My Mother and Herbert Hoover,

My Mother and Herbert Hoover,

My mother, who passed away in 2010 at 98, would tell you with a smile that she married the first Democrat she ever met.

She encountered my father in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, and two years after she had cast her very first presidential vote: for Herbert Hoover. Her parents were Republicans, of course, as were, apparently, all her friends, neighbors, classmates and acquaintances. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Pamela Crawford Holahan voted for president again last year, for the twentieth consecutive time, in person as always. So far, the tally stands at 19 Democrats and the one aforementioned Republican. Some would credit her change of heart to the appearance of my father, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat until the day he died in 2003. My father’s father was a railroad switchman, a union man whose working career commenced in a Pennsylvania coalmine at the age of 10.

My dad, Richard Holahan, didn’t merely vote. He volunteered in political campaigns. He served on town commissions. He ran for local office — once for the Connecticut General Assembly. He lost that race, but he won more often than not. He often would come home from work, have dinner, and head out to do the people’s business. He did it in Connecticut, where the towns didn’t pay (still don’t), and later in New York, where they do reimburse citizens who serve on municipal boards. We still have a bumper sticker and an election pin or two in the family archive.

I’m sure my father made the case to my mother for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the party that supported the little man. But my mother also had two good eyes and a sizeable heart. After graduating from college in 1933, she took a job as federal emergency relief administrator in East Lyme, Connecticut, a bucolic backwater back then. For the first time ever small towns across America were overwhelmed with needy citizens and transients, and the federal government, for the first time, was determined to help in any way possible.

My mother remembers her first job fondly. She felt as if she had traveled back in time, to the Middle Ages. The differences, indeed, were vast between the life she knew in New Haven and that of her rural clients less than 50 miles away. Mr. Beckwith, East Lyme’s first selectman, rode around in a horse and buggy and taught my mother to pitch horseshoes. He would frequently tease her by inquiring about her politics: “Pam, you’re not one of those pinks, now are you?” For the record, my mother is not a socialist; she is a community organizer.

The locals often paid their debts with farm products. One swamp Yankee explained to her: “There ain’t nothing like woodchuck oil for washing a new baby in.” Another man, who was being investigated for incest, was ecstatic that the authorities were taking pictures of his ever-so-humble home. No one had ever done that before.

Way up in the woods, she encountered two brothers who lived next door to one another, but never spoke. They managed, however, to share the same woman. But to really set tongues a-clucking in East Lyme, all a person had to do was “take up with an out-of-towner,” according to my mother. She was learning things she would never forget, lessons that hadn’t been on the syllabus at Vassar.

In addition to her formal duties, she helped out where she saw a need. She learned of an elderly Italian immigrant in town who had been brought to America by his extended family. He was now desperately homesick for Italy, but his relatives could not afford to send him back. My mother called the U.S. State Department and discovered that there was an obscure fund for deporting aliens who might otherwise become a burden on the government. For weeks after the old gentleman had re-crossed the Atlantic, my mother found her car overflowing with fresh vegetables.

Soon after this great adventure she married, became embroiled in local politics, raised five boys, wrote poetry, and worked for 15 years as a teacher. She also served as a poll watcher in local and federal elections into her 80s. It wasn’t a chore. It was fun.

Happy days may or may not be here again. The outcome will depend a great deal on you and me, on whether we have it in us to become good citizens. We can sit back and criticize the government, the other party, or whine about taxes. Or we can get involved.

Voting is the first step.