The Bittersweet Hereafter

Old HandsElection Day always makes me think of my grandfather. Had he lived to see this one, he would have been 104 years old; however, I doubt advanced age would have deterred him from going to the polls. I can see him in my imagination: his sparse white hair and twinkling eyes, wearing a neatly pressed brown suit with a gold pin stuck in the lapel and he would be carrying a polished wooden cane. Movement would not come easily to him; he’d need to be driven by a neighbour. Getting out of the car would be problematic; late in life, his inability to move as freely as he once did frustrated him. I recall us washing our hands side by side in an airport bathroom in 1996; my grandfather was irritated by the amount of strength he had to use to get the paper towels out of the dispenser. He told me with a sigh, “It’s not good to get too old.”

He was an immigrant. He came to New York from the west coast of Norway: I have seen photographs of him as a young man, dressed in a grey suit and wearing a fedora, an outfit which hinted at aspiration as well as poverty. Nevertheless, the look he gave the camera was hopeful, optimistic; he needed that faith when he left everything behind. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to come: he arrived in 1928, and shortly thereafter the economy collapsed due the Great Depression. He talked about how he had to work odd jobs, such as scraping tiles off of walls, for very little money, sometimes for as little as 10 cents an hour. These experiences coloured his political outlook: he was a New Deal Democrat. After he secured long term employment on a dredge, he joined a trade union. Of course he voted: he had the gnarled hands of a working man who had wrung prosperity out of years of manual labour and by a stubborn refusal to be kept down by all the forces arrayed against him. He had made himself middle class; he had worked so his daughter (my mother) could go to university. He felt he owed it to posterity to have his say so that their lives could continue to improve.

This is not say that my grandfather was what would be called a “modern progressive”. He was the son of a Lutheran minister. I’ve seen photographs of my great-grandfather: while the expression on his face was genial, he always wore a dark suit and tie which hinted a streak of austerity and authority. Although my grandfather didn’t go to church every Sunday, this upbringing probably made him wary of God’s wrath. Nevertheless, he understood that life was complicated: when he met his wife, my grandmother, she was married to an absent Swedish sailor. According to my grandfather, he quickly realised that she was the love of his life and that he wasn’t going to be deterred by her situation. Nor did he stop trying to woo her when she said in response to his declaration of devotion, “You? I don’t love you! Go find yourself a nice young girl.” Eventually, it emerged that she loved him in return. Because divorce was neither an easy nor simple matter in the 1930’s, at first my grandfather and grandmother lived together without being married; back then, that was a scandal.

So what would my grandfather have done in 2012? He probably would have been befuddled by many of the changes which have occured in recent years. He could have been called an “early adopter” in terms of technology; he learned how to fix radios and televisions, and he had many fine old sets which he kept stored in his cellar. However his interest had limits: he probably would never have owned a laptop. He might have had a go on an iPad, as he could have used Skype to video chat with his grandchildren; in the early 1990’s, he had one of the first video phones that were available. Twitter, Facebook and other social media probably would have perplexed him; he would wonder why you would want to talk to people that way when you could just as easily have a chat with your neighbour over the garden fence; furthermore, you could invite them in to have coffee. He would also feel removed from many of the social changes that have occurred; but his attitude towards abortion was perhaps telling, he didn’t like it, but he felt that it was better off safe and legal than unsafe and illegal. Tolerance, albeit from a distance, would likely have been his stance. Really, so long as his family was safe and well, he was happy.

My grandfather would do his best to keep informed. Without fail, he would sit on his old brown recliner chair every afternoon and switch on the “1010 WINS” radio station which told listeners “give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world”. The radio was old, tinny: it always sounded like the broadcasts came from 1955. This station did not feature Rush Limbaugh or any of the other “shock jocks”, it provided an impartial telling of the day’s events, done entirely without verbal pyrotechnics. After the programme finished, he’d switch it off and read his copy of “Newsday”.

