You know that moment when you’re dating someone you really like and you come face-to-face with some bizarre relic from his or her childhood that you never saw coming? And that still holds sway in the present? At this point, you must make a choice. You can reach for the rose-colored glasses and accept Jeff's attendance at seventy-two Grateful Dead concerts as proof of his ability to really commit; you can convince yourself that Ellen’s collection of Virgin Mary candles is not in any way unholy; you can shrug off Chris’s bathtub full of floating Fisher Price Little People as innocent fun.
Or you can run.
My moment came in 1984. I was staring at a Ronald Reagan poster on the door of my boyfriend Gary’s childhood bedroom. We had been dating for a couple of months and he brought me home from college to meet his parents.
“Is that yours?” I asked, my eyebrow arched, a worry line appearing on my 22-year-old forehead.
“I’m kind of into politics,” he said. “I collect a lot of campaign paraphernalia.”
And there it was.
He showed me his formidable collection of newspaper front pages and Life Magazines. Bumper stickers, buttons, and posters. His mother stuck her head in, gloating gently, "Isn't he so funny?" and I nodded, understanding that by funny, she meant clever. "Do you know he was nine when he started this collection? In fourth grade! Reading two newspapers every single day!" she exclaimed. "Huh," I said. "Well, I guess an obsession with politics is more original than the predictable male fixation on football and sex. Of course I like football and sex. But I like politics too... ." I joked as she quickly backed out of the room. My boyfriend grinned.
That evening, over a dinner of fried okra and pork chops - Gary's favorite - it was revealed that Gary wasn't the only member of the family with strong political views. His father, Oswaldo, immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia and deeply distrusted any kind of revolutionary discourse. He drove Lincoln Continentals, which he pronounced “Linkels” and he was as loyal to that brand of autos as he was to Lincoln’s other brand, the GOP. Oswaldo truly believed the little southern hamlet in which he chose to raise his family was Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”
Properly schooled in southern sensibilities, his mother was more cagey about her politics. I couldn’t quite get a bead on Marcella. She despised the Vietnam War, supported civil rights, environmental protection, and equality for women, but Gary's older brother Jerry teased her that she voted for every Republican running for dogcatcher.
Speaking of Jerry, he was the rascal in the family with the telltale "fun kit" consisting of a mullet hairstyle, a Burt Reynolds trash 'stache, and some nice pecs developed working on a road crew for the summer. He enjoyed telling me about the time in '76 when he and Gary hatched a plan to meet Barry Goldwater, Jr. who was coming to town to campaign for Ford. Until that moment, I was unaware of the existence of a Barry Goldwater, Jr., but I soon learned he was the son of the iconoclast Republican senator from Arizona and in this little corner of the electoral map, he was a real celebrity. As Jerry told it, he figured that given Goldwater Junior's elevated status, getting early to the landing strip at the county airport was the boys' best chance to fight the hoards of fans for an autograph.
Turns out three people showed up at the airport to meet Barry Goldwater, Jr., and two of them were Jerry and Gary.
And, by the way, no, there was never a moment’s confusion over the names of those two boys.
It was definitely Jerry who asked Gary to ride shotgun in Jerry’s bronze ’72 Cutlass Supreme the day they skipped school to see Ronald Reagan. And no one could remember which of them found the piece of scrap drywall they used to scrawl Nixon on the driveway of the Wallace-supporting neighbors up the street.
By the time we got to the peach cobbler, I knew all about Gary's stint in 9th grade going north to work as a page at the state capitol. "He was the youngest one!" said Marcella. "He couldn't even drive! But we got him a room up at the Elks Club across the street." And moments later, her face glowing from the warmth of discussing her favorite subject, she let slip that one day, Gary could and should be the first Hispanic president of the United States. "He always lands on his feet!" she offered. "And such a natural leader! He'll be great. Unless he gets tied down too early, if you know what I mean."
Oh I knew what she meant.
I married him anyway. That was thirty years ago. Gary still collects political memorabilia. The box of front pages gets thicker and dustier. He loves politics, though he admits there's not much to love. But like little boys who one day must realize that loving baseball does not naturally turn them into baseball players, Gary is content to read about the political spectacle every morning by flipping open the newspaper.
Photos by Renn Kuhnen.
New at Finder Not Keeper
In honor of this year's election, I created a new vignette that honors those households where different opinions coexist. Remember Mary Matalin and James Carville? The collection of donkeys and elephants come together under the metaphor of a Junction sign and around a White House cookbook. Because if we can't find common ground around food, we might as well be savages. Click on the photo for shopping details.
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