Mrs. L. is an elderly black woman who lives here in Las Vegas. I'm guessing she's in her nineties, and she gets around with a walker/chair device. She won't allow herself to be pushed in the chair, for two reasons. One, she wants to get as much exercise as she can. “If I stop using my legs,” she says, “I'll lose them. Then where would I be?” Two, she doesn't trust anyone to push her. “I let someone push me once,” she says. “They took a turn too fast and we both went over. So now when someone says, 'Can I push you?' I say, 'No, thanks.'”
Mrs. L. wanted to vote yesterday and the Obama campaign asked me to drive her to her polling place, which was about half a mile from her home. She lives in an apartment complex for seniors close to where I live. I had to walk down a long corridor to her apartment. She was sitting outside her door in her walker-chair waiting for me. She was dressed to the nines, wearing a bright purple blouse that looked brand new, a stylish floppy white hat with a brim, a necklace with big white plastic beads, white slacks and white sandals with flower decorations. She looked like a million bucks — and she meant to.
She had a hard time getting into the front seat of my big car. She was thrilled when I offered her a Coca-Cola, and even more thrilled when she tasted it. “That's the real thing!” she exclaimed. I told her it was a Mexican Coke, made with real sugar — “like when we were kids.” “They don't taste like this anymore,” she agreed.
I helped her through the voting procedure at the poll set up in the recreation lounge of a senior center. There were a lot of older people there to vote, but they all looked at Mrs. L. with astonishment — she was older by far than all of them. “How old is she?” a woman whispered to me. “I don't know,” I said. “I'm afraid to ask.” “God bless her for getting out to vote,” the woman said.
Mrs. L. grew up in Indiana — “I'm what they call a Hoosier,” she said. She moved to Las Vegas several years ago, after her husband died, because she has a daughter who lives here, but her daughter is in bad health. She has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is a person of great personal dignity — which is why I wouldn't have dreamed of asking her age.
When the poll workers had trouble locating her name in their bound pages of district voters, Mrs. L. said, “I know my name is in that book.” It was, and she added her signature for the 2008 election in a steady hand, with big, bold, elegant letters.
Afterwards, getting back into the car, she said, “Well, that's done.” “We've been part of history today, Mrs. L.” I said to her. She shook her head in amazement. “Yes, we have. Yes, we have.” “It just goes to show that if you live long enough,” I said, ” you'll see everything eventually.” She laughed delightedly and said, “Isn't that the truth?”
When I said goodbye to her back in her super-clean, sparsely furnished apartment, and shook her hand, she said, “If there were more people like you and me, the world would be a better place.” I had to beat a hasty retreat before she saw I was crying. It wasn't just the kind compliment that got to me — it was more a delayed reaction to something that happened as we drove away from the polling place. We passed a young black woman walking up to vote who had her five or six year-old daughter with her. Mrs. L. addressed the child under her breath, “You put your name in that book, too, little girl. You write your name in that book.”