Politics & Policy

The Morning After The Night Before

There’s a creaking sound, and the bedroom door opens. “Mummy?” It is Molly. She studies my face for a moment, her expression grave. “Did we win?”

Outside a sudden gust of cold wind whips at the few golden leaves still clinging to a maple tree on the street. Inside, inert and exhausted, I scarcely dare answer.

“Provisionally,” I croak, in a voice from the crypt.

Molly climbs in next to me and snuggles under the blankets. From upstairs come the smothered sounds of singing and reproach as the other children get dressed; from downstairs rises the smell of coffee. My legs feel like Jimmy Hoffa’s must have, at the end.

“So, who took California?” she asks, woman-to-woman. I tell her. “And New York?” I tell her. “What about Maine?” I tell her.

That doesn’t sound good,” Molly says worriedly. “What about Texas?” I tell her, and she gives a little cheer.

“Phoebe!” Paris yells irritably from upstairs.

“The thing is, in Ohio…” I trail off, too fatigued to explain.

There’s a thumping from the hallway. Phoebe’s song gets louder and more distinct as she passes.

Gray squirrel, gray squirrel, swish your bushy tail…

“Stop singing,” Paris calls from the top landing. “It’s annoying.”

Gray squirrel, gray squirrel…” the songster presses on as oblivious as a tank rumbling past a hitchhiker. “Swish your bushy tail…

“Don’t worry, Mummy,” Molly says comfortably, tucking the sheets under my chin. Abruptly she switches topics and her manner becomes guarded. “Doesn’t Paris have to wear white socks?”

“I don’t know that it matters,” I reply, climbing past her out of bed on to feet that feel like cartoon anvils. In passing, I wonder what campaign Molly has launched about socks and why she wants me to commit preemptively to an opinion of what color her brother’s should be, but mostly I am wondering what is wrong with me. Have I ever been this tired before?

I drag myself upstairs to Paris’s room and find him half-dressed and half-crying with frustration. “Now I’ve got that stupid squirrel song in my head,” he says, “and I can’t find any white socks!”

“You don’t need white socks,” I say, “Wear blue.”

“But Molly says I do.”

“Molly is talking nonsense,” I shoot back.

“Don’t get mad at me–”

“No, no, darling, sorry,” I recover in a softer voice. “It’s just–”

“Oh yeah,” he says soberly, and then brightens. “Did we win?”

“I think so,” I say, “But until we’re sure….” And I get one of those sickening waves of adrenaline that have been washing over me, and perhaps over you, during the last week.

“I am sure. The math doesn’t work for the Democrats,” says my husband some time later, when we are all assembled for breakfast. The front page of the newspaper has photographs of Bushies rejoicing at Election Night parties; I gaze at it pole-axed and disbelieving.

The phone is ringing and in the kitchen I can hear my husband taking calls from various jubilant friends of ours, but sitting here with my coffee I am still so fearful of the election’s being marred by last-minute ersatz claims of “disenfranchisement” or “voter intimidation” that I can’t kick the habit of low-level panic. I feel like the corpse at a joyful, whiskey-soaked wake.

Grey squirrel…” Phoebe begins softly, with a sidelong glance at her brother.

Violet puts down her spoon. “Mummy,” says she in thrilled and mysterious tones, “Now can we send You Know What to You Know Who?”

“Once we know,” I say, forcing a smile. “By the way, it’s ‘whom.’”

“Whom,” says Violet. After school on Election Day, she gathered up all the American-flag paper plates left over from our bipartisan bake sale and decorated the backs. She drew princesses and towers and other faintly medieval emblems on most of them, but on to one she has painstakingly taped sequins and sparkles and pumpkin seeds; she plans to mail this festive object to President Bush.

“Darling, we do know.”

“Will someone please tell Phoebe not to sing–”

“What about Hawaii?” Molly asks.

“Phoebs,” I say, “Please don’t sing at the table.”

“…swish your bushy tail!” Phoebe finishes with a brilliant smile, and innocently picks up her toast. Thus are tiny victories won over siblings.

“Hawaii went for Kerry,” says my husband. “Meg, are you all right?”

“So…tired….” I tell him, lifting my face off the plate. “I think I’m suffering a post-election, post-traumatic Nervous Anxiety Collapse,” I explain, realizing as I say it that it’s the case. In an aisle-crossing moment of empathy, I feel a brief pang for the woman at our school who drives a car exactly the color and model of mine but with bumper stickers declaring her a Mother Opposed to Bush. I bet she can’t swallow her toast this morning, either.

“For some reason when people think of Hawaii, at least in my case,” Paris puts in, “they think of the hula”–he pauses to wriggle hula-like in his chair–”and tropical waters, and volcanoes, and that kind of thing.”

My husband and I grin at each other. “Um, why do you mention it?” I ask, and feel the fearful weight on my heart shift a little.

“I don’t know,” he replies, shrugging amiably. “It’s just when someone said Hawaii, I kind of did the hula.”

A few minutes later, on our way out the door, I take Molly aside. “By the way,” I murmur, “why today of all days have you decreed that Paris should wear white socks?”

She looks abashed, and girds herself. “There’s a real reason,” she says, “and a sneaky reason–”

“I knew it!”

“Promise you won’t get mad?”

I promise. “Well,” she says softly, “The principal once pointed to one boy’s white socks and said those were the sort of socks all the boys should wear.”

I smile ruefully to help her along, the way women do when they are trying to pry damaging gossip out of each other. “It is also true,” Molly admits, “that Paris was about to take the last clean pair of blue socks. And I wanted to wear them.”

That afternoon, reanimated by John Kerry’s concession speech and gleeful despite John Edwards’s threat to “keep fighting,” I fetch the children just as President Bush is making his victory speech. The MOB car is sufficiently far ahead in the carpool line that I feel able to leave the windows open even though the radio is blasting as I pull up to load in the children. Several teachers beam at me; one gives me a covert thumbs-up.

“Mummy, there was such a scene!” Molly cries, fizzing with excitement as she drags her ten-ton backpack into the car. “In one class, the teacher was really upset, and a girl threw up, and one boy burst into tears because he thought he was going to be drafted into the army!”

Now can we send You Know What to–?”

“What’s ‘drafted’?” Paris asks.

“It means you have to become a soldier if you’re old enough,” I say, pulling away from the curb.

“Oh,” says he, “Even girls?”

“And in our class,” Molly continues, “one girl walked around muttering, “We’re all going to die!” She laughs, and then turns sober. “Actually I think that boy cried because he said his uncle was fighting in Iraq, and another boy said, “So?”

“No one is drafting anyone,” I say, “Except at our house, to set the table. Yes, we will send the plate to President Bush, darling. What about the rest of your class?”

“Half was miserable,” Molly replies gaily. “The other half was totally happy.”

At that moment, in the rear-view mirror, I see Violet and Phoebe smirk at each other. There is a pause and then, as if on cue, they begin: “Gray squirrel, gray squirrel…

“Aw, no!” Paris yells from the back, “Not that song!”

Swish your bushy tail…

“Hey,” Paris suddenly realizes, and is mollified: “Its bushy tail. Get it? Bush-y? Cool.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.


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