“You haven’t had dinner with the girls in a long time. So how about coming on Friday? They have a nice menu—some kind of beef with a French sauce, which I of course can’t chew--but you will enjoy.”
“Sure, mom. It has been awhile. It will be nice to see them.”
“Make sure you wear a jacket. All the men wear them on Fridays. Not that there are that many men here. We’re mainly old ladies.”
“That’s not true, Mom.”
“In June I’ll be 104. What do you call that?” I couldn’t think of what to say. “The girls know you’re following the election and they have a few things they want to say to you.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“I need to warn you they’re not very happy.”
“Him too. Just remember to be on time. We eat at 5:00 but come to me at 4:00 so we’ll have time to talk before going downstairs.”
“I wonder what’s up,” Rona said when I told her about Friday.
“I think just that mom’s friends--some of whom reluctantly voted for Obama last time--they were all for Hillary—are feeling he hasn’t lived up to his promise.”
“Who ever has?”
“Good point. But if they feel my mother had a hand in convincing them to vote for him maybe . . .”
“Maybe they’ll blame you.”
“If so,” I smiled, “I’ll be ready for them.”
* * *
“So mom, what’s up with your friends?”
“I’m glad you remembered to wear a jacket,” she said, ignoring me while checking me up and down. “Though maybe the sleeves are a little too short and you could have worn something else besides a black shirt. The girls like bright colors. And it’s Friday night. Shabbos.”
Ignoring that I asked again, “What’s on the ladies’ minds? You made it sound as if they’re quite upset about something.”
“Well, they are. But I’ll let them tell you themselves, that is if they can stop for a minute talking about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Rona and I exchanged looks. “Let’s go downstairs. They’ll be waiting for us. Really for you. Especially Rona. They love Rona.”
“I thought we’d talk more before going down. Isn’t that why you asked us to come so early?”
“I just wanted to put my eyes on you. Last time you were here you looked so pale.”
“Now too. Do I need to worry about you? You look anemic to me. You should get your blood checked.”
“I do. I mean, I did. I’m fine. Really.” She was examining me skeptically. “I just try to stay out of the sun. It’s not good . . .”
“You’re telling me the truth? I know you lie to me when you have a cold. So I shouldn’t worry. But with my own eyes I can see you look like a ghost. Wear a hat but sit in the sun. You need some color. And vitamin D.”
I tried to indicate that I do take care of myself but she waved me off. She’s right—we don’t always tell her the truth about how we are feeling. We don’t want her worrying about us. She has her own issues to deal with.
“OK, now that that’s settled, we’re ready to join the girls. Did I tell you they have a nice menu tonight? Beef something. No for me. I’ll have my usual roast chicken if it's not too salty and watch you enjoy the beef. Promise me you’ll make sure to take care of your teeth.”
As expected the ladies were waiting for us in their usual cluster of whicker chairs close to the dining room. From there it is relatively easy, leaning on their walkers, to shuffle their way to the door.
Once settled and the orders taken—I choose the boeuf bourguignon, hoping it would be easy to chew so my mother wouldn’t have cause to remind me again about my teeth—without any preliminary chat, Fannie leaned across the table to get closer to me and said, “Look how things have turned out.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re referring to. Things?”
“Again, Fannie, sorry. I’m not following you.” Rona kicked me under the table. I didn’t know why. I thought I had taken Fannie seriously as I always try to do. Maybe it was a preemptive reminder to behave myself.
“Look what he’s bringing out,” Fannie said. Bertha on the other side of the table, though she is very hard of hearing, was nodding in agreement. “Before you say again that you don’t understand, let me explain to you.”
Ruth added, “Let her talk. Then you’ll know.” I smiled at her as well as at Bertha. I turned to Rona to show her I was on my best behavior.
“You know we didn’t support him. I am sure your mother, who is a darling—everyone here loves her--told you we were for Hillary. When I was a girl, my mother, all the women, weren’t allowed to vote. And with my older sister Yetta I marched in parades with the Suffragettes. So when Hillary ran, though we had questions about her voting for Iraq, we very much wanted to support her and have a woman living in the White House. Not as the president’s wife, but as the president.”
“I know about that. And I fully understand your position.”
“We weren’t going to vote at all,” Esther said. “We weren’t going to vote for McCain and that woman from Alaska. I refuse even say her name. We were so upset that Hillary wasn’t running that we thought we would just stay home.”
“Or not fill out an absentee ballot,” Bertha said.
“First she tells you to be quiet so I can talk,” Fannie looked sternly at Bertha, “but now she can’t keep herself quiet.” Bertha gestured as if zipping her lips and shrugged, smiling at me.
“I don’t want you to get upset,” Fannie said, putting her hand gently on top of mine, “but I need to be frank with you. It’s because he, Obama’s black, or as you young people say, African American.”
Rona took hold of my other hand to keep me from blurting out what she knew I was feeling.
“I’m not prejudiced. That your mother can tell you.”
“She’s not,” my mother said, “She marched for civil rights. In Alabama.”
“Actually, in Mississippi. But no matter. It’s the same thing. And I have had many blacks as friends.” Rona squeezed my hand harder. “So that is not the issue.”
“What is it then?” I couldn’t help myself from asking as benignly as possible. “What are you trying to say?”
“At our age it takes us a little longer to make our points.”
“Sorry. Please, go on.” Rona, pleased, stroked my hand.
“It’s what he is bringing out. Take the primaries, for example. In Alabama and where I was, Mississippi. Did you watch the results?” I nodded that I did. “On CNN?”
“I switched among all three news channels to see what they were saying. How they were spinning things.”
