(A prior version of this essay was published in Nasty Women Project: Voices from the Resistance edited by Erin Passons in 2017)
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in the small, rural community of Bernie in southern Missouri. The economy was dependent on farmers who worked the surrounding land, growing cotton, rice, corn and soybeans, blue-collar factory workers who toiled daily in the shoe factory, and employees of the locally-owned mill that made ax handles. My dad, Norm, was a professional portrait photographer, well-known in the area for weddings and family portraits, which placed us in the upper class of this tiny enclave of eighteen hundred people. He was also the municipal judge in our town, which added to his image of success and wealth. Children referred to me as “rich,” and it often angered me, because even at a young age, I knew my social and financial status was one of perception and not reality. I had a good life and I was loved abundantly, but we did not have a large home, a fat bank account, or brand-new cars. My parents had split in a contentious divorce the year before I began kindergarten. My dad and I lived in a small bungalow with my eccentric grandmother Dorothy, a nurse at the town physician’s office, who was beloved by the townspeople, and my kind, but stubborn “granny” Lottie, a homemaker and seamstress. Our home lacked central heat and air and had an outdoor “wash house,” which didn’t seem like something a rich kid would have to endure, so I was truly mystified by the label my friends stuck on me. Going to the wash house in 33 degree weather to get something out of the washer to dry by the wood stove didn’t seem like something the DuPonts were doing up in Delaware.
During elementary school, I became keenly aware that although I was not wealthy, I was fortunate to have more food, clothing and toys than many of my fellow classmates whose parents were unskilled, uneducated and caught in unending cycles of poverty and alcoholism. My dad and grandma spent much of their time quietly offering assistance to members of our community who struggled to find food or warm coats. On any given Thanksgiving or Christmas, we knew that Dorothy would fix plates for the inmates at the city jail, before we got to dig in and eat. I often wondered if some of them didn’t manage an arrest the night before just to get my Granny’s turkey, dressing & cherry pie! One of my favorite memories of my dad is from an especially cold winter, just a few days before Christmas. He called the owner of our local department store and asked him to open one evening because I had come home from school and mentioned that a classmate had no winter coat. Dad bought coats for the whole family, parents included, and we left them on their front porch under the cover of darkness. It was incredible experiencing the warm rush of compassion and kindness that floods your heart when helping someone in need.
Grandma Dorothy was a yellow dog Democrat who regularly sang the praises of FDR & JFK. Her brother, Harold, had worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, founded by FDR & she seemed to think it had helped shape him as a young man. She was also a passionate supporter of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. We kept our floor furnace set on 68 because “Jimmy Carter wants us to, honey,” and I was the only child at school who sported a pair of blue jeans she had embroidered with the names of the Democratic candidates running for office that year, including Carter and Mondale. I looked forward to election day and the three-block drive down to the local fire station with Dorothy, where I would be allowed to accompany her into the curtained tent to mark her straight-ticket ballot for all the candidates I had unwittingly endorsed with my embroidered attire.
Around age twelve, I noticed that my dad’s political views were now somewhat different from those of my grandma and that he held Ronald Reagan in high regard. His business had suffered terribly after his divorce, and he credited Reagan-era economic policies with helping to save it from ruin. I began to feel torn politically as I neared my teenage years. Being a Democrat felt like the more compassionate path to follow, but it seemed everyone around me except my grandma leaned Republican. This was the Bible Belt. The majority of people who lived in and around Bernie were white, Christian and still living in close proximity to the towns where they were born. We did have one Jewish family in town but people never mentioned their religious affiliation, save for a few busybodies who whispered “Well, you know they’re Jewish,” and one woman who was sure the father, a local businessman, had chosen the BLUE Christmas decorations that hung from the light poles lining Highway 25, because, you know, Hanukkah! Christmas is red and green, people! Turns out it was actually MY dad who chose the blue decorations because no one could make up their mind and one thing a Swafford can do is make a decision. I was not exposed to anyone from another country except the mean German woman who yelled at my best friend and me for letting our tennis balls we hit back and forth in the street, go into her yard. She would yell, “Keep outta my yard!! Those balls big as watermelons!!” She had wiry, black hair that was always wildly unkempt, dark eyes and she scared the living shit out of me when she would yell at us. That was my only experience with someone who had immigrated to the U.S., until I went to college. Not one person I grew up with was openly gay either, though there were whispers, as always, in small southern towns. The churches in Bernie were all fundamentalist in their teachings and often used God to justify excluding people who didn’t fit their criteria for “perfect Christian.”
My family differed somewhat in this respect but we were not entirely accepting of others. My grandma and dad helped people local to our area, no matter their circumstances, skin color or religious affiliation, yet they were still reluctant to accept outsiders — people my family had never actually met and who were markedly different in beliefs, traditions or values. On vacation, we would bypass motels with dark-skinned desk clerks in search of places that were “American-owned.” Even today, customer service representatives who speak broken English make some of my family members grow angry and uncomfortable. As accepting as my family was, we had our faults too. I used to call myself an isolationist because I did grow up fearing people who came to this country & I questioned their motives. The Iran Hostage Crisis and terror attacks on planes & in cities overseas certainly influenced my impressionable mind to believe these people were “bad.”
