“Look at this,” Elise said to Maurice, sitting back in her chair in exasperation. The windows were open in their first little house, a green frame house built in 1920, snug under thick old oaks and with a pine tree taller than a telephone pole guarding their back yard. In front of her, their new teak dining room table was covered with stacks of blue and white McGovern/Shriver postcards waiting to be addressed to Democratic voters. Posters, campaign pins in stationery boxes, and the printed tops of yard signs waiting to be assembled with the metal frames that now leaned against the dining room wall. Signs she was expected to stick into front yards. Thirty of them. In yards she would have to find and to which she would deliver them. “All this but no list of volunteers to help me.”
“These McGovern folks saw you coming,” Maurice said. He had been out working in their backyard, tying up daisies, trimming roses. His hands had gotten dirty even through his garden gloves, which he now rested on the bookcase. He used a streaked finger to lift her hair off her forehead and give her a kiss. “I’ll put the yard signs together for you and load them in the back of the VW.”
“Saw me coming? You think?” Elise loved McGovern. Thought he would end the war in Viet Nam. Help the underdog. Make things moral again. “I’m afraid I think they saw nobody else coming.”
He put his garden gloves back on and called, “Come on, Johnny. Get your pail and help Daddy pick tomatoes.”
Elise watched Maurice and John go down the steps to the breezeway, her year-and-a-half-year-old son hanging on the railing, using his right first for each step. Elise had taught junior high English—the age so hard to be but wonderful to have a classroom full of—but she had chosen to stay home when John was born, chosen to get up in the middle of the night to feed him, chosen the gentle joy of holding him with the moonlight shining in on them through the leaves. His dark newborn eyes looked up with the intensity of all babies before they learned to smile. The smell of the juniper blew through the open window.
At an office party for Maurice’s accounting firm, a tall, thin wife had said in haughty horror, “You realize you aren’t a teacher anymore don’t you?”
“I am,” Elise said, refusing to be defensive about making the right decision, about doing what she really wanted to do.
“My brain would atrophy,” another wife said, balancing a glass of red wine and a plate of carrots and celery. “When Lizzie was born, after two month at home, I had to get out of there.”
“I’ll go back when I’m ready.” Useless to try and explain, to challenge the woman’s assumption that Elise was somehow not as dedicated to herself as she should be. Office parties were not place no arguments.
“Good luck with that,” another had wife said.
Then she had been approached and asked to be the precinct captain in her neighborhood for the George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Her calm friendly neighborhood of small well-kept houses, most newer than theirs, dating from the forties when square footage was rationed because of the war. Hardwood floors. Glass doorknobs. As years passed, there were post-war additions of bathrooms, dens, screened porches. Later, the bungalows would be called “starter homes,” a new time when there would be starter marriages, gateway drugs, entry-level jobs. A new time when there were no more teaching jobs after the Baby Boomers moved through the schools like “a pig though a python.” And she had told the eager and enlivened university professor who stood in her living room she would be glad—had she actually said glad?—to work for McGovern. Now she had to admit to herself, part of her “gladness” was at being asked at all.
The campaign had left her on her own. Traditional Democrats were already recruited to work for local or state or some other candidate. Or their mother-in-law was sick. Or they had been elected chair of the PTA. Or were going back to school to become a librarian, a nurse. Or were just not enthusiastic about the McGovern/Shriver thicket. “I mean, what’s with this slogan? Come Home, America. Democrat. For the People. Why all those periods?”
The first time Elise went out canvassing her neighborhood, she took John with her. He held her hand, and they walked up and down streets, going door-to-door. She had friends whose children not only refused to ride in their strollers, they absolutely refused to walk, insisting on being carried everywhere. If you want to go with me, she’d said, or maybe just thought, you have to walk. She’d initially thought this might be selfish on her part, but as John grew and was joined by a new baby brother a few years later, and still later when they grew to have children of their own, neither children nor grandchildren wanted to be carried. They were walkers, arching their backs to be put back down when someone picked them up.
She and John went out on a morning in cooling September with a clipboard list of names and a pocket full of pamphlets for McGovern/Shriver. Some of her neighbors whom she knew to be Democrats peeked from behind curtains and refused to come to the door. Most just nodded, smiled, took the campaign literature, and turned back into their houses as soon as it was politely possible. John, already a fashionista like his mother, wore his favorite red shirt with Bert and Ernie on the front, and blue “pockety” shorts, his long never-chubby legs bare. His shoes were lace-up white leather with hard soles—shoes for children under two that they outgrew before they had a chance to get scuffed, leather shoes all children wore before the advent of baby Nike tennis shoes and pink Mary-Janes like those grandchildren would wear. The shoes had leather soles so thick and serious that if John stepped on Maurice’s feet while picking vegetables in their back yard, her husband would howl.
A woman her mother’s age came to the door of a neat house slightly larger than the others on the street. Yellow mums bloomed in large blue and white Japanese pots on the porch. The woman wore a dark dress and a red silk scarf tied around her neck that matched her lipstick. She said through the screen, “I’m not voting for that man, so you can save your breath.” Then noticing John, she said, “Your little boy is cute, dear.” Looking back up at Elise, she went out in a rising voice, “I’m not voting for that Commie pinko liberal.”
Elise smiled. “Thank you,” she said, hanging on more tightly to John’s hand and turning to go back down the porch steps.
“He’ll give away free money to lazy deadbeats,” the woman went on, her voice cracking as she got louder.
Elise picked up John who put his arms around her neck, and she went back down the front walk.
“He’s going to sell out our army.” The voice behind her rose to a shriek. “Take their guns and leave them helpless before the Russian threat. Invite those stinking Commies to walk right in the front door of the U.S. of A.”
“Whoa,” Elise whispered in John’s ear. “Time to go home and have Cheerios and watch Sesame Street. How’s that, Kiddo?”
Only after two blocks did John say softly in her ear, “Down.”
McGovern didn’t even win his home state of South Dakota. He only took Massachusetts, probably because of the Kennedy connection. The war went on. And years later, when her grandchildren refused to be carried, she discovered she wished she could tote them for hours. Ensuring their independence was their parents’ job.
Deborah Ann Percy (Johnston) lives in Kalamazoo and South Haven, Michigan. She earned the MFA in Creative Writing at Western Michigan. Her two collections of short fiction are Cool Front: Stories from Lake Michigan (March Street Press, 2010) and Invisible Traffic (One Wet Shoe Press, 2014). Her plays, and those written in collaboration with her husband, Arnold Johnston, have won awards, publication, and over 300 productions and readings nationwide. Their twenty or so books include the recent children's book Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York (Brandylane Publishers, 2021). Since 2003 over two dozen of their half-hour radio dramas have been broadcast on Kalamazoo’s NPR-affiliate WMUK-FM as part of All Ears Theatre. Her favorite charity is Kalamazoo's Loaves and Fishes.