What about your children?

"What about your children?"

Personal memoir.

2018.

My mom makes a particular face when she’s thinking. She narrows her eyes and juts her lower jaw to one side or the other and just leaves it there, with her mouth open, until she’s worked through the issue at hand. It’s a funny face. Especially since she’s composed entirely of right angles and sharp bones. As she’s gotten older, her skin has stretched thin over those bones, pulled downward by years of sunburnt beach volleyball and three sets of infant hands tearing away at her collagen. It’s a funny face.

She makes a version of the face when she’s angry too. Her mouth stays closed, but her lips twist to the side, like she’s trying to fathom the depths of your lunacy and she doesn’t know where to begin. I’ve seen that one more than any other person, I think. That look used to burn through me when I sat across from her at our six-seat kitchen table. For most of my life, I would just look down at my lap, and then at some point I started to get up and walk away.

I’ve never been as strong as my mother. I used to resent that, but now I understand that it was never possible. I am like her in many ways, but I lack her resolve to simply be and to dare anyone who would oppose her to try to get in her way. There’s a coolness to her, a rigidity, that I will never have.

Instead, my rage is my father’s. It’s smiling too wide and shaking my head before picking a fight I can’t win.

My parents are staunch, conservative Republicans. My father is a retired Army captain turned farmer and, on those facts alone, his political beliefs, though disappointing, have never surprised me. When I was younger and less sentient, perhaps I would have said he was “funny” and “outgoing.” Now I cannot begin to describe him without using political terms

I have a clear memory of him arguing with my grandmother, his mother-in-law, about bombing somewhere in the Middle East, probably over ten years ago, at my brother’s kiddie karate tournament.

He opened a clear glass door for her to step through. “Just bomb them all. Start the whole thing over.”

“But what about the children, Ron?” She stopped and turned back to face him.

My father shrugged.

I used to agree with him about all things politics. Well, at least, I would reiterate his shouts at Sean Hannity’s radio show and beam when he nodded proudly at me.

My views are more refined now; I realized I didn’t care who could or could not get married or what percentage of black men committed crimes over white men in what neighborhoods. There are certain things, many things, that I realized did not belong to the government. Race, culture, gender, love, and sexuality, among many, many others, have no place in politics. Identity has no place in politics and politics has no place in identity.

The reality that I came to understand was that politics will always define me in some way, because they define my father and we have the same nose.

Since that awakening, I have seen my mother’s angry face far more. She asked me why I had to argue, why I couldn’t leave things alone.

“Because he’s wrong.” I said. Regardless, my dad insisted on screaming “fake news!” about some inconsequential op-ed.

That was the first time I walked out of a conversation with my parents. I put my dishes in the sink on the way.

***

When Donald Trump first announced his intention to run for president – as a Republican, no less, when he had been a Democrat only years before – I thought it was a hoax, an elaborate joke, or, at the very least, a frantic effort for some sort of lasting fame. At the time, my dad agreed with me. We imagined, or simply observed, that Donald Trump didn’t care about the United States and so assumed that even if he won the party nomination, he would concede to the next man in line. He did not.

There was a visible shift during the Trump election, that I noticed for the first time in my father. Conservatives were suddenly divided. People outside of the GOP suddenly saw two very different factions: Republicans and Trump Supporters. And, at the same time that I went from being a Republican to a Democrat, by father went from being a Republican to a Trump Supporter. I hope his change was out of some sort of desperation, but I know mine was not.

At that time, Trump was just an annoyance to me. It seemed like that kind of buffoonery in the White House would be a troublesome and embarrassing precedent to set.

Trump became an unthinkable precedent with the Washington Post’s release of the Access Hollywood tapes.

We all knew, either by some random comment or gross look or simply gut feeling, that Trump was a bad person.

But the sexual assault he admits to in the tapes is a crime. And still, angry, irrational politics came before the safety and bare humanity of women and all marginalized people. Them. We set the precedent.

***

Hurricane Matthew sent me home to Ohio for two weeks in October when I expected to be safe in my liberal sanctuary in Savannah for the remainder of the political season, days after the release of the tapes.

My family’s farmhouse is small, 1900 square feet for five people; the main floor is all one space, with every room and everyone’s business bleeding into the next. I was doing laundry while my mom sat at her desktop computer in the living room. We were having a lighthearted conversation when she changed the subject.

“Did you register to vote, Shelby?”

“Yes.”

“I know your politics are changing, you don’t have to tell me how you’re voting. It’s just that you should vote.”

“I’m not voting for him.” I stood then, and turned to face her.

“Well, have you done any research? The media paints him in a bad light, are you really looking into things?”

“There’s a woman standing right there! How can you vote for a man like that – who thinks it’s totally fine to treat women like that – when there’s a woman to vote for right there?”

She turned slightly away from me, so that the window highlighted her profile. Her expression was not angry or confused. It wasn’t funny; it was blank.

“I just think she’s dangerous,” She said. And that’s when I started to cry.

I didn’t say anything after that. I bundled my laundry in my arms and walked away. I didn’t want to beg her, because even as my respect for her trickled away, I couldn’t stand to disappoint her. But I should have said what I was thinking. I should have asked.

“How can you tell me this is the world you want me to live in? Why can’t you use your strength to protect me, this last time?”

***

I’ll be honest, even after three years of wading through the FASFA, I don’t understand my parents’ finances enough to say where they fall in the new tax plan.

I do know that where they fall is not good. After years of being unemployed or underemployed, my dad switched fields and started his own company. My mother is hard working and has been successful, but everything about our family’s finances changed with this new venture, and changed again with the new tax plan.

I was in the kitchen and she was at the desktop when I heard her soft “huh.” I looked up and saw her thinking face. I waited, assuming she would announce whatever it was that was confusing her, like she normally did.

Her face remained the same. “Huh.”

My father walked into the room and came over to stand behind her.

“This is where we are in the new tax break down,” she said. “This is what we have.”

“Huh,” my father said. And then, “I really thought…”

Mom still had her thinking face on when he walked away.

***

A month later, over the Christmas holiday, a cell phone video surfaced of a group of teenage girls beating up one of their Muslim peers while a crowd of school kids watched. My mother was watching it out loud, probably on Yahoo! News, on that same desktop in the living room. The victim’s family spoke about how she had always had trouble with bullying at school, and that she went to school that particular day prepared to confront the ringleader of this group. She was greeted by a gang that wrestled her to the ground.

“We don’t know that she didn’t do something to incite the incident,” my dad said from across the room.

“Why would you instantly assume that?” I demanded.

“There’s no evidence otherwise.”

“That doesn’t mean shit!”

“Shelby!” Mom cut me off.

In the silence that followed I stared at her back. If I had to sit there until she responded or tried to change the subject or turned around fifteen minutes later, I would.

“Well,” she said without turning away from the computer, “the video is disgusting. The fact that all of these boys just stood there…”

I left the room.