Make america greater
by michele papa
Tim put down his cup, punctuating his statement. His coffee, now cool, waved onto the table. “It’s time for a change,” Tim said. “We need to bring this nation back to when it was good —back to a time when people weren’t afraid.”
“Like when? I mean, at what point in history would you bring our country, if you could?” Maddie tucked a wet strand of hair behind her ear.
“Interesting question,” Elisa said. She dipped her teabag in her cup.
Tim leaned forward and fingered the lettering on his cap. “That is a good question,” he said.
The aroma of hazelnut had greeted Maddie and her dad Tim when they squeezed into an overcrowded coffee shop about a quarter of a mile from the Capital. By the door, Maddie spotted a stack of newspapers. The Washington Post was spread open on the counter. Maddie edged nearer to read the headline: Inauguration Day 2017: Pomp and Chaos Collide as Trump Becomes President. Looking up to scan for seats, Maddie spotted a friend alone in a small booth. That’s where they ran into Elisa. Maddie and her dad approached Elisa’s booth and greeted a friend whom she hadn’t seen in a while.
Maddie had seen Elisa hesitate when she noticed the Make America Great Again hat on her dad’s head. She told them to sit with her. Her dad slid into the booth as Maddie shook off a drizzle-coated jacket. Maddie couldn’t help but focus on the other newspaper in front of them. She skimmed the headline article and then opened the paper. She found a letter written by a sixty-six-year-old woman from Chicago to the President-elect. The last lines read: “People are terrified of your presidency. Give them peace.” These could have been Maddie’s words. That’s why she ended up biting her tongue when she and her dad started talking politics.
“I think I’d take us back to the 1920s. It seems much simpler then,” Tim said.
“Yeah, Dad, the glamorous roaring 20s. What a time. Woman could vote, the economy was booming, and people were happy, despite Prohibition and mob wars and all.” Maddie tried to keep the sharpness from her tone.
“The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels,” Elisa said, “and the styles were fabulous. The Harlem Renaissance was exploding.” Elisa paused. “On the other hand...”
“Yeah, on the other hand…” Maddie adjusted her glasses and spoke directly to her dad. “On the other hand, you know it was only great for some. The Ku Klux Klan was reborn and African-Americans were targets, just like today. Look what’s happening in our cities because of Trump’s hate rhetoric. He makes it okay to be mean. Is that making people feel safe?”
“I believe in Mr. Trump,” Tim said. “Crime’s ruining our kids. Young people are killing each other in the streets. I’ve plugged up more gunshot wounds than I can count. We’ve got to do better.” He shook his head.
“What do you do?” Elisa asked.
“I’m an EMT in Maryland. Been doing it since I got out of Iraq.” He fingered a scar on his right hand.
“Thank you for your service,” Elisa said.
Maddie’s eyes softened. “I don’t know how you do it every night, Dad. And you’re right. We can be better, but isn’t America pretty great now? I mean, where else could tens of thousands of people protest legally outside the White House?”
“It’s true,” Elisa said. “I’m here for the Women’s March tomorrow.”
“I’m guessing you’re not a Trump supporter,” Tim said.
Elisa shook her head. “I’m not.”
“I’m not either,” said Maddie as she wiped the rain from her glasses, “but Dad believes that Donald Trump will make America great again.”
“That’s what the hat says,” Elisa smiled. Tim turned the cap to face him. “It’s a privilege to be at an inauguration. I was at President Obama’s in 2012.”
Maddie beamed. She was too young understand the politics of his first election, but she remembered feeling a swell of pride as she watched from her seat in her middle school social studies class as President Obama took his oath of office. Maddie glanced back at the paper. “I voted for Hillary, but I promised my dad I’d go with him today.”
Tim was still thinking about Maddie’s question. “Then maybe the ‘40s,” he began. “America’s greatest generation. The country was optimistic and there was a sense of family.” He leaned back.
Maddie smoothed her damp hair. “I can’t argue with you. The 1940s began the biggest baby boom ever.”
“That’s right. I’m a boomer myself.”
She smiled. “I know, Dad. Men returned from WWII with jobs waiting. Unfortunately, those jobs were vacated by women who were told they were no longer needed and to go home to their families.” Her voice was firm.
