NOTE: I submitted the following as an Op-Ed piece to the Providence Journal, to run a day or two after the 2016 presidential election, assuming Hillary Clinton were to be elected. Unfortunately that was not to be, but the sentiments are still true so I am sharing it here. Still hope I'll have a chance to say this "for real" in my lifetime!
A woman elected President of the United States! I can’t help but wonder what the grandmother I never met would have said about that.
Let me tell you a little bit about her. Mary Gibney, known as Mae, was born in the summer of 1887 in New York City. She was still close to the old country—her mother, and all four of her grandparents, had been born in Ireland.
Mae worked for the phone company as a clerk, and married James Beyer in 1911. Mae’s photos from that era show a round-faced, cheerful looking young woman with a headful of brown hair coaxed into a Gibson girl hairdo.
Mae and Jimmy had two children in quick succession—Mary Eleanor in 1912 and Edwin in 1914. By the time Edwin was born, Jimmy had become the assistant manager of the Harrisburg Ko-Kola Company, and the family had moved from New York City to Pennsylvania.
By the spring of 1919, Mae was pregnant again. Perhaps there had been miscarriages in between—I’m sure a young Catholic couple in those days wanted as many children as possible.
On January 12, 1920, the census enumerator visited the Beyers’ home, a modest three-bedroom brick and frame duplex in a blue-collar neighborhood in Harrisburg PA. He recorded the presence of all four Beyers. They had moved in during the previous summer—seeking more space for their growing family. Young Robert was born two weeks later on January 27, a big, strapping boy.
But the family was dealt a huge blow a week after Robert’s birth when Mae and her daughter both came down with influenza—late victims of a pandemic which had swept the world starting in 1918. 675,000 are said to have died in the US, and Pennsylvania was one of the hardest hit states.
I often think of Mae, the cheerful young grandmother I never met, especially when I get my annual flu shot. And I have thought about her a lot in this election year. The 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote had been ratified in New York, her home state, and in Pennsylvania, her adopted state, during the early months of her pregnancy in the summer of 1919. As the months ticked by, more states ratified the amendment, and by the time of Robert’s birth there were 27 states on board. She must have hoped that she would gain the opportunity to vote in her first presidential election in November, 1920. Politics was always a key subject of conversation at the Beyer dinner tables of my father’s childhood, and the family were staunch Democrats.
Sadly that was not to be. By the middle of February, 1920 both Mae and her daughter were dead, leaving Jimmy Beyer with a six-year-old son and a three-week-old infant to care for. Mae’s mother, also named Mary, had come to Harrisburg to help with the children, and she too died there, in April, of bronchial pneumonia. Three generations of Marys, cut down within a few short months.
That motherless baby grew up to spend 50 years on the physics faculty at Brown University, and to be my Dad. I’m sure Mae would have been proud of him. It’s harder to know, though, what she would have to say about the results of this momentous election. But I know what I’d like to say to her.
“Grandma Mae, I am now a 71-year-old woman, the oldest daughter of the infant son you knew and loved for only a brief few weeks. I have never known a world in which I could not or did not vote, and I was the first of your female descendants to vote in a presidential election. And this year, Mae, I voted proudly for a woman to be President of the United States! Can you imagine that, Mae? A woman running for President? And she won!”