A month before she died, my mother signed her absentee ballot firmly, though she could no longer see very well. The ten letters of her name spilled in a zigzag down the margin of the brown ballot, careening off the signature line in a series of X’s. After I saw her cross the fifth or sixth one, I reached for the ballot and the pen, saying, That’s probably enough. She let the pen and paper go, trusting me to know where her name ended. Ellen M. Knox. I printed her name carefully above the signature line. I hoped the printed X at the end of her name, plus the indication of her temporary address in a nursing home, would keep her ballot valid when inspected by officials of the town she’d served so loyally for 15 years. Conservation committee, Town Meeting, any number of other groups, hundreds of hours logged in to keep the town running. Surely a messy signature wouldn’t disqualify her vote.
She voted for Kerry, of course. Before her stroke, during the early primaries, we’d discussed the candidates. She settled on Kerry early, and as usual, sent thoughtful letters with well-considered and specific suggestions to the senator, as she had to Al Gore and Bill Clinton and decades of Democrats before them. My heart gave a pang at the thought that I would surely have to choose my own candidate next time around. Our whole family relied on Mom to make the reasoned, sensible choice. Not only candidates but ballot propositions—Mom did the homework for us. How would we do it on our own?
The town being Amherst, there were several propositions to consider on this last absentee ballot. I read them aloud to my mother, adding editorial comments, asking her if she knew what this was all about. One was about the use of politically correct forms of address in town political meetings. My mother frowned as I read it, and I wondered if she was searching her battered memory for someone to pin this idea on. She most likely knew the source of this ballot measure. When I finished, she snorted.
“Yes or no?”
“No.” She said this definitively. I was encouraged. A refrain since her stroke had been her plaintive plea, “I don’t understand.” She didn’t understand that she’d had a stroke, or what that meant. She didn’t understand why she was served dinner after a long sleep; surely it ought to be breakfast. She didn’t understand why her once brilliant mind no longer cooperated and did the things she relied on it to do.
But she did seem to understand the silliness of Amherst town politics. Her “No” made that clear. The other ballot measure also had an air of superfluity, and she voted that one down too.
Or was she retreating into the darkness of her uncooperative, damaged brain? She didn’t look me in the eye. She looked at the floor, frowning, fed up. Our visit lapsed into silence, and a month later into the slipping away of her death
She did take in the Red Sox World Series win. That was something. Her wan smile seemed for my father’s benefit, till I remembered her fondness for Johnny Damon.
In the 2008 primaries, I brought an absentee ballot to my father’s room in a different nursing home. Though his brain worked fine, he wasn’t sure who to vote for. My mother wasn’t here to tell us. My sister and I discussed it and decided she would probably approve of our choice of Obama. Hillary, an impressive woman, but we think Mom would have been drawn to the refreshing younger senator, younger than all her four children, and his vision of hope. We convinced Dad Obama was a good choice, and he took our advice. His signature, though shaky, stopped after one X. We all thought of Mom as we voted, and hoped we did her proud.