Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Cup of Tea

Recently, I canvassed for No. on One, here in Maine those cold calls, a knock on a strange door, and I’m sad that we lost, sad that bigotry won, but I liked strolling neighborhoods I’d never visited, chatting with strangers. How, odd, I thought, I’m such a private person, writer who guards her time. I do not answer the phone when I’m working. I’m a solitary walker, a solitary hiker, my dogs my only companions. At parties, I seek out people I know. So this was a big deal, this saying, yes when I friend asked me to canvass with her.

Sitting here at my computer, I see in my mind’s eye some of the people I met those days, a man who came to the door in his bathrobe, and I’d thought, “Uno. What’s going on here? This is the middle of the afternoon.” His face was guarded as he opened the wooden door; most faces were, wariness in their eyes. I gave him my biggest, warmest smile. “Hi, I’m Sandell and I’m a volunteer with the No. on One Campaign.”

I must confess that my list was culled. These were mostly supporters. My job was to get them to the polls. Turns out the man in the bathrobe was recovering from a back operation. I apologized for getting him up.

“No, no,” he said. “I’m with you. I’m glad you’re out there, spreading the word. I don’t understand these people who want to take away this right.” He was referring to a law the governor had signed making gay marriage legal in the state of Maine. Question One was a citizen’s initiative, a ballot question designed to take that right away. And so we chatted, the man in the bathrobe and I, and I wished him well.

At the car, I met my partner. She’d had a conversation with a new couple on the street. They weren’t on her list, but when they found out they could vote at Town Hall that afternoon, they were on their way. Together, my canvassing partner and I met a woman who stepped outside to chat. Inside, a daughter was sick with flu. This woman was with us. She would vote that day at Town Hall. She had a second daughter going to college in Boston. It was too late to mail her an absentee ballot. She’d just have to tell her daughter to drive home and vote, the woman said.

It was nearly Halloween. Doors were decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons, corn stalks, witches. Shaggy haired mums bloomed. There was a festive breath in the air. People were friendly, kind, committed. Life glowed with enchantment. Perhaps this canvassing was my antidote to the nightly news, so full of rants, and Tea Party folks. I was drawn into these people in my home town, my neighboring town, the man with the back operation, the woman, obviously raising those daughters alone, a woman I stopped as she walked her miniature poodle. My dogs are poodles, both standards. This woman was caring for a daughter who’d had a stroke. She didn’t know if she could get her daughter to the polls. But maybe the Town Hall. That was a possibility.

I met a young man who was at home on his lunch break, caught him just before he climbed into his pickup. Yes, he and his wife were planning to Vote No at the polls. There was another house, one of those houses in a constant state of both repair and disrepair. I knocked on the outside screen door. Dogs leapt onto the small porch. They looked like pit bulls. There was a space where molding should have been between the house and the doorframe. Dog noses poked through. Then, a young man appeared. He laughed. He contained the dogs. Yes, he was voting No. on One, but he couldn’t get the polls on Tuesday. “Today,” I said. “You can vote today.”

“I’ll do that,” he said.

Leaving that house, I felt a kind of tingling in my finger tips, an elation that pulsed. What was going on with me? Was it that sense of mystery that has driven me to adventure all of my life, the ski trail, I’ve never skied, the recipe I’ve never tried, the mountain I haven’t climbed? Perhaps, it was accomplishment. I understood that every person I got to the polls was a victory. It was a little like Talmud, that authoritative record of rabbinic discussions. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it  is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Then, my thinking turned inward, taking me back to something that was lost from my life, probably lost from most lives these days, the art of dropping in. I remembered the doorbell ringing in my grandmother’s house. It would be mid- afternoon, maybe three, chores would be done, supper planned, maybe even simmering, a pot of brisket, maybe flanken, sending their meaty smells into the air. I was very young, living in a house with my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt and my uncle. The younger adults would be at work. My grandfather would be in the cellar, fixing what needed fixing. My grandmother would answer the door. It would be Mrs. Klein or Mrs. Botkin. My grandmother would boil water, serve tea in glasses, slice a yeasty coffee cake. We’d sit at the kitchen table, all three, and I’d listen as the women talked of the weather, the butcher, the chicken man, the vegetable man. They talked about who was well, who was sick, who needed a pot of chicken soup, who needed to meet a nice Jewish girl or a nice Jewish boy. I sat inside the rhythm of their voices, sounds of both English and Yiddish, their covert language, but I understood, and so I learned their secrets, learned about the world of women, learned about life, its grief, its pain. And I learned about the soothing power of words, the voice that reassured, the hand that reached and patted an arm.

And so my friends if you’re reading this, fill the kettle, light a burner on the stove; I’m dropping in. We’ll sit, and we’ll sip a cup of tea. We’ll talk. And next time, we’ll all vote No on question One.


  1. A wonderful entry, Sandell. While I didn't grow up in such a busy household, people did stop by. Maybe we're all too solitary - either by design or as a result of popular culture. Here I am reaching out to you via the internet - not picking up the phone to call, or, if geographically doable, stopping by, as they say in the south, to sit a spell.
    I miss the daily, casual interaction. I also miss the community that you discover when you get involved in the political process. As a result, I became a poll worker this year - an eye opening and exhausting experience. I have also taken to stopping in and chatting with some of the local shopkeepers, whether I"m there to buy something or not. The world outside NYC forgets, or perhaps never knew, that this vast concrete canyon is made up of many small towns.
    Put on the kettle - I'll be there soon........

  2. I too miss the dropping in, the sense that you know one another well enough that you don't need to stand on the ceremony of planning a visit. Interestingly, when we lived in Denver dropping in was quite accepted; back here in New England greater formality reign, ora greater sense of wanting to be left alone.
    I am surprised you took on canvassing for any sort of vote--that it was prop1 does not, but those cold calls can be intimidating and you are a very private person.
    In any event, I've read all your entries and enjoyed them immensely and will check in periodically. Margaret


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