Belonging is Identification Enough: I Vote in a Small Town

6 Nov

In light of the voting bonanza going on across the United States today, I couldn’t help but post on this election day about a voting incident in my past. I think of it every time I step into a room to vote. Every time.

Picture this: it’s a chilly autumn day. The birch trees of Northern Wisconsin are rustling in the wind off of Lake Superior. Traffic on Highway 2 mosies past. No one rushes around in this town of 300 people, not even the cars hailing from Duluth. After all, the speed is 30 mph, don’ cha know.

It’s too warm for a winter coat, but too cool for just a windbreaker. You compromise with a University of Oregon sweatshirt over a t-shirt and a cozy hat, just in case. Layers are the answer.

The designated polling place – a building you have never been inside of before – beckons you with its sandwich board out front: Voting Here. It’s succinct, but serves its purpose.

You get out of the back seat of the car. Your parents get out of the front. Your tennis shoes crunch on the gravel as you approach the white door.

Your mother enters first, you second.

Dad brings up the rear, having held the door politely for you both to enter.

The room is overly warm, with that usually-unused-and-suddenly-full-of-people feel to it. It’s musty. And a little too dark.

You hear the cozy sound of conversation as the door closes behind you and you move forward into the room, looking around expectantly, albeit a little shyly. All of a sudden – and when I say “all of a sudden” I mean INSTANTLY – all conversation ceases, every head turns to stare, and all of your insecurities come to the fore as every person in the room stares at the three of you as if you are aliens who just invaded this small Wisconsin town from the planet YOUDON’TBELONG.

It takes a moment for the voting judges to swallow their shock and stammer, “May we help you?”

You want to say, “Well, duh!” But you refrain.

All of the voting public (all one of them) have, by this time, pulled their heads out of their voting cubicles to stare as well. It’s like a staring fest.

You are, at this point, certain that horns must be growing out of your head. Your mother stammers (at least she stammered in your memory, though, honestly, you can’t ever remember your mother stammering in her life), “We’re here to vote?” With a question mark at the end, as if conceding that, possibly, she entered the wrong room through, really, she knows perfectly well that she’s at the right place and everyone else is freakish.

“Oh, well then,” the judges say nervously, “you’ve come to the right place.”

There is a small pause, as if everyone is waiting for everyone else to acknowledge that everything is okay and you aren’t the weirdos they thought you were.

Instead they say, “Do you have some ID?”

Mom, Dad and I (excuse me, “you”) grasp on to this question like it’s a lifeline to drowning victims.

“Yes, yes!” We all shouted like maniacs, rustling in our purses and pockets like the people in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Harrison Ford asks his fellow blimp passengers if they have their tickets just after he threw someone out of the window and claimed it was because he didn’t have his ticket.

We pulled out our identification and brandished those little blue folders like flags of surrender.

The people in the room – if it was possible – looked at us with even more consternation than they had before. As if no one in the history of that town had ever come to vote with US Passports as their forms of identification. Okay…possibly no one had.

My mother held out her passport, picture page open, as if showing it to East German border guards. It worked for them: why isn’t it working now?

“It’s a passport,” she said carefully, and I half expected her to spell it out: P-A-double ‘S’-P-O-R-T”.

Still the blank looks. Still the suspicion.

Now, to give us credit, we had good reasons for using our passports as identification. It hadn’t been that long since we’d lived in West Berlin, where identification cards and passports were god. One time Dad had to drive me back across the entire city – no small feat – because I’d forgotten to bring my ID to lunch at Templehof Airbase. ID means you exist. You are allowed. You have permission. ID gets you through doors. But not in Wisconsin, apparently.

Now back to the story…

Time seemed to stand still for a moment as everyone in the room contemplated what to do. I half wanted to turn away, murmur “forget it” and be a bad citizen. But then came Mom’s – or was it Dad’s? – magic words, “We’re living at the Anderson’s farm place.”

It was as if heaven itself had opened the floodgates of blessing.

“OH!” Comprehension dawned. “We heard about you.”

“So you’re the people at Anderson’s place.”

“I heard there were strangers there,” someone said, nodding to her neighbor sagely.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“Oh, well, then,” the judges said. “Come on over and vote already.”

I don’t think they even looked at our passports. Belonging was identification enough.


20 Responses to “Belonging is Identification Enough: I Vote in a Small Town”

  1. treadlemusic November 6, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    So totally ‘get’ that situation. When we moved here in ’74 we were the “hippies on Oak Ridge”. Everyone in town were wonderful from the first and never made us feel anything but welcome/part of the community but it was to be many years before we REALLY were part and that took place when the first of our 2 sons married a ‘local gal’ and then, a few years later, the 2nd son did the same. NOW we were truly “in”!!!!! I say all this about a very warm friendly little town that we have grown to love and call home. Can’t imagine living anywhere else!!! And I know I have said that before!!!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 6, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      I’m so glad that you were welcomed even if you were a hippie! LOL. I think that there is both good and bad to be found in small-town living. I sure liked that there were no lines at the polling place today! That’s part of small-town life I love – and there was someone there who knew me, so even though I got a few weird looks, I wasn’t too suspicious.

      • treadlemusic November 6, 2012 at 9:31 am #

        Will leaving in a bit to vote. All the townships have their table spots in the very large firestation in Houston. Kinda like a flea market!!!!!

        • Gretchen O'Donnell November 6, 2012 at 9:39 am #

          Oh, that’ s different! Kinda fun, I bet!

        • treadlemusic November 6, 2012 at 10:39 am #

          The first time they did this DH and I walked into this HUGE pole building/ firetruck garage and just stood there staring at the huge, brightly lit expanse trying to sort out who was who, what was what and where do I/we go!!!!!

  2. Minnesota Prairie Roots November 6, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    This is an absolutely powerful and convincing reason to vote against photo ID,.

    BTW, we live in a town of some 23,000 and have been in the same house since 1984. We live in “the Swanson house.”

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 6, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      Hee hee! Even after so long you’re in someone else’s house! It’s funny – people want to belong…and somehow labels like that make a person feel like they fit in, I think. They know who REALLY belongs in that house!!

      I actually didn’t think about the voter ID issue when I wrote it…but perhaps self-consciously?!

      • Minnesota Prairie Roots November 6, 2012 at 9:02 am #

        Well, that you did not think of the voter photo ID issue makes this even more powerful and impressive. Well done.

  3. Alice November 6, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    You and your family were so gracious–I am afraid I would have made some smart remark and alienated myself from the community forever.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 6, 2012 at 8:49 am #

      Well, I kept my mouth shut and left it to my parents – they deserve the credit! I will say, though, that we burst out laughing when we got back into the car!

  4. segmation November 6, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    I think I will stick to wearing my University of Oregon sweatshirt here in Sunny California! Funny, right?

  5. hotlyspiced November 6, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    That’s really weird. In such a small town I guess they must know everyone and they must have thought you were blow-ins from somewhere else xx

  6. whatimeant2say November 6, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    That’s a great story, and very apropos! I pretty much feel that way every time I vote. And I’m in San Antonio, Texas. But, somehow, they know I don’t belong each time I walk in to the polling place.
    By the way, congrats on Freshly Pressed. Well deserved!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      Thanks! Very fun and such a surprise! And as for you not belonging…maybe that’s a good thing?!!

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