I chose to attend Missouri State University upon graduation from high school because I wanted to believe there was more to experience in life & so much more to learn, not only about others, but about myself. Throwing caution and security to the wind and heading off to a much larger city remains one of the best decisions I have ever made. I knew no one, but I had a full scholarship so my dad was sure I could make it work! Though the university was still in the Bible Belt and a rather homogenous area of the Midwest, I met fellow students from other countries and political science professors of many different faiths, including my first atheist. Who knew atheists weren’t evil? They were just people who held different beliefs than I did! Springfield was a town with a large Vietnamese population and an abundance of Chinese and Mexican restaurants. It wasn’t until college that I ate my first (and definitely not my last) taco. I tried Chinese food, cooked by actual Chinese people, something I could never have experienced in Bernie, Missouri in 1988. I lived in the dorm next to a practicing Buddhist. I had friends who were gay. I knew really, really good people who had abortions. Again, they weren’t evil, just hurting and in situations I could not imagine. I would love to say that by the time I graduated I was an all-loving, compassionate, accepting woman who didn’t rush to judgment of others and who opened my ears to all, but I was still so far from being that woman. And I am still a work in progress. We all are.
I eventually married a hometown boy, Chuck, who was raised two blocks from me in Bernie. Our family backgrounds were similar but he was conservative, having been brought up attending a Southern Baptist church. He listened to Rush Limbaugh and I gave being a conservative Republican my best shot. I agreed with some of the more idealistic ideas of the Republican party but as I grew older and eventually became a mother, I started to feel strongly that life didn’t usually present itself in situations that were conducive to these idealistic concepts. Yes, we should all be drug-free, self-reliant, hard-working people who uphold high standards of personal responsibility one hundred percent of the time, but that isn’t reality. Sometimes people need help & as my children grew older, I was motivated to provide some of that help in an effort to be a good example to them. Hell, sometimes I needed help myself! I found myself envisioning a world where everyone wanted to do their part to help those who had less and found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. I knew this, too, was unrealistic, but I wanted to be an example of unconditional acceptance of others, for my children to see. I wasn’t always successful at this and while I was busy trying, I witnessed the Far Right descend into a state of panic that I felt was rooted in a feeling that they were losing control. Rather than admit that some of their ideas and principles might be harsh and unaccepting, the Right seemed to respond to the Left by spouting baseless conspiracy theories, spewing hate and vitriol and invoking God as a fear tactic to scare people into supporting their platforms. The Republican Party of today was no longer the party it once was and I no longer wanted to be associated with it. The hatred for President Obama was absurd, unfounded and racially-motivated. My dad had changed his political affiliation as well and it was time I joined him. And I absolutely refused to listen to Rush Limbaugh now.
The Presidential election of 2016 was a remarkable turning point for me in my journey to be a better human being. I had secretly voted for Obama in 2012 but wasn’t fully disgusted and empowered to help make real change until the Right chose Donald Trump as their candidate. Nothing I had supported politically in the past made any sense to me. Sometimes the hatred and meanness I saw on television and in my own daily life with my friends and family became almost too much to bear. I had been a Republican in theory but my heart wasn’t in it. I had been a Republican to appeal to people whose opinions no longer mattered to me. And by this time, my husband had come around too. The realization that prejudice and isolationism still prevailed in Bernie struck me hard as I attempted to interact with some of my friends on social media. Facebook became a stressful place to hang out, with fake news and uneducated statements being shared faster than you could read them, often by childhood friends. I became absolutely disgusted by people who supported him and I still am. I have been gaslighted, preached to, prayed for, mocked, lied about and vilified by people in my hometown. And yet, I will continue to speak out.
The town of Bernie has changed tremendously since I left. The shoe factory closed, leaving much of the town jobless for some time. The ax handle factory was sold, and they closed the local mill. The downtown I grew up in became a shell of its former self, with stores closing at a rapid pace. Some people have found jobs in nearby towns, some have moved & others have stayed and exist on the meager existence our social programs provide. Many are disabled. Poverty and drug use are evident as one passes through the once-flourishing community, with homes and buildings falling into ruin. The little home I grew up in was sold and turned into a rental. It quickly fell into such a state of disrepair that it was demolished. I no longer even drive down Mulberry Street because I miss the Mulberry of my childhood. The population has changed a bit, with Latino people moving into the area, often to work at the chicken processing plants. Recently, a Mexican restaurant opened in the old Freeze Queen on the main drag, Highway 25. You can now get a taco in the town where I grew up and travel a few more miles to dine at an Asian buffet. To this day, however, the demographic remains overwhelmingly white and fundamentalist Christian. A neighboring town still has a reputation as being “unwelcoming to Black families.” And most of the same people who eat at the Mexican restaurant, support Trump’s immigration policies. Go figure.
