Mama didn’t typically take us to school (That was Dad’s job.), because she had to arrive at work by 7:00 each morning, and her commute was about 30 minutes from where we lived in Greenville, Mississippi. However, she had-for some reason-decided to take us one Tuesday in November. We were approximately six and seven years of age at the time. It was cold and early, way before time for us to actually leave the house for school. This didn’t bother me, because I have always been an early riser and liked to watch Ma ready herself for her day. Arousing my sister almost required the use of smelling salts, but I digress. Mama woke us up. We got dressed. She combed our hair into at least three ponytails each; greased our little brown faces; made sure we had our little coats, hats, mittens, and boots on properly; and ushered us into the dark morning toward her car.
Blindly (and sleepily), we followed asking no questions until my sleepyheaded sister-who was eternally full of questions and energy-awakened enough to realize we weren’t going to school. She asked, “Ma, where are we going?” “You’ll see when we get there,” she replied. We finished the ride in silence with our eyes glued to the back passenger windows looking for clues about where we were headed.
A few minutes later we arrived outside a nondescript, one story, rectangular building. Cars filled the parking lot, and aside from the two strategically placed lot lights, the only light that could be seen was the one spilling out of the doorway along with a line of people. We got out of the car, followed Mama to the line, and waited. Eventually, my sister piped up, “Ma, what are we doing here?” Mama responded with, “You’ll see.”
One by one, each person made their way into the building. We stood huddled against our mother waiting in the cold and dark for our turn inside. After what seemed an eternity (which was likely only a few minutes), it arrived. As I looked around the room, I saw tall booths with flag-colored, striped curtains, a table situated at the front of the line, and people everywhere. People in line. People at the table seemingly taking names. People coming from behind the curtains and others entering, which provided only a tiny glimpse of what we were there to do.
Finally, it was our turn! Ma had moved to the head of the line. She gave the lady her name, signed the paper, after which we were shown to an available booth. This was the big moment. We stepped behind the curtain and in front of a big machine with a lever, one of us on each side of Mama. After seeing the names on the machine, I instantly knew why we were there. You see, my parents watched the news (on our only TV) and talked politics quite often as we were forced to either listen or go do little-kid things. I sometimes listened.
Ma leaned down and quietly explained that we were here to cast a vote, which was a pretty big deal but especially during this presidential election year. She began to press buttons beside names that I had only seen on television ads and heard in adult conversation. Then, she gave us a turn. Our eyes twinkled, and we grinned as she directed our selections. Our little fingers-now outside our mittens-pressed the buttons with a surety that we were doing something important and adult-like. Now, all that was left to do was pull the lever. The deed would be done. Because we couldn’t decide which of us should pull it, Ma made an executive decision and pulled it herself.
Two little brown girls and a smartly dressed brown woman had just cast a vote. We left beaming. For totally different reasons I’m certain. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at school that I had voted! I was too young to understand the significance of all that we’d done that day, but no less happy than I am today.
That morning is etched in my memory and has guided my participation in elections time after time. Each election I have the opportunity to make my voice heard by casting a vote for the candidate of my choice. It is not lost on me how significant that is, and it all started with this one day. I have continued the tradition of taking my son with me to the polls, and I sometimes allow him to insert my ballot and wear my sticker as a sign that he has participated in one of the most important democratic processes. It is my hope that he will carry these memories with him and continue the family tradition of making his voice heard and his vote counted.
Happy Runoff Election Day! Now, get out there and VOTE!