By Caroline Horwitz
My son fastens the chinstrap of his shark helmet and walks his blue Schwinn out of the garage. He reaffirms what time he needs to come back while glancing at the watch he wears on his right hand. He still calls me Mommy and still bids me an “I love you” as he pedals out of our driveway.
He is seven years old, and he is savoring his first real taste of independence. My husband and I have started allowing him to ride around our small, one-outlet neighborhood with some friends. We parents tend to keep a steady stream of texts going concerning their whereabouts. They’re in our driveway now. Is it alright if I give your kid a snack? Could you tell so-and-so it’s time to ride home now, please?
Riding bikes with his friends is one of the only social activities he has in the midst of the pandemic. Toward mid-summer, some of my neighbors and I agreed to let the handful of children play outdoors together but not enter each other’s homes. We encourage them to stay on bikes as much as possible because of the built-in physical distancing. At this point, I can identify each child’s bike, scooter, or hoverboard.
My son’s bicycle is a little easier for anyone to recognize lately because he’s affixed a white and blue Biden-Harris bumper sticker on the front plate.
He’d watched me open the envelope of stickers I’d ordered from the campaign website and peel and adhere it to the back of my station wagon.
“Can I have the other one?” he asked.
“I guess so,” I said. “Where are you going to put it?”
He knew immediately.
“It’s perfect,” he said, trying to smooth out the bumps that had bubbled beneath.
I was ambivalent about his choice, surging at once with both pride and self-consciousness. I wasn’t concerned about pissing off potential Trump-supporting neighbors but with the optics of sending my child out with a glaring political sticker. Would people think my husband or I had put him up to it? Shouldn’t children be exempted from the often-ugly world of politics?
Our neighborhood has a definite liberal bent, if conversations and yard signs are anything to go by. I know the residents of the lone home with the Trump sign who moved in a couple years after we did, although we’ve always avoided discussing politics. I wonder what goes through their minds—is it the same heart-pounding sense of dread and bewilderment I feel when I drive through a part of town densely decorated with right-wing foliage? I thought we moved to such a nice neighborhood, I imagine them telling relatives over the phone, but it’s full of liberals. And they made their kid put a Biden sticker on his bike!
Truly, wouldn’t I roll my eyes if I saw a child sporting a Trump sticker on their bike? You poor kid, I might think.
I was seven during the 1992 Clinton vs. Bush race, the first election to occupy space in my memory. Almost everyone in my family was a lifelong Republican, which at the time I believed was the only good way to be. Our parochial school hosted a mock presidential election complete with secret ballots for all of the students to participate in (Ross Perot won in a stunning upset). The real election night lasted past my bedtime, but I asked my mother to wake me up with the results before she went to bed. I felt acute disappointment when she told me that Bush had lost but fell quickly back to sleep.
Twenty-eight years have somehow elapsed, and my son is now the same age I was back then. My mother and I are now both registered Democrats, I having switched in my twenties and my mother’s defection following when Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016.
My son was three years old then and was still awake when my husband and I watched the first presidential debate. We hadn’t uttered a word to him about either candidate at that point, but toward the end he pressed his hands against his ears and announced, “I don’t like him, Mommy. He’s too loud and he’s not nice.”
We agreed, then listed in simple terms many of the other more important reasons why we were voting for Hillary Clinton instead, concluding with the assertion that he was always welcome to form his own opinions and support whomever he chose.
My mother visited the week of the election. She, my husband, and I had already voted by mail and planned to celebrate Hillary’s win with root beer floats and champagne. They remained untouched in our fridge and freezer the morning after when she left for the airport. “This is wrong,” she murmured against my head as we hugged goodbye. “This is so wrong.”
I fought the urge to ask her to stay as I wept from the exhaustion of a nightmare-punctuated sleep, and from so much more.
In Pre-K, my son spent time with me as I volunteered for a local special election, an excruciatingly close race that garnered national attention for its flipping of a Republican stronghold. He even approached the candidate on his own at a campaign event, shook his hand, and informed the future congressman that my husband and I were voting for him.
Is it any wonder then to find my son displaying a political sticker on his personal vehicle of autonomy? He lives in the same world I do, and his life is every bit as affected by politics. Children are supposed to emulate their parents, after all, and sometimes further along in the narrative, if you’re fortunate, children can compel parents to change.
September deepens and my son begins his first hybrid school year, a combination of remote and in-person days. He gets a thrill from pointing out every new blue flourish of a Biden-Harris sign that pops up in our neighbors’ lawns.
I don’t allow myself any excitement, not after 2016, but I allow him his. The most I allow myself to indulge in is hope.
Caroline Horwitz is a stay-at-home-mom and essayist who lives in Pittsburgh with her family. As of late, when she’s not writing or freaking out about the impending election, she’s usually helping facilitate her second-grader’s remote learning.
Photo: Caroline Horwitz
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