73: Election Day

73: Election Day

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Election Day

Voting is the expression of our commitment to ourselves, one another, this country and this world.

~Sharon Salzberg

Vincenzo Gramenzi, my maternal grandfather, was born in 1887 in Piano Piccolo, a tiny village high in the hills of Abruzzi, Italy. His parents were contadini, tenant farmers who worked the land for the wealthy padrone in exchange for rent and a small portion of the crops they grew. Life was hard and there was little opportunity for improvement. Only landowners had the luxury of pursuing an education, advancing their social standing, or having a voice in their government. The only thing the contadini could look forward to, and the only thing they could offer their children, was more of the same hardscrabble existence. But my grandfather was an industrious young man who dreamed of a life where he could benefit from hard work and have the opportunity to steer his own destiny. Fortunately for him, fate intervened in a very unexpected way.

One day, his older sister Grazielle — the only girl in a family of nine children — went out to buy wine and never came back. My grandfather later learned that she and her boyfriend, a young man the brothers didn’t approve of, had run off to America to be married. Although this incident caused a major family scandal, my grandfather secretly kept in touch with his sister. Through her letters, he learned about a country where he could pursue his dreams — where a person’s future was not limited by the circumstances of his birth. He made up his mind that somehow he would find a way to join his sister in America.

Grazielle offered to sponsor him if he could manage to get to a place called Philadelphia. Defying the odds, he scrimped and saved until he finally scraped together enough money to buy a passage in steerage on the Verona, a trans-oceanic freighter. And so, on a day in early spring, my twenty-four-year-old grandfather left his family and the land of his birth and never looked back. He took with him only his dream of a brighter future and a battered suitcase holding his few possessions. The voyage was long and difficult, but he was sustained by the vision of a land of unlimited opportunity that awaited him at his journey’s end.

When Grandpop arrived in the United States in April of 1911, he dove headfirst into the melting pot and set to work becoming a “Merigan” (American). He moved in with his sister and brother-in-law and took a job as a plumber’s apprentice in order to learn a trade. He struggled to master English, this strange new language that sounded so different from the round, musical tones of his mother tongue. A few years later, after saving every penny, he was able to move to New Jersey and a place of his own. There he met and married a pretty young girl from the neighborhood who went on to bear four daughters and five sons (four of whom later distinguished themselves in battle during World War II). My grandfather now had nine more reasons to want a better life. After much hard work and sacrifice, he started his own plumbing business, a legacy he would eventually pass on to his sons. And on January 9, 1923, Vincenzo Gramenzi officially became a citizen of the United States of America. Now he could even have a voice in his government. He would actually be allowed to vote. His dream had become a reality.

On Election Day, my grandfather set aside his trademark denim overalls and plaid flannel shirt and put on a dark suit, button-down shirt and tie. He had purchased these items especially for this momentous occasion. He donned a porkpie cap and walked proudly to the polls to cast his ballot. A non-smoker, he even bought a single cigar to smoke on the way home. Back at his house, he poured himself a small glass of anisette and drank a toast to his new country. For this one day, he was transformed into something more than Vincenzo the Plumber. He became Vincenzo Gramenzi, American Citizen, an important part of the democratic electoral process. To him, the right to vote was a sacred honor that deserved special recognition. He was to repeat this Election Day ritual without fail for the next fifty-five years, until Alzheimer’s stole him away from the voting booth.

I was about five years old when I first became aware of Grandpop’s Election Day tradition. Surprised to see him in his suit, hat and tie, I asked him why he was so dressed up. He sat me on his lap and, with a twinkle in his eye, explained that today he was going to “pick-a da presidente,” a man named “Icenhower.” I can still remember the pride in his voice as he explained to me, in his broken English, how important this was and how honored he felt to be a part of it.

My grandfather’s story isn’t much different from that of millions of other immigrants who came to the shores of America “yearning to breathe free.” But it is a uniquely American story, one that bears telling, especially at a time when the average voter turnout in a presidential election is not much more than fifty percent. Maybe we need to be reminded that not everyone is fortunate enough to have a voice in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This precious right was hard won.

So, each Election Day, I think of Grandpop. And if my life seems too hectic to take time out to go to the polls, or if I’m not really crazy about any of the candidates, or if I think that my single vote is too insignificant to matter, I picture him in his dark suit, tie, and porkpie hat. And I go “pick-a da presidente” or senator or governor or mayor or zoning board member because I understand that the right to vote is a priceless gift that must never be taken for granted — an invaluable lesson I learned at my grandfather’s knee.

~Jackie Minniti

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