Polling Place For Precinct: My Vote A Year Ago Was For My Mother

A daughter reflects on a mother’s legacy

I have always liked November. I wrote a poem in a department store café in Oxford, England about my “twenty first November” when I was indeed that young, remarking on the humble humanity around me, the unshaven stowaway with yellowed papers pinched at his sides, the quiet soup, the blue vinyl seats and the looming Christmas outside. It was a warm winter that year.

I wrote about November years later, two decades on, in a story published earlier this year called “To the Escott Room.” Three characters stilled and human, one month. “Wordless, the month could only peep when it arrived, and what it produced mimicked the protests of lame beasts: on the night notes, something like a word. Bish, it uttered until dawn. Sern.”

My mother was good at delighting. She would throw her head back in proud glee and let forth news. A baby born! A phone call from Omaha! A storm front arriving tonight! I remember when I was in kindergarten, she told my teacher that I could play the piano. I think of this now, knowing I had only started lessons months earlier, and marvel at my mom’s ability to make me feel profound. “She went like this,” my mother told me, opening her eyes wide and forming her mouth into an O. “And she wants you to play in front of the class!”

I don’t remember the rest of the story now, whether we pushed the school piano on wheels into the chosen position to have me plink out a tune. I only remember my mother gaining altitude, higher and higher and higher than life. My mother had co-signed with the sky and she was never coming down.

I thought of my mom a lot a year ago on Election Day. She always voted, and I have not forgotten the neighborhood signs I misinterpreted as a child: “Polling Place For Precinct,” I read in my head. It was like a little poem, a sweet bit of alliteration, I too young to attend to the handwritten addition of the precinct number. It was just Polling Place For Precinct, like the title of a mysterious film announced and reappearing in the planters by the elementary school every November. My mother voted in the snow after removing gloves and she voted in boots. She had opinions and ideas and stopped to read sentences aloud to me from her newspaper.

I walked to my polling place a year ago, the temperature warm, up a hill and then up a second hill past my neighbors’ houses, thinking of my mom and the sweat under my armpits, because life has always been both monumental and ordinary. My vote was for her, I wrote. It was for her because she believed me capable of a concert solo at age 5, and so most assuredly of a place at the table. Of stars and heights and change. Of the presidency. We deserved it, she and I and all of us.

My mom would have been irate at what happened in this country a year ago. I would say she would’ve been pissed, but she never liked that word, finding it too profane. So she would have been irate, galled, aghast, mortified. There would have been afternoons when she would’ve read the newspaper from her upholstered rocking chair and gone up on one foot at a paragraph most abject, her body protesting in a fitful half start, and she would have narrowed her eyes and murmured and scoffed and shook her head at the television news. I can see her. It makes me miss her.

I compared my mother often to a bird when she spent the last five years of her life dying. It was always a bird that came to mind, because birds are free and they are vulnerable. They can fly and then they cannot. My mother, I decided, was a bird who had been content with a life on a wire, watching over everyone and calling, then sometimes making a great grand swoop of gliding past something beautiful and settling back. My mother as a bird appreciated the flowers. And then my mother, dying, became the things that happen to birds — cat-caught and gone, or trapped at one wing only, the other flapping and flapping, then still, then back to the frantic scatter of feathers. She was only just a bird then.

She was only just a bird. It is again November. The year we have had has felt like sitting in a witness box, our attacker seated and smirking, the defense attorney full of swagger and the jurors nodding. There are days when I behave like my mother would have done, reading something aloud, shaking my head. I write to the senator in my home state, he my same age, and I picture him as a child and wonder if he saw those same Polling Place For Precinct signs. I wonder why he thinks the way he does now. How much money do you need, I want to ask him stone-faced. Will you ever have enough. Will any of you ever have enough.

Ask a young child what a bird does. Birds fly. Flying is the way of the bird, its only science. Flying is what birds do, fixing our imaginations when we’re little, arms out, our own wings. The birds do what we cannot. And my mother was a bird. A year ago, my vote was for her. It is November again, another Christmas looming outside. My mother brokered in pride and in horizons, in the full-grinned clenched-fists swell of belief in my future. My vote is still for her.