“Show some respect,” Tim murmured. “Your grandfather fought in that war.” He turned to Elisa. “He met my mom at a USO dance and they married when he returned from France. She quit her job at Woolworth’s to have me. They had a good life.”
“Did Grandma like working?” Maddie asked, though she knew the answer already.
“Not being a sales clerk in a five and dime and she didn’t need to work anymore.”
Maddie shared how her Grandma told her of her dream to be an engineer but that her father wouldn’t let her go to college.
“She never told me that,” Tim said.
“My mom was the first Latina elementary school principal in our county,” Elisa said. “My grandparents believed education was a gift, a promise for a better future.”
“You’re Latina?” Tim asked.
“I am. My grandparents escaped Cuba when Castro first took power. My abuela was pregnant with my mom at the time.”
“Did they become citizens?” he asked.
“My mom was born here. My grandparents eventually became naturalized, as did my two uncles.” Tim seemed satisfied.
“So, what about the 1950s?” Maddie joked, her mood a bit lighter. “You know, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. You always loved the Fonz.”
Elisa turned to Maddie. “I see you’re still passionate about history.”
“I’m a political science major at GW,” Maddie said. They told Maddie’s father how they had met working at a poling station a while back. “This election has sparked some intense discussions on campus.”
“I’m sure it has,” Elisa said. “My dad’s a poli-sci professor at Berkeley.”
“There was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on,” Tim said, “but I don’t know how safe people felt with the threat of Communism. I remember being taken into bomb shelters for drills when I was a kid and I was scared.” Tim folded his hands in front of him. For a few moments, they were silent. “So, if you could bring us to any other time, when would it be?” He looked to his daughter. “What do you think?”
Without hesitation Maddie said, “I’d bring us to yesterday.”
Elisa cocked her head. “Why yesterday?”
“Because yesterday I knew that my rights as a woman were supported and my right to choose was protected. I knew that Planned Parenthood was funded and that immigrants like your grandparents would be welcomed into the country; my uncle’s gay marriage was recognized and the LGBTQ community was defended under the law. I knew yesterday that the EPA would continue to safeguard our environment so that people and animals could live a cleaner life. I knew yesterday that patriotism didn’t equate with racism and that everyone was entitled to an equal chance.” Maddie’s voice trembled.
“Honey, I don’t believe Mr. Trump’ll take all that away. I think he says a lotta stuff he doesn’t really mean, but ...” Tim shifted in his seat.
“But what, Dad?”
“But I believe he wants what’s best for our nation. That’s why I voted for him.” He looked at his cap.
Maddie inhaled deeply and continued slowly. “And I knew yesterday that kids would be safer because of laws on gun control. Isn’t this what you want, Dad? You want guns off the streets, especially because you see first-hand what they do to kids!”
The three sat, staring into their cups as the crowd thinning around them. People began to gather outside. Some carried umbrellas; others carried signs.
“So what do you think? Do you agree with my liberal daughter?” Tim nudged Maddie and smiled.
“’Work hard and you’ll get ahead,’ my abuelo says. Nobody wants a hand-out, just an opportunity. I think America has always strived for greatness, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be greater.” She picked up her newspaper. “I want us to learn from history, not repeat it.”
Tim stared at the navy lettering on his white hat. Tim grabbed a marker from his pocket. Carefully, he added the letters er to Great and drew a line through Again. He placed his redesigned hat on his head. Maddie nodded her approval. “We better get moving,” she said.
Tim extended his hand and smiled to Elisa. “I’ve enjoyed our talk,” he said.
“The pleasure was mine.” Elisa shook Tim’s hand. “Good luck at GW. Let’s intentionally get coffee soon!” she told Maddie.
“Thanks. And maybe I’ll see you tomorrow. Wanna come, Dad?”
Tim winked and placed his arm around Maddie’s shoulder. “Ya never know,” he said.
The three exited the coffee shop. Maddie zipped her jacket against the wind and followed her dad to the right. She turned to see Elisa pause briefly before crossing the street and turning left.
Created: February 7, 2017
Michele Papa is an educator from southern Connecticut. She is fascinated with how personal the political has become, and vise versa. After this election, Michele hopes that we can learn to listen and empathize better. Michele is an avid reader and writer, inside and out of her classroom. When she isn't teaching, she can be found with her family sitting in the sunshine reading, drinking tea, or marveling her cats.