This piece originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 10, 2016
“Mama Sue, who you gonna vote for?” I asked my 86-year-old grandmother.
“Trump,” she said, without missing a beat. “I’ve never voted for a Democrat for president, and I’m too old to start now.”
Mama Sue represents generations of Huffstetlers who have worked with their hands for a living. When my grandfather filled out his draft card, he listed “Self Farming’’ as his occupation. A friend who taught me to make a half-Windsor knot jokingly called me “first in your family to tie a tie.” That’s about right.
I can empathize with people who wonder why someone like Mama Sue supports Donald Trump. He divides people into winners and losers. And “You have to be wealthy in order to be great,” he said at a campaign rally in May.
According to his definition of greatness, Mama Sue is a nobody. The rewards from decades of her hard work in mills accrued to others. One of nine children, she lived in rural North Carolina, where cotton mills outnumbered libraries. So when she decided in the ninth grade to leave school forever, no one was surprised. She had six kids over seven years; helped farm 120 acres; and sewed, spooled, or weaved for more than 40 years.
For Mama Sue, her grandchildren are her trophy case. Just as she once worked her hands over garments that found their way to others, she kneaded into all of us a sense of optimism, determination and curiosity.
But what I’m struggling with is simply dismissing Mama Sue because of who she votes for, instead of honoring and learning from her. A person is not who they vote for. That narrow world view is exactly the country Trump is trying to create: one where what separates us is more important than what connects us.
Contrary to Trump’s myopic focus on winning, American greatness is not found only in our victories. American greatness is the enduring pursuit of a more perfect union — together.
So many of us know no one who is supporting a different candidate. Instead of dismissing these people for how they vote, let’s aspire to defeat Trump every day through conversations with each other. By all means, discuss, cajole, twist arms. But most importantly, listen to the values behind people’s choices. You’ll see there’s so much of the struggle we share.
Let’s not become a country where we close our ears and hearts to each other. Let’s get back to the real work of reveling in the struggle together.
Over the years of calling Mama Sue, politics has come up from time to time, but not nearly as often as precipitation. And I always learn something from her. Her most important lesson is also the hardest learned. Over an eight-year period, Mama Sue had to bury three of her six adult children, including my dad. Every night before she goes to bed, using their pictures as a poor substitute, she kisses them goodnight. When she talks about it she’s sad but not bitter or defeated: “Life’s not always easy, Roger Dean, sometimes you just have to keep going even when you don’t want to.” And I admire her fierce dedication to this nation.
“I pray every day for America; I love this country,” says Mama Sue, grandmother to 12 and great-grandmother to a dozen more.
“I know you do,’’ I reply. “I know you do.”