Roosevelt and TrumanI doubt he would have cared much for Romney; I recall him stating his admiration for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He felt more strongly about Truman. I believe there was something about the haberdasher from Missouri: honest, uncompromising, purposeful that struck a chord with him. My grandfather heartily agreed with Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur; I didn’t realise when he told me this what a minority opinion this was. I also believe that Truman’s modest background enhanced my grandfather’s belief in America; he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be “in this wonderful country”. Harry Truman’s improbable rise must have seemed like proof of this proposition. Romney, although he gave away his inheritance, wouldn’t have given my grandfather additional confidence that this idea still held true.

Furthermore, my grandfather had a dislike for absurd inconsistency. One of the last political jokes I heard him tell was in relation to Bill Clinton’s statement that he “smoked but didn’t inhale”. To my grandfather, that was a “crazy” thing to say and a statement that should be punctured. Romney’s consistent adoption of a variety of opinions would have probably invited even more witticisms from him.

Sometimes my grandfather wondered aloud about where the country was headed; I think the collective loss of integrity over time bothered him the most. For example, he was always very careful with money; he made sure he developed a personal relationship with his local banker. Honest dealings were very important to him; his experience of the Great Depression suggested that this was only real insurance one had. He passed away before the regulatory wall between investment and savings banks fully disappeared. Had he lived, he would have been horrified by the subsequent explosion in “casino” banking and the swindles perpetrated by the financiers; the crash in 2008 would have had many unpleasant echoes for him. Had he had voted in 2012, he would be looking for a Roosevelt or Truman to fix the mess, rewind the destructive changes; Romney would have likely have looked much more like an ineffectual Herbert Hoover to him.

But what about Obama? It’s likely my grandfather would have found his biography inspiring; however, his Scandinavian parsimony would compell him to ask, “Do we really have to spend so much money?” Furthermore, Obama is neither Roosevelt or Truman, he is carving his own niche in history. My grandfather probably also would have raised an eyebrow at the coalition of the young and trendy around Obama. He felt and understood that America was all about change, indeed, it had transformed him as well as transformed around him. Nevertheless, I’m sure that by the age of 104, change would have run its course for him. In this sense, Romney would be the choice that would seem more familiar, more comprehensible. But does one vote for an America that was or the America that is? I dare say my grandfather, who was both practical and bold, would have gone for the latter: but not for his sake, but for those who followed him.

I have inherited much from my grandfather; while I don’t have 1010 WINS to offer me the world in 22 minutes, I do utilise the internet and regularly watch the BBC. I couldn’t help but think of him again on the day after the election, a time of bittersweet hereafters. For him, life would have carried on: on the day after a most momentous election, he would have taken a walk to get the newspaper or go to the bank or to buy a gallon of milk, certain to wrap up warm against the November chill. In contrast, I was absorbing all that had occurred and thinking of all the detritus of the victory party being swept away. Confetti goes into recycling bins, balloons deflate and are thrown away, vacuum cleaners drone as the floor is made clear of dust. Many “Obama Biden” signs are destined for the shredder, some will be preserved for posterity. President Obama is long gone, headed back to Washington to contend with a “fiscal cliff” which the news channels have suddenly realised is looming. Life goes on. The Republicans are now engaged in a bout of self-recrimination which is more akin to a cannibals’ feast: yesterday, I heard Laura Ingraham attack Ann Coulter, a most unedifying spectacle. I had enough after less than ten minutes. It’s clear that some on the right believe that they lost because they weren’t sufficiently right wing, and thus couldn’t express themselves with clarity. Others believe that they didn’t keep up with demographic changes. I suggest it’s because they didn’t realise that “life goes on”. My grandfather may not have fully understood change, and indeed, sometimes he would have been reluctant about it, but he wouldn’t have prevented it; he lived his life the way he wanted to but didn’t tell others how to live. He seemed to think that this was part of being an American. Until such time as the Republicans rediscover this idea in relation to women and minorities and gays, they have no chance of being victorious in elections to come; they’re still casting a look over their shoulder at a past that is becoming ever more distant. Furthermore, the Republicans continue to harken back to the days of Ronald Reagan for their economic ideas; this hints at intellectual stagnation. Political movements which get stuck in such ruts tend to have a limited life expectancy. Sometimes one has to roll the dice, leave everything behind, cross oceans full of doubt to an uncertain land: as my grandfather might have said, it’s the only way to secure the future.

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