Technically, I am not one of the 47%. My husband and I live a comfortable life. We always had good jobs and have not wanted for much. We raised one son, paid the college expenses his scholarship did not cover. We also were lucky enough to help my mother, dead now seven years, because she was one of the 47%. All of her life. So were her parents, immigrants who helped make this country what it is today.
Let me tell you about them, Governor. My grandparents left a tiny village in Italy in search of a better life in America, the land of opportunity. Life was not much better once they arrived in this foreign-of foreign places. They didn’t speak the language. They had little money. They lived in cramped quarters, working 12-15 hour days while dealing with the prejudices and abuses of their bosses and neighbors. They put up with the indignities, though, because they had dreams, desires and drive to better their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.
They settled in Youngstown, Ohio, because the steel mills provided more opportunity for immigrants. Like all foreign laborers, my grandfather worked 12-hour shifts in inhumane conditions to earn barely enough money to feed and house his growing family. My grandmother built a large, stone oven in her garden and baked bread that she would sell to neighbors to supplement what money she culled from Grandpa’s pay.
“You grandpa work hard-a for nothin’,’” my grandmother often told me. “No money. I sell bread to feed-a da kids.” Eight kids. My grandparents raised them in a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. They received no help from anyone other than each other, but they made sure the kids went to school, graduated and got good jobs.
My mother, Mary, was the youngest of five girls. She wanted to be a nurse, Governor, but the family couldn’t afford the tuition. Mom got a job as a secretary and put herself through business school. After she married my father, she became a full-time mom.
Our life was not easy. My father, a milkman who had dreamed of being a doctor, suffered a disabling heart attack when my brother and I were still in grade school. Because my parents were frugal, we were able to survive on their savings and Social Security payments. You know about Social Security, don’t you? It’s that so-called entitlement program that my parents paid into for years.
I’ll let you in on a secret, Governor. Our parents always told my brother and me that we weren’t really poor, that there were others worse off than we. I resented that because I didn’t have what my friends had. I couldn’t buy new records or clothes or shoes like my friends did. I wore my cousin’s hand-me-downs or clothes that Mom sewed. I was embarrassed. Now, though, I realize they were teaching us to appreciate what we could do with the little we had. They taught us that the most important things in life were determination, education, independence and responsibility. Responsibility. To ourselves and to others. As poor as we were, we still donated what we could – clothes, food from our garden, a few pennies – to those who were suffering more than we were.
I’m not going to bore you with everything, Governor, but let me tell you one last thing about my mother’s life. She survived my father by 36 years. And for those 36 years, she lived in fear because her “notch baby” Social Security payments barely paid for her medications and monthly bills. My brother and I and our spouses helped her so she could remain in her house. I can’t imagine much it embarrassed my mother to accept money from her children. She was a proud woman, though, and she refused to file for food stamps or other governmental aid because others needed it more.
My mother, though, continued to help others. She still bled for those who hurt more than she. Two weeks before she died, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The day before my mother passed, she sent a $10 check to a Hurricane Katrina fund set up by her church.
I’m glad my mother was not alive to hear your comments about the 47%, Governor. I’m glad my grandparents and millions of other immigrants who built this country are not alive to hear your comments, Governor. They did a lot more than pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They gave blood and sweat and life to these United States and took little but what they deserved. They were not freeloaders.
Because of their great sacrifices, I slipped over the line, Governor. According to your reasoning, I’m one of the 53%. I’m well-educated, Governor. I work hard. I pay taxes. I take my job as a voter very seriously. I research issues. I listen to all sides before I make a decision. I think for myself.
And I’m voting for Barack Obama.
He is one of us, Governor. He grew up like most of us did. He understands that those of us who have much have a responsibility to others. He knows that by giving children hot meals, medical attention, a good education and exposure to the arts, we are teaching them that they can better themselves and the lives of others around them. He understands that compassion goes a lot farther than contempt.
He understands that our country is a blend of many nationalities, races, religions, beliefs. He also knows that everyone in this country needs to work together to pull ourselves out of the mess he inherited. He recognizes the fact that we are individuals, that we each should have the right to decide what we do with our own bodies. He’s not perfect, Governor, but he gives us hope that maybe we can survive and become a great country again.
He gets it, Governor. He understands. I don’t think you do or ever will.
And that, Governor, is why I’m voting for Barack Obama.
Chris Cutler is the founder and executive director of The Las Vegas Memoir Project. A writer, she received her MFA in creative writing from Murray State University. Chris is on the editorial board of and writes for BLVDS magazine and teaches memoir and business writing through the Division of Educational Outreach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Several journals have published her work, and she’s currently writing a memoir about her Italian grandmother’s journey to America.