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Confessions of a Yellow-Dog Democrat

By Katie Laur · November 1st, 2006 · Editorial
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My grandparents got up early on Election Day. They lived in a small rural community in Tennessee, just 10 miles south of Murray, Ky. They were country people; they dressed up to vote.

My grandfather put on his Sunday pants and shirt, and my grandmother laced herself into a corset and a print dress. She wore her hat and carried her pocketbook.

Voting was a solemn, sometimes contentious event, especially the small countywide contests. That's why they got up early. If my grandfather was voting for his cousin for sheriff, my grandmother wanted to be right there to cancel out his vote with her own.

An election of national importance was different. On one such occasion, my great aunt, Lily, who had a sharp, pointed face and wore her hair parted in the middle and pulled straight back in a bun, gave my mother this advice: "Remember, honey," she'd say, in a chilling voice, "when you go in that voting booth, Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be looking over your shoulder."

Aunt Lily took the long view. The Democrats might produce a scoundrel here and there, but to her way of thinking things would right themselves as long as the party was in office.

All of them knew it was Roosevelt who pulled them through the Great Depression. They were there. In that part of rural Tennessee, Hard Times had left an indelible mark on the people.

My mother's father, who had worked as far afield as Willow Run, in Michigan, after World War I, returned to Tennessee and married my grandmother. When no work could be found, he went to work on her father's farm.

They grew their own food, kept cows and hogs and chickens. They even grew their own cotton -- the children got the "third pick," which is to say after the crop had been gleaned twice by the men and the women, the children got the leftovers, the bolls of the white, white cotton left behind.

"Picking that left-over cotton was hard work," Mother said.

At the end of the day her small fingers would be bloody from the oily seeds in the boll and the prickly plants. Still, they could buy horehound candy or a ribbon at the general store. I find it hard to believe there are jobs hungry people won't do, because my family did them.

My mother is convinced that country people had it easier in the Depression because they could at least eat. There just wasn't any money.

They bought their seeds on credit and paid when the cotton and tobacco came in. They couldn't sell the produce because they didn't have a mule or a wagon, and the farm was 15 miles from any kind of market place. Even if they could have driven the hogs or the cattle to market, no one had money to buy them.

They squirreled away egg money to buy needles and pins from the tinkers, who wandered the country sharpening knives. The women made quilts out of worn-out calico and stockpiled them against the cold winters.

Mother's father was struck by a virulent strain of glaucoma when he was 39 and lost his eyesight. His brother drove him in a buckboard wagon to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, but in those long-ago days they had no cure, and his blindness was a grave blow.

In spring he got a neighbor to help him plant. He hooked himself up in a mule's harness and pulled the hand-held plow the neighbor guided, and he still had spirit enough to play the fiddle at weekly square dances for a few dollars.

My grandmother was paid for her cakes. She was a midwife before women began going to hospitals for birthing. Later, she cleaned houses and swept the church steps. That ended when she fell through the attic floor and broke her back.

Their only son was killed in World War II, leaving them with nothing but a soldier's allotment. Without the Social Security disability for the blind that Roosevelt provided, what would have happened to my grandparents?

The land was thin and overworked in Tennessee after World War II, and, along with a half-million other southerners, my family moved north to work in the automobile factories. I was just 4 or 5 years old, but I remember the stories my father told, stories he heard from the older factory workers of the years before the unions.

They told stories of workers being forced to carry Model T engines on their backs from one side of the factory floor to the other. They said that you had to report to the factory at dawn and wait until there was work, because you were paid only for what you did, not for the time you spent there.

Henry Ford did not revolutionize American industry by himself: Men worked like slaves, and they lay where they fell. There was no medical care, no pension, no fine mansions in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

I'm a Democrat because I value a government that values me. I want to be healthy and productive, and I want to make a contribution to my neighborhood, my city and my country.

I want the freedom to express myself and to find spiritual energy where I can. I want to be stimulated, uplifted and entertained by artists and writers and to be enlightened by educators.

When we find those qualities in our leaders, then we have good government. And in my experience, the best government has been with the Democratic Party.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.
 
 
 
 

 

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