From the forthcoming Belt anthology “Red State Blues: Stories From Midwestern Life on the Left”
By Dana Aritonovich
Uncle George was lying on the floor in his hallway when a friend saw him through the window as she approached the front door. He was carrying a roll of paper towels from one room to another when his legs suddenly weakened. Once his body was down, he couldn’t get himself back up. It was the day before Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States of America.
A few weeks later, we learned that Uncle George had cancer. By February, he was gone.
I never found out if he voted early.
* * *
As a first-generation American who grew up in a politically conservative outer ring Cleveland suburb, surrounded by chain restaurants, strip malls, and plain white people as far as the eye could see, I sensed that conformity was the key to getting along. But I was never one to keep my mouth shut when I had an opinion.
My grandparents were Democrats from the time they became American citizens. My grandfather thought that choosing your own government was the most incredible thing in the world, and he knew that was what made America great. He was around twenty years old when conscripted into Tito’s Communist Yugoslav Army in World War II. He despised Communism and eventually went AWOL to join the rebel Četniks and fight alongside the Allies. The rest of our family seemed to perceive Democrats as being too close to commies on the political spectrum, and since they could never return to the old country for fear of retribution from Tito’s dictatorship, they wanted to stay away from anything remotely left-wing. But for my grandparents, there was something about the Democratic Party that appealed to them. They thought Republicans were full of shit.
Serbs are loud and opinionated and eager to start arguments about all the things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. During family gatherings, the men are usually yelling about politics over beers and shots while the women are in the kitchen yelling about everything else. When I was in eighth grade one of my mother’s cousins, a staunch conservative and a Teamster, asked me at a holiday dinner whether I supported the Contras or the Sandinistas. Ollie North was in the news every day and Johnny Carson made jokes about Fawn Hall, so I had a general idea that the U.S. government was involved with some sort of shady weapons deal. But I didn’t know how to answer the question.
Thank God my mom, well-versed in current events and packing decades of experience defending her views, stepped in to show me how it was done. It was at this moment that I realized I had to study much harder before visiting the relatives so I could talk politics with the grown folks.
When Michael Dukakis ran in 1988, I was all in right away. He was Greek, so my Serb senses were excited. He was also, to me, super liberal, and that sealed the deal. My parents and grandparents were ready to pull the lever for him that November, and I got into a lot of arguments at school for supporting such a lefty. I excitedly stayed up all night watching the election results, confident that we’d be seeing an Orthodox Easter in the White House for at least the next four years, and I was devastated when he lost. Four years later, I cast my first vote ever for Jerry Brown. I wasn’t too sure about that Clinton guy, but after his acceptance speech at the convention that summer I was excited about him. I worked for his campaign that fall, and saw him — from very far away — speak at my campus a week before the election.
The Clintons have never been popular with Serbs. Yugoslavia broke up and war began the year before Bill was elected, and it was quite fashionable for American politicians to be anti-Serb. I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for him a second time because of his administration’s ignorant actions regarding the former Yugoslavia. Serbs are not inclined to forgive and forget, and are understandably still resentful. Many have long harbored a hatred for Hillary in part due to her alleged role in influencing her husband’s anti-Serb stances. But it wasn’t until Barack Obama ran for president that I noticed a shift in the tone of relatives who were always flapping their right wings. I don’t remember Uncle George ever saying much about politics except for union stuff (and he didn’t have much good to say), so his political transformation was pretty startling.
I didn’t really look at anyone differently because of their political views until Obama was elected. (Thanks, Obama!) Prior to that, I would jokingly recoil in disgust when somebody told me they voted for one of the Bushes or McCain-Palin. Not that I never judged anyone by their politics, because I sure as hell did; some opinions deserve judgment.
But there was such an ugliness, such an overt hostility toward President Obama. It’s no secret why that was, but not everyone wanted to admit it. But I just knew that all the haters were racist assholes who failed government class and probably beat their wives. Decent people couldn’t possibly hold these views.
* * *
Uncle George loved The Beatles and The Who, played in a band called The Deadbeet’s (unnecessary apostrophe and all) when he was a teenager, and bought me the first Led Zeppelin boxed set when I was in high school. He shopped at Marc’s all the time and went to Indians games with us for 25 years, never leaving early because he didn’t want my mom and my sisters and me to walk back to the garage without him.