“On CNN they had exit polls.”
“How do they do those?” Ruth asked.
No one answered and Fannie continued, “If you were following them, what struck you the most?”
“I’m not sure,” I muttered. To tell the truth there was so much data that I felt overwhelmed by them.
“The numbers about the most Christian voters.”
“I remember that. You mean the voters who called themselves Evangelicals.”
“What exactly they are I do not know. But I remember Wolf saying, or maybe it was that darling John King, that more than 80 percent of the Mississippi voters and 75 percent of those in Alabama were those kind of Christians.”
“And most of them voted for Santorum or Gingrich.”
“As would be expected, no?”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes because they don’t like Mormons.”
“But Santorum and Gingrich are both Catholics,” I said, “and to many evangelical Protestants Catholics are not much better than Mormons.”
“I’m sure that for some Evangelicals Catholics are preferred. But even though they said they think Romney would be better for the economy and has a better chance to beat Obama, still they didn’t vote for him. I think he came in in third place in both states.”
“True. But I’m still not quite getting your point. Especially why this is all Obama’s fault because he’s African American. Wasn’t he born that way?”
“She’s getting to it,” my mother said. “While she is, make sure you eat something. With all the talking your beef will get cold. Is it tough?”
“It’s excellent, mom. And not too chewy.”
“Maybe I should have ordered it then. But it’s probably too salty for me. I have to watch my blood pressure. You should too with our family history.”
“As I told you, mom, I try to be careful about what I eat and . . .”
Fannie cut me off, “Let’s worry about salt another time. We don’t get to see you that often and I want to answer your question because it’s a good one.”
“I forgot,” Bertha said, “Which one is that?”
“About why it’s Obama’s fault,” Fannie picked up the thread.
“Mind you, it’s not his fault as you say because he didn’t do anything to make himself black.” Everyone nodded in unison to assure me that they weren’t biased. “But his being black brings out the worst in some people.”
“Too many people,” Ruth interjected.
Fannie agreed and continued, “Those people who say they believe Romney has the best chance to beat Obama, who they hate--that is not too strong a word for how they feel about Obama--they voted for Santorum and Gingrich over Romney in spite of this. Because . . .”
“Because why?” Bertha asked, sounding frustrated. “It’s getting late and I get confused when I’m tired.”
“Because,” Fannie said, staring directly at Bertha, “Because they are so obsessed about religion that they see being a Mormon the same as being in a cult. Like the Hairy Krishnas. And as a result they will vote for people who they feel have less of a chance to beat Obama in November. That’s what I mean about Obama. That the very fact of who he is is making them so meshuga that they will vote for the weaker candidates who will likely lose.”
“Don’t misunderstand Fannie,” my mother said, “she wants Obama to be reelected and feels Santorum and Gingrich would lose more easily than Romney, but she is always very worried about anyone who is ultra-orthodox. Like Santorum. And even the Jews who are. Those in Israel, for example.”
“One of my grandsons was here for a visit,” Ruth said, “during the Florida primary. He’s very liberal but out of curiosity went to a Newt Gingrich speech sponsored by some Republican Jewish organization in Boca.”
“The joke was,” Bertha said, “that how could this be—there aren’t any Republican Jews in Boca.”
“Well, he reported,” Ruth said, “that a very large hall was filled with Jews who were cheering and applauding every time he talked about letting Israel bomb Iran. That the people at the speech seemed to care more about Israel than the United States. And this upset him.”
“And the rest of us,” Fannie said.
“They cheered the loudest when Gingrich said that Obama is the worst enemy Israel ever had. Which, of course, is untrue. I could make a list of presidents who were anti-Semites. Starting with Eisenhower and then Johnson and Nixon. Just listen to the tapes.”
“Show them what they handed out,” my mother urged.
“This button.” Ruth searched in her pocketbook and slid it across the table to me. It was nearly three inches in diameter and had printed on it—Obama, Oy Vey! “Something, no?”
“What she is trying to say,” Fannie interjected, “is that this is another sad example of the prejudice that Obama brings out. Even among people who should know better. People like all of us who lost family members during the Holocaust. We more than anyone else should care about all minorities.”
At the mention of the Nazis, silence settled over the table.
“Time for dessert,” my mother said, trying to break the spell of remembrance, “I recommend the pistachio ice cream. Back in Brooklyn it was your favorite.”
“Only after Chinese food,” I recalled.
“So order the chocolate. Unlike the pistachio, you don’t have to do any chewing.”
* * *
After dinner we walked my mother back up to her apartment. “Do you want anything to eat? I have some nice cheese and cake. Fresh. Downstairs you both ate like birds.”
“We’re fine, mom,” Rona said, “We ordinarily don’t eat that much, and it was delicious. Not salty at all.” We again exchanged smiles.
“None of the girls mentioned something else that came out of those exit polls.”
“What’s that, mom?”
“About how many voters in the South think Obama is a Muslim.”
“I saw that,” I said, “45 percent in Alabama and 52 percent in Mississippi. And many more suspect he is. Shocking.”
“When you put that together with his race it unleashes religious and racial bias. You know what I think is the worst thing?”
“How many of these haters hate the idea that he and Michelle are living in the White House. Sleeping there. I’m serious. This is very, very upsetting to those people.”
“Hopefully not too many feel that way,” I said. “Though I agree with you. Let’s hope, though, that come November . . .”
“All the girls here and all over the country know what’s at stake.”
“Amen to that,” Rona added.
We were stirring, signaling it was time for us to get on the road. “One last thing," my mother said, "be sure to remember to have your blood pressure checked.”