I am pretty sure I know who my father is going to vote for. In fact, he may have already voted early in Boston, where he lives. We don’t talk about the election. We don’t talk about the many months-long Black Lives Matter protests or the climate change causing the wildfires where I live in Portland, Oregon. We don’t talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death or the Supreme Court nomination of Barrett. We don’t talk about how the president was infected with Covid and was airlifted to the hospital.
Instead, we talk about the plasterer who came to patch up the leaky ceiling in my dad’s downstairs coat closet caused by drips from the radiator in my childhood bedroom. We talk about the patio umbrella and how it’s time to take it down because the New England fall wind is on the way. We talk about how he and my mom took a drive up to Dunkin’ Donuts and drank a Coolatta. We talk for a half-hour about the British crime miniseries on PBS that I’ve never seen.
I ask my dad about fictional British detectives and backyard umbrellas because there’s nothing else to talk about. Since the election in 2016, I’ve tried to fill up the space that’s opened up between my dad and me. But, I’m running out of things to say.
It wasn’t always this way.
My dad turned me toward the world. It’s his fault that I care more about voter suppression than vacuuming. He’s responsible for the fact that I’d rather watch a Frontline documentary about Bernie Madoff than a rom-com.
My father was a public high school teacher before he retired, and before that, a cement mason. He immigrated from Bradford, England, when he was in his twenties, and he’s always kept a toe in British news and politics.
When I was a kid in Boston, we’d get the Telegraph and Argus newspaper shipped to us from my auntie in England. The papers came wrapped in brown cardboard, and by the time they got to us in Boston, the news was long since stale. My dad went through each section and read aloud the bits he found interesting about the Lord Mayor of Bradford or Margaret Thatcher’s sticking it to the little guy. He seemed to like it when Margaret Thatcher stuck it to the little guy, even though he was the little guy.
Before he’d leave to teach in the morning, my dad would drink a glass of room temperature orange juice and wash down three cod liver oil pills. We’d sit together at the kitchen table listening to All Things Considered on WBUR, the Boston public radio station. He didn’t know then that he was supposed to think NPR was fake news for liberal snowflakes.
The hosts, Linda Wertheimer and Robert Siegel, filled the kitchen with talk of Reaganomics, how Vice President Dan Quayle couldn’t spell potato, and that Bill Clinton might have dodged the draft. At the time, my dad believed in Reaganomics, was indifferent about the spelling of potato, and hated everything about Bill Clinton.
When I was twelve, my family went to Disney World. The trip coincided with the Senate’s Iran-Contra hearings. I begged my dad to let me stay back in the hotel for part of the day on the afternoon of Oliver North’s testimony. My dad caved and allowed me to watch C-SPAN alone at the Orlando Holiday Inn instead of forcing a meet and greet with Mickey.
When my dad was a little boy, he also preferred to spend time with the news. He got a job as a newspaper delivery boy as soon as he could work. He delivered nine different British daily papers. Believe it or not, there were sixteen national papers in the U.K. in the 1950s. He regularly sneaked a read of each paper before his route was done, and soaked up stories about Eisenhower, Churchill, General George Marshall. He read a newspaper out loud to his grandmother at night because she couldn’t read or write, and she’d explain to him who the good guys and bad guys were in the fight for Irish independence.
During the first Gulf War, he hung a map of Iraq that he found in a National Geographic on our kitchen wall. After dinner, we’d watch the six o’clock news with Peter Jennings, and then we’d put push pins in the map where Operation Desert Storm battles were taking place. I’m forty-five, and I can still find Tikrit and Sammara with ease.
Our weekly phone calls and my visits home have long been consumed with late-night debates about universal health care, trickle-down economics, and term limits. I was a staffer on a presidential campaign in 2008. My dad didn’t support the candidate I was working for, and he definitely didn’t vote for him. Still, we chatted about my organizing work throughout the campaign, and he was interested and proud.
My dad and I have never agreed on politics. But, until the 2016 election, we’ve always had something to talk about.
I have regular insomnia about this year’s presidential election. I doom scroll through my news app, hoping that devouring the news will be the crystal ball for what’s going happen to our country. I fixate on the what-ifs as if my rumination might will an outcome. I lay awake and wonder if my dad and I will talk about patio umbrellas and leaky ceilings for the remainder of his life, no matter who wins the election. I wonder if it’s too late to get my dad back.
But I am determined, regardless of the outcome of the election, to find a way to talk to my dad again about things that matter to both of us. I don’t think he likes talking about backyard umbrellas anymore than I do. I live 3,000 miles away from my dad and, pre-pandemic, I often flew to see him and my mom. I haven’t seen him in person since December 2019. Luckily, he is healthy and his mind is sharp. Still, I feel a sense of panic when I think about how quickly their health could change. The kinds of conversations we’ve been having recently feel empty and surface. It feels like I’m treading water.
My dad and I have both been public high school teachers and I still work in education. I’d like to talk with him about the challenges that schools face in reopening amidst Covid. I’d like to have a phone call with him where we chat about the looming national teacher shortages. I want to hear his opinion about how he’d address learning loss in students who have been attending virtual school for almost a year. I value my dad’s opinion. He was a thoughtful and passionate teacher.
The days after the election will be an opportunity for a restart. The overlay of our disagreement about the candidates won’t be there to cloud every conversation. I am hopeful that we can inch our way to talking about the world without devolving into tension and judgment because a deeper relationship with my dad, the kind we’ve always had despite political disagreement, is too important to me to lose over a presidential election. And I won’t let that happen.