When I was fortysomething and having car trouble, he told me to let him know if I needed a ride and he’d get up well before his normal 3:00 p.m. wakeup call to drive the thirty minutes to my place and take me to work. For my parents’ fortieth anniversary dinner, he grabbed the check and paid for all ten of us without blinking an eye. He randomly brought me cases of bottled water when he found them on sale really cheap. A few years ago, I began writing for a friend’s new LGBT magazine, and when I posted my first article my uncle shared it on his Facebook page. One day, he slipped me some cash when I needed it most and told me my dearly departed grandmother wanted me to have it.
But Uncle George was also waiting for Obummer to take away his guns and enact sharia law across the country. For eight years, he forwarded thousands of emails with patriotic quotes falsely attributed to Paul Harvey, questionable conspiracy theories about President Obama’s secret Muslim wedding ring, and dire warnings about scary illegal immigrants living on welfare and voting for the dastardly Democrats who encouraged them to flood across the border to birth criminal anchor babies. At a three-year-old cousin’s birthday party, he claimed that the Saudi government was paying families $250K a year to move to America and have children so that by 2020 we would be a majority-Muslim nation. When I asked him for the source of this ridiculous claim he hesitated to respond, but eventually sneered that he saw it on “the internet.”
His Facebook posts were mostly absurd articles from right-wing websites, with the occasional family picture thrown in for good measure. When I challenged the fake news he shared online, a friend of his would mansplain and call me uneducated, Uncle George never replied. I’d post evidence that proved everything in his various posts was wrong, but still, he never wrote a word in response.
It was upsetting to see somebody I loved willfully suffocating themselves in such filth, consciously choosing to believe these outrageous lies and obviously Photoshopped pictures. So I decided, for my own sanity, to stop following him on Facebook as the 2016 election drew nearer and his posts grew increasingly deplorable. I would never have deleted him altogether, of course, but I did delete — and block — another older male family member who made a rape joke when the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape was released. Several other relatives of the Republican persuasion deleted me from their friends list during Obama’s second term, but nothing was ever said about it and nothing seemed different between us when we saw each other in the real world. There were still hugs and kisses and laughter over succulent roasted pig and warm krofne.
I wasn’t surprised that so many of my relatives were excited about Donald Trump. But I was still disgusted by their support — and amazed at our shared DNA. It hurt my heart to try to reconcile how people I had always known as honorable, hardworking, and family-oriented could cling to these abhorrent opinions. How could such an excellent father and husband praise a man who bragged about assaulting women? Why would an educated, well-placed young lady give her vote to a womanizer who wanted to take away her right to decide what to do with her own body? When did an immigrant from a small village without toilets, a man who, after more than fifty years in the U.S., still sounds like a Serbian Ricky Ricardo, whose citizenship was sponsored by his own brother who came to America as a refugee, decide that his candidate would be the one yelling the most ferociously about refusing entry to refugees and only allowing people who already spoke English or had a college education into the country? What did I not understand about them after knowing them my whole life?
Uncle George and I never talked politics again once we knew he had that bastard cancer in his body. It felt like a decision we somehow made, silently, together. It was impressive that he didn’t gloat about Trump’s victory, but if there happened to be a Trump story on the news when we visited him in the nursing home, none of us said a word. He was usually watching American Pickers and other nonpartisan fare anyway, instead of the Fox News he had streamed 24 hours a day at home. I wondered if he wanted to argue so we could pretend everything was normal. Could I make a snotty comment to provoke him into battling it out with me? How I wished he had the energy to fight.
After he died, we realized that he had been sick for a lot longer than we knew. He had grown into a grumpy old man even though he was only 66 when he took his last breath, but he was also very private and independent and didn’t want us to worry about him. He wanted everything to be as it always was.
Now, I get even more anxious before family events. I pray that nobody brings up whatever political story is dominating the news, but I still study so I can shut down anyone who starts some shit. I’d rather hear about babies and food and everyone’s health problems. How are the new meds working out? What’s going on with your asshole neighbor? I’d love to listen to another story about you beating up a kid in seventh grade! Please, anything but current events. We’re not really who we vote for. Right? Besides, blood is thicker than politics.
Dana Aritonovich is a lifelong left-winger (except for a brief lapse in judgment in sixth grade) who relishes every opportunity to prove right-wingers wrong. The death of her Trump-loving uncle weeks after the inauguration and the health scares of several other Republican relatives later that year revealed an unpleasant reality about her own judgmental stubbornness when it comes to politics. Dana wants to believe that everyone is multi-dimensional, but that’s getting increasingly difficult as the years go by and people become more invested in their own backyards than in the community as a whole. She studied political science, holds degrees in communications and American history, and is currently pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction. The blog What I Like I Sounds (http://whatilikeissounds.wordpress.com) is dedicated to exploring her entire music collection and how each piece has influenced her.