My interactions on social media have shown me that most residents still fear those unlike them and are unwilling to educate themselves about other religions, races and issues facing the country. In my Republican days, I criticized Barack Obama for claiming Midwesterners clung to their guns and religion, but that characterization is astonishingly accurate. One of the hardest things for me to accept during all of the mudslinging and propaganda the election produced was the fact that all that stood between most people and change was a simple admission that they might be wrong. All it takes for change to happen is for someone to hold out their hand to someone in pain and say, “Let me try to see how it feels from your perspective.” These offers of empathy are not happening as they should be. And it’s hard to extend a hand when you’re holding an gun in one and waving a Trump flag with the other.
The compassion I have developed for immigrants who come to our country to contribute and try to make better lives for themselves and their families was inevitable. I grew so weary of my own acquaintances making blanket statements about people that they knew little or nothing about. Then, after the election of 2016, the widespread stories of discrimination and hate began to surface. With each story of a hijab being ripped off or an immigrant being refused service, the anger in me grew. I was inspired to find a way to tell the stories of people who have become marginalized in this country that is supposed to be a melting pot and the “land of opportunity.” I began to notice people around me who were obviously not originally from the United States but in a leap of faith had moved here, and were making a life for themselves and their families. I realized that they were enriching my life too.
I cherish the relationship that has formed between my children and the Eastern Indian owners of our neighborhood convenience store. The owners have watched my children grow through the years, going in to purchase Cokes, chips and Mentos. We shared in their joy a couple years ago when they brought a beautiful baby girl into the world. When I attended the funeral of a boy my daughter’s age who was murdered, I looked over my shoulder to see the owner of the convenience store, dressed in a suit, head hung in sadness, paying his respects to the kid who frequented his store over the years. These are the people I want in my country. These are people I want to get to know better in order to facilitate change and to help others understand that not everyone who comes to the United States is here to do harm. The vast majority of immigrants want to raise their children in a safe nation, free of suicide bombers and war. They want to contribute to our economy, celebrate our successes and feel like this is their home. I want to create an avenue to broadcast their stories of hope and survival.
No one has ever inspired me to do more to help others than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the “nasty women” of the United States. I feel more empowered as a woman and I am sporting a level of confidence in my convictions that was barely present before. My fellow Hillary supporters have lifted me up like no other. It was my hope in 2017 to seek out immigrants and photograph them doing what they do on a daily basis to make the United States a better place for all of us. I wanted to interview them and tell their stories using photography as my outlet. Unfortunately, I have found that in Trump’s America, these people are unwilling to come forward and tell their stories for fear of repercussions and deportation. I won’t give up though and someday this project will be a reality.
Now it’s four years later and we are about to vote again. We have even more at stake in this election and its imperative that those who care about their fellow man, their families, the Black community, the elderly, immigrants, women and children, GET OUT AND VOTE FOR CHANGE! Who knew when I originally penned this essay that we would literally be fighting for our lives as a consequence of the 2016 election? I thought we might be at war, but I didn’t envision a worldwide pandemic, with 230,000 deaths and counting. Incompetence, arrogance and narcissism must be voted out. I didn’t expect the 2016 election to cost me friendships and strained relationships with family. I was also incredibly unaware how little those losses would affect me. As Maya Angelou so famously said, “When people show you who they are, BELIEVE THEM!” I did not realize I would become even more empowered to support candidates and work like hell to get them elected, even candidates in other states, because it’s all important if we are truly to be the UNITED States. A better future does await us and I would challenge you, if you’re afraid to change parties because of your husband, parents, friends, or a fear of the unknown, to have the courage to take that step! Don’t allow yourself to be bullied. We have had enough of that over the past four years. God loves Democrats too. I had an unexpected interaction on Instagram several weeks ago with a friend who jumped on me for supporting Biden. She is a wealthy woman and wanted to know just how much of my 401K I was willing to sacrifice. In that moment, I realized just how little we had in common because my answer was, “If it would bring back all of the lives lost to Covid, I would give it all up. I would live in a trailer the rest of my life if it would make this go away.” And I meant every word. There is no way normal people watch Donald Trump’s actions and think that is ok. I have said forever that you can’t support him unless you just fear making the change, fear admitting you were wrong or you see yourself in him and feel validated. Don’t fear that change. It requires no spine & no courage, to maintain the status quo. If you need support, I’m here for you, likely writing postcards, or texting voters to overturn a Senate seat, but never too busy to welcome a new “snowflake” to the blue side. My children worked hard to help get Hillary elected and were heartbroken on November 8, 2016 when the results rolled in. I don’t know what to tell them, if four years later, after nearly destroying the United States, people go to the polls and decide they’re willing to give Trump four more years to finish destroying it. I want to show my kids that no matter what, our work must not stop and we can all do a small part to continue to pursue the hopes and dreams we had in our hearts as we walked into watch parties that evening in November of 2016. We can’t stop being stronger together just because the electoral vote didn’t go our way. We have to fight all over again in 2020 & keep on fighting if we lose again. I like to think that somewhere, in an embroidered pair of pants, my grandma is looking down at us, beaming proudly.
Go to the polls on Tuesday. Vote for Biden & Harris. Let your voices be heard.