My sister-in-law brought recently brought me a box of mementoes my brother Tim had saved. In it, I found a heavy curved, metal band about 3” long and ½” wide. In gold letters on black, it says BRAKEMAN. Protruding from the top of the band is the symbol NP in red and gold. What…?
Jack looked over my shoulder. “It goes on the trainman’s hat.”
Then I remembered. Before he qualified to be a Northern Pacificd Conductor, Grandpa Nesmith was a Brakeman…
~ ~ ~
The train was due any minute, and it was always on time because my Grandpa Nesmith was the Conductor. When he pulled his big round railroad watch from his watch pocket, and yelled “All Aboard,” people knew they’d better be on board, or they’d be left behind, because the trains always ran on time. I hopped from one foot to the other, until Mama jerked my hand and said, “For mercy sake, Judy, settle down!”
She didn’t have to hold Wes’s hand. He stood quietly by her side, eleven years old and knew his manners. He held Jenny’s hand, and Timmy’s. They were six and three.
The train rushed into the station with its deafening noises, the whistle, the roar and the hiss of escaping steam. But my excitement wasn’t about the train, it was because I had turned eight that week, and Grandma was on that train with a special surprise just for me.
Grandma Mildred swooped off the train with two large carpet bags, crowing and chirping the way she did—she sounded just like a bird, the sounds she made. She wore a wool coat with one large button barely fastened across her ample bosom, and a smooth tilted hat with a feather that curved down her face.
“What’s my surprise, what’s my special surprise?” I danced from one foot to the other.
Timmy yanked on her coat. “Do I get a s’prise?”
Grandma leaned down to kiss him. “You’ll see—as soon as I unpack my bags.”
At home, Grandma pulled surprises out of her worn carpet bag, a small wooden train for Timmy, a cloth doll for Jenny, and a spiral-bound notebook for Wes.
I pulled the bag over and looked inside. I saw no more little presents. “Where’s my surprise?”
She laughed. “Let me get my coat off, for goodness sake!”
Grandma reached into the bag and pulled out a square blue tablecloth and a lacy white tablecloth. Rummaging into the bag again, she came up with a small corked bottle: Perfection Concentrated Coloring BLUE. Blue. My favorite color. And a small box of white birthday candles, with a drawing on the front of a fairy with lots of long curly hair, using her magic wand to light candles on a cake.
“I’m starting a tradition!” Grandma crowed. “Since you are my first granddaughter, you get to be the first to have a Coming of Eight Party. Jenny will be next, in a couple of years.” Turning to Mama, she asked, “Where’s your card table?”
Grandma spread the blue cloth then the lacy cloth over the card table, the blue twinkling through the lace. She baked my favorite vanilla cake, and used the blue food coloring in the icing. It took a lot, because I wanted a really blue cake.
The only people invited to my Coming of Eight party were me, Mama, and Grandma. Daddy took the other kids to the library in Astoria during the party, so we could have a grownup conversation, like Grandma said.
Sipping milky, sweet weak tea from a flowered china cup, I had the undivided attention of both my mother and my grandmother for the first time in my life. I asked what I figured was a grownup question. “President Truman will come through here on the train to get people to vote for him again for President, but Daddy says Mr. Dewey is going to win anyway. Is that who you’re going to vote for, Grandma? Mr. Dewey?”
Mama beamed at me. She looked proud, and maybe a little bit surprised. Grandma glanced at Mama, then showed her buck teeth in a grin. “Ever since Women’s Suffrage, I have only voted for Democrats. So I’m voting for Give-‘em-Hell Harry.” Her grin grew wider, saying that forbidden swear word.
“What’s Women’s Suffrage?” I asked. Grandma had taught school briefly before she got married. She knew a lot of big words. She leaned forward, her dark eyes sparkling. Every time she did that, I knew I would learn something.
“Suffrage is the right to vote in elections and run for public office. Until 1920 only men had those privileges. Your mother was three years old before I was finally allowed to vote like a real person.” She clattered her teacup into its saucer. “Until then, women were simply the property of men, with few rights of their own.”
“Do you remember the first time you voted for President, Grandma?”
“I’ll never forget it. It was 1924, and I voted for the Democratic candidate, Mr. Davis. The Republicans won anyway, and we got President Coolidge. But at least I could finally cancel out your Grandpa’s vote, for the first time. Canceling him out with my vote was the only power I had.” Her bird-call laugh held a smug, triumphant glee. “And my vote helped to elect President Roosevelt eight years later.” She dabbed at her mouth with a white paper napkin.
Mama entered the conversation. “Why did Dad always vote Republican?”
“Because he belonged to the railroad union,” Grandma said, “and President Cleveland used the Army to break a railroad union strike. Cleveland was a Democrat. That was one of the reasons Frank always voted Republican after that.”
[What I didn’t know until many years later was that my grandfather was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which campaigned against Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 election. I learned it, those many years later, from my mother, who told me of her father and uncle coming home from “meetings” and scaring her by putting on black hoods with eye holes. I then researched it and learned that the KKK had been very active on the Northern Oregon Coast and other parts of Oregon in the Twenties. And yes, they wore black hoods.]
Grandma poured Mama another cup of tea. “More cake, dear?” she asked me.
“No thanks,” I said, “I want to know about that First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She writes for newspapers and gives speeches. Mama really likes her.”
“I wish it had been Eleanor Roosevelt running,” Grandma said. “I’d have voted for her. “She’d have been a fine President.”
“But could a woman be President?” I asked.
Mama set down her cup, slopping tea into her saucer. “Of course a woman could be President. Before I die, I plan to vote for a woman for President. It could be you.”
Me? Me? I could imagine a lot of things I might be able to do, maybe be an aircraft pilot like Amelia Earhart, or a newspaper reporter like Brenda Starr in the comics. But President?
I looked back and forth between Grandma and Mama. Tried to imagine either one of them as President of the United States. It was easier to imagine my Mama as Bess Truman, who was kind of pretty. Or Grandma as Eleanor Roosevelt, who wasn’t. Grandma looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrapped her dark hair around her head in a thick braid, and she had those same buck teeth.
I’d rather be First Lady, I thought. Who would even want to be President? They had to start wars and people called them names, and President Roosevelt died of a heart attack from all the worry. Then President Truman had to end the war, and those atom bombs must have made him feel awful about all those Japanese children who died.
But voting—yes, I could handle that.
I’d only vote for women.