity and passionate focus into improving the lives of those in need. They infused me and my sister with a drumbeat of dedication. It was atomized into the air of our house. It became part of our heartbeats.
So I made lumpy, heart-shaped potpourri pillows out of pink satin onto which I emblazoned “UNICEF” in gold, sparkly glue. At my insistence, my mother took these to her meetings on the Hill as gifts. I worked alongside my parents at an incredible camp for children with Cancer. I protested Apartheid at the South African Embassy in the 80s. I embraced children with HIV/AIDS at a time when unfounded fears dominated the narrative. I joined (then) Senator Al Gore’s “Junior Environmentalists” team and spoke at the National Press Club. I couldn’t get enough, and I was always inspired to do more by the examples sitting across from me at breakfast.
The barriers my parents had broken gave me two things: undeniable privilege, and a deep desire to serve. My ancestry demands I recognize both of these daily.
So what does this have to do with you? And, let’s be honest, why should you care about the story of my life and my family? (aside from the fact that my aunt is Gerry Alexis, by the way. I know, small world, right?)
7 years ago, I became a mother for the first time. My children have known no other President but you. They could say your name as some of their first words. I blasted every major speech of yours during dinner (and Michelle’s, obviously. To be honest, sometimes we watched hers multiple times. I get the feeling you won’t be surprised…). I carted my kids before they could walk to our local polling station at every election. I talked endlessly about the importance of civic participation.
And all that time, I reveled in the abiding truth that my children could be proud of what they heard from you. It isn’t that I always agreed with you — don’t get me wrong — but the fact that I didn’t have to was my tonic, my balm.
But then 2016 happened. And suddenly, just like that, there was no family debate watching. There was no listening to the recaps. I couldn’t even leave newspapers or magazines lying around because of the headlines. I had to deny my hard-wiring, my ancestry, the legacy my parents and grandparents worked so hard to create, because I couldn’t explain or defend the words I was hearing. On the morning after the election, I wrote my family a letter that now hangs on our fridge. You can read it if you want:
The political quiet in my house has been deafening.
But last night, last night you reminded me that “YES WE CAN.” And you know what? I believe you. Yes, we can. I can. You can. All of us can. And we will.
So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
And don’t go anywhere. I can’t wait for you to join us — the tapestry of citizens that build the fabric of this country. Together we are going to do great things.
PS: I’ll be bringing my children across the country to the Women’s March on Washington next week. Hope to see you there!