Taking Mama to vote: A son on his 73-year-old mother’s first-ever trip to the polls

On Tuesday, the reporter’s mother, Janet Schwarz, who is 73, voted for the first time in her life.
On Tuesday, the reporter’s mother, Janet Schwarz, who is 73, voted for the first time in her life. jkovac@macon.com

Mama was glowing when she stepped out of her apartment building Tuesday. She had on a cream turtleneck sweater and black pants. Her silver earrings sparkled, her makeup was done and she looked dressed for a night on the town. It was noon.

It wasn’t cold, but she said it was. Her sweater had one of those poofy, extra-thick necklines, which seemed poised to swallow her head any minute. And that would be bad because it would mess up the hairdo she had spent half an hour spraying in place. Her hair curls down over her forehead in a cresting wave more tamed and golden-gray than Donald Trump’s, whom she despises.

But soon enough she would be talking about the man anyway. We were, after all, headed to the polls.

For her, at age 73, it would be the first time in her life to vote. So she was fancied-up for the occasion.

“I’m very nervous,” she said, “about Trump winning.”

She was born to British parents in England in 1943. Her father, a concert violinist and mathematician, died after World War II. In late 1950, her widowed mother, a speech pathologist, moved the family to America to live near relatives who’d settled on the Massachusetts coast.

For whatever reason — stubbornness, in deference to her native land, never getting around to it, she really isn’t sure — she waited more than half a century to became a U.S. citizen. Her brother and sister, who are both in their 70s and permanent residents here, remain British subjects.

In 2005, a few years after the death of my stepfather, Mama became, as they say, naturalized.

“It was time,” she said.

‘I don’t know how’

She was a hairdresser for much of her life.

Before that she taught special education at Thomas Elementary School in Warner Robins, and later was an instructor at nearby Happy Hour School. More recently, she cleaned tables as a dining room hostess in a bakery and sandwich shop.

Her name is Janet Schwarz, and she wasn’t crazy about my writing this.

“Just don’t say anything that’ll make me sound like a sorry immigrant that came in,” she said. “I worked hard all my life.”

The other day when I picked her up to vote, she asked if she looked OK.

“Lovely,” I said.

“I think Trump’s gonna win,” she said. “I’m very, very nervous. I’m certainly in a dither. I hope I look all right.”

We pulled in at the voting precinct — a Baptist church in north Macon. She thought it was funny that you can vote at a church.

As we got out of the car, Mama mentioned something I had been worrying about.

“I don’t know how to fill out a ballot,” she said.

“It’s a computer,” I told her.

Then I remembered. She can’t operate an iPad. She has never so much as sent an email.

“I hope you can go in with me,” she said. “Tell them I have trouble seeing.”

She doesn’t.

“Tell them I can’t speak English,” she said.

Not true. English is her native tongue. She enunciates it far more clearly than I.

“They have people here,” I said. “They can assist you.”

“No, I’d rather have you,” she said. “They might tell me to vote for Trump.”

‘The pretty lady’

She watches CNN all the time and isn’t much for conspiracy theories.

Before she moved to Macon and an apartment with no lawn or grounds, she was the unofficial landscaper of the property — a vast, wooded complex near Byron. She spent full days planting shrubs and flowers she’d bought with her own money. She trimmed hedges, spread pine straw, weeded gardens.

She eats a lot of carrots and hummus. I think she may live on the stuff. She’s usually in bed by 8.

On our way into the church to vote, she watched people leaving. The church had a golf cart by the door. It was there to ferry anyone in need of a lift to or from the parking lot.

“Everybody who comes here is voting for Trump,” Mama said. “You can tell by looking at them.”

A sign pointed us to a side door. “Physically Able Voters,” it read.

At the check-in line, I explained to her about the yellow electronic card they were about to hand her, that you just pop it in the machine.

“It’s maybe the size of a credit card,” I said.

She didn’t seem to follow. Something else was on her mind.

“I’m just very nervous,” she said, “for the country.”

I nudged her: No politics in the voting line.

“I know,” Mama said, “I know.”

She felt embarrassed at having been a citizen and a registered voter since George W. Bush’s second term and never voting. Not just in a presidential race, but in any election.

She had wanted to vote for Barack Obama in 2012, but she tripped that summer and cracked her hip.

There in the line on Tuesday, she said she always assumed going to the polls would be “a pain in the neck,” and that “they wouldn’t make it easy for senior citizens.”

She changed the subject. She asked which candidate The Telegraph — the newspaper I write for — had endorsed.

I shushed her again.

“Neither one,” I whispered.

When her turn to vote came, I asked an attendant to help Mama get started.

I stood by a poll worker handing out “I’m a Georgia Voter” stickers and kept an eye on Mama.

A line of voting machines beeped in a hallway outside the sanctuary. It was lunchtime. The wait wasn’t long. A volunteer came around sharing fresh strawberries. There was free bottled water by the door.

Three minutes passed. Mama was still at her booth, hunched over the ballot and poring over the screen as if it were some hieroglyphics Etch-A-Sketch. Or so it appeared.

I asked the woman handing out stickers if she could check on Mama, make sure she knew how to get the voting card out of the machine.

I pointed to Mama.

“Oh,” the woman said, “the pretty lady.”

The woman came back a minute later and said Mama was just making sure she had filled in all the races.

“She’s good,” the woman assured me.

Five minutes in, though, I started whistling to myself.

“Oh, lord,” I muttered. “Oh, boy.”

‘It wasn’t bad at all’

After six minutes, she was done.

“That didn’t take long,” Mama said.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I know I voted for Hillary and Tim Kaine. A lot of the questions, I didn’t answer.”

Then I asked, “So was it fun?”

“No. I didn’t know all the propositions and what they were about. I just voted Democrat all the way down. ... I wanted to get finished voting, so I didn’t really read it all. But don’t put that in the paper,” she said.

“Just as long as I voted for Hillary. I hope I’ve helped my candidate in some way.”

Back at her apartment, we sat outside in my car a few minutes and talked more about voting.

She pretended to not like my interviewing her. But she kept talking.

“I felt finally like I had a voice,” she said.

“I just don’t want to sound like I was a sorry old thing and didn’t want to vote. That wasn’t it. It was just that I hadn’t become a citizen. Then when I did, I guess it became my duty to vote. ... I’d just always heard how long the lines were. But it wasn’t bad at all.”

I didn’t ask any more questions.

Mama went on.

“I guess,” she said, “I feel more complete.”

I thanked her for writing my ending.

She thanked me for taking her to vote.

“I wouldn’t have gone otherwise,” she said.

She wondered what time we’d know who won.

“About 9 o’clock?” she guessed.

“Sounds about right,” I said.

I figured it’d be later, but I knew she’d be fighting to stay awake much past then.

“Well,” she said, heading for her door, “if Trump takes Florida, it’s all over.”

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr