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Conversations with my 104-year-old feminist grandma about Hillary Clinton

Sally Peterson

This is awkward. Anyone who has ever come into contact with my opinionated, sassy 104-year-old grandma feels inspired by her women’s empowerment shtick. One doesn’t even have to ask a prompting question — she’ll just launch into her signature pontification about how the need is dire for more of us, us women, to enter into positions of power.

Seated on her “throne” (a rocking chair) in her “music room” (the office where the TV is) “ensconced in [her] castle,” the home in Silver Spring, Maryland, she has lived in since 1959 (and still lives in today with live-in assistance), she preaches about how the United States of America needs women to take charge and lead our great nation.

“We live in this mad, mad world, where a woman could do no worse than the muck of a mess men have long done,” she’s repeated countless times to me, her only granddaughter, and the only grandchild who calls her nearly every day to gab. (I split my time between New York City and Los Angeles, and she loves to ask where I am, envisioning the easy clichés: “Are you on Broadway? Fifth Avenue? Sunset Boulevard? Beverly Hills?” she rattles off.)

“You see, we have more compassion. We listen. And we only have ourselves to blame for this weather. It's the people who did this, and they have to stop. But they won't. That's why we need a woman president! She wouldn't mess this planet up any worse than it already is. She won’t want to kill and [have] war. It is in our nature to nurture. We need women in power.”

Except not Hillary Clinton. She can’t stand Hillary Clinton.

Don’t get me wrong; she’s got bupkis in the way of love for the Donald. Rather, she voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary election. Prior to that, armed with scissors and a magnifying glass (she refuses to wear her reading glasses), she’d carefully cut out articles about Elizabeth Warren and other pioneering women she’d discover featured in the paper. She’d then send the clippings by snail mail to my Aunt Audrey and me — fellow registered Democrats.

A voracious reader, she scours the Washington Post while sipping her plain hot water and noshing on cookies and peppermints (her secret to such superager longevity). She’s a loyal supporter of current President Barack Obama, and utterly dazzled by the intellect, compassion, grace, and style of first lady Michelle Obama.

"I would like to sit in the same room where the president is and the important people who come to talk to him,” she said.

“I just want to listen, and then Obama, he'll turn to me, the little old biddy in the corner, and ask for my thoughts. And I’ll tell him; I’ll speak plain mamaloshen to him. I’ll tell him I speak for the elderly and I'll give my opinion. We all want the same things, all races, colors, and creeds. They don't even have to pay me.”

“This is going to be our first time having a woman president, I know this! But I don’t like that it’s going to be her.”

Estelle Celia Levine, née Berstein, born September 11, 1912, in Lynn, Massachusetts, has championed women on the regular — at least out loud and proud — for the past seven years. That’s the stretch of time I’ve been documenting our phone and in-person conversations to share on Facebook and Instagram with her growing legion of fans.

But back to that awkwardness. Yes, she wants women in positions of power, but, well, this 104-year-old feminist has her limitations, and Hillary Clinton apparently is one of them. All that female, hear me roar touting ends quite abruptly with HRC.

“This is going to be our first time having a woman president, I know this!” she argues. “I know! I am the one who can remember when women got the right to vote. I remember looking out the window ... and seeing women marching in the streets.

“But I don’t like that it’s going to be her. That’s all. She doesn’t need my vote. She will win because she’s the one with the most money.”

Estelle Levine, the author’s grandmother.
Courtesy of Shira Levine

She reverts to a sexist way of thinking — harping on Clinton’s husband’s transgressions, claiming “she has no political experience besides being first lady” and that it was “her husband who got her those jobs.” My sweet bubbeleh hypocritically and conveniently forgets that HRC served eight years as a New York senator and then four years as secretary of state — that she has decades of experience.

And she holds Secretary Clinton to a standard she doesn’t apply with such outraged vehemence to men. “Benghazi. Emails. She’s a liar,” she maintains. These single-worded arguments are possibly the result of accidentally messing with the remote control and periodically ending up with Fox News, the only clear picture on her TV.

“I did everything my mother told me to do — unlike you do, Shira”

My bubbeleh has been voting since her vote helped reelect Franklin D. Roosevelt president in 1936 — the fifth election women were legally allowed to vote in under the 19th Amendment. She’s voted in all 20 elections in total.

Yet her outspoken, cheeky personality didn’t emerge until after my Grandpa Harry passed away in July 2001. Like many women of my grandmother’s generation, she didn’t reveal her spunk until she was free to not give AF. That took 88 years. She was a late bloomer. As an only child, my bubbeleh first lived in service to her mother, and then to her husband when she married just shy of 28 years old, a spinster. She dedicated 61 years of her life to doting on my grandfather, my father, and my aunt.

But as the years passed following my grandpa’s death, this Queen Levine emerged with uninterruptible fire, all this opinion fueled in part by the daytime wisdom of her goddesses: Oprah, Tyra, Ellen, and Judge Judy. She was smitten with Dr. Oz and recited random details about his life and his mother as if he were a longtime neighbor to anyone who would listen.

Family and friends gush about what a vivacious lady my bubbeleh is, and she milks it. She loves the attention, but she always follows with a feigned humility: “This is all an act, I tell you! I'm just pretending. I'm really shy inside. I'm just an actress, and the world is my stage.”

It’s been fun witnessing her blossom into this firecracker who would rather exercise her mouth than get off her rocking chair to get the blood circulating. It’s like she’s making up for all that time she kept silent.

But I wonder if perhaps her long tenure as a dutiful daughter and wife explains her inability — despite her liberal leanings and Democratic Party membership — to view Clinton in a favorable light. She simply never had the forum to express her opinion. If we are to talk about regrets, she admits she wanted to be a nurse and care for people as her career, something she still brings up longingly today. Unfortunately, her mother, my great-grandmother, shot down that idea, and she listened.

“Look, I was a very goody-goody girl,” she’d tell me. “I did everything my mother told me to do — unlike you do, Shira.”

“Do you think maybe you are a bit envious of Hillary because she did what she wanted professionally and personally?”

Since I get my current youthful nerve from her elder nerve, I ask, “Do you think maybe you are a bit envious of Hillary because she did what she wanted professionally and personally?”

GRANDMA: You think I’m jealous of her? No.

ME: Well, it takes a lot of courage to do it all, particularly for women in her age group. Haven’t you read articles where they talk about breaking the glass ceiling for women?

GRANDMA: Whaaaat? (She squawks these “what’s” like a Woody Allen impersonation of an old Jewish lady who is hard of hearing and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say — both, in her case.)

ME: Don’t you admire what she’s achieved? Or feel envious?

GRANDMA: She has a lot of nerve is what I think. I guess you could say I am envious of her nerve. I don’t like how she said she just wants to be a grandmother and then she became a grandmother and now she wants to go to the White House.

ME: Why can’t she have both?

GRANDMA: It just doesn’t seem like something someone her age should be bothering with.

Whatever. I’m not afraid of letting my bubbeleh know how ludicrous and utterly contradictory it is for her to make pronouncements about what Hillary can and can’t do. And so despite our seven-decade age difference, I call her out on it.

“Honestly, the only person I want to vote for is me”

When she threatened not to vote at all, to not participate in the 2016 election, I felt the need to get tough. Her inspirational support of women in power was not about to be killed by a hateful reality star who speaks in punctuated catchphrases that he trademarks.

ME: Listen, sistah.

GRANDMA: I’m not your sistah, McGee.

ME: You have to vote. It’s your right. Don’t be a hypocrite.

GRANDMA: If I don’t vote, the vote will still go to her. I don’t care for either one of them. They are the hypocrites and two-faced. I don’t like either of them. I liked that one from Massachusetts. She didn’t have terrible stuff about her past. Elizabeth Warren is her name. She didn’t have the money, so she had to bow out. That’s all it takes, is money.

ME: You still have to pick someone.

GRANDMA: I don’t even want to talk about it. It gets my blood boiling. He is vulgar. Doesn’t know his tuchis from his pupik. I don’t want to talk about her. She did a lot of things I am not happy about. Her husband is going to be there in the shadows. She giggles too much. I want her to have more of a straight face.

ME: What happened to all that talk, talk, talk, talk of women needing to be in power, that they can’t do worse than men already have?

GRANDMA: Women have to be more in politics than they are. Women have a different outlook on life. There aren’t enough women lawyers or judges. It doesn’t have to be just the president.

ME: So you want Donald Trump?

GRANDMA: Don’t put words in my mouth. He should be put in a Mexican prison. That Trump, he's a joke. Don’t you see all he wants is to be on TV? He doesn’t want this job. He just wants to win. He criticizes other people about the very things he’s guilty of. He’s like a little boy. He wants everyone to say what's wrong with Clinton, but he has all these [wives], all these children from all kinds of women. I don't want to tell anyone how to live, but even I can see that he wants to talk about everyone all the time, but he doesn't want to talk about what he does. And everybody's afraid to say something because nobody wants to get sued.

ME: So you want Hillary?

GRANDMA: Listen, everybody's got their mishegoss. Absolutely, positively, but honestly the only person I want to vote for is me, because all I know is what I would do as president.

ME: Now you want to be president?

GRANDMA: Whaaaat? No. But I’ll tell you this. No one is going to vote for a man who charges $800 a night for a hotel room in the District.

“I always found President Johnson attractive”

Recently my bubbeleh and I were chatting and she became fixated on rehashing Bill Clinton’s affairs.

ME: Grandma, Bill Clinton isn’t running; his wife is.

GRANDMA: I know, but I told you, he’ll be in the shadows. He will want his hands in everything and everyone. You know [Monica Lewinsky] was a nice Jewish girl with a father for a doctor. She wasn't innocent. It wasn't the first time, and look what happened — she ended up with semen on her dress because he sat at a very open desk. She had to leave the country, and now she's in her mid-40s and unmarried.

ME: What does that have to do with anything? She was young and impressionable. I’m sure it was thrilling.

GRANDMA: Well, I always found President Johnson attractive. His wife, Lady Bird, wasn't much to look at, but he was most famous for his Texas chili. I really like chili. Very delicioso. You can get it in a can and just heat it up in the microwave, just like that. You should consider making chili for dinner once in a while. It’s just beans, and they are good for your heart.

Then there was a strange moment when my bubbeleh seemed to sort of defend Donald Trump, so I decided to try a little blunt, if not vulgar, redirecting love.

ME: How's it going, Sweetcheeks?

GRANDMA: What did I tell you about not calling me that? I don't have sweet cheeks. They're gone.

ME: Where'd they go?

GRANDMA: How am I supposed to know? They've sunken in down somewhere.

ME: What do you think about the news of how Donald Trump was bragging about how he can just grab any woman he wants by the vagina?

GRANDMA: I think he must have learned to be this way when he was very young, and no one taught him otherwise.

ME: But that's no excuse for violating or talking about violating a woman when he's an adult man with daughters and granddaughters. It's not very Christian.

GRANDMA: Who said he's a Christian? Maybe he is influenced; maybe he sees those countries where they mutilate and kill women for less as an example.

“I told you I’m not voting. I feel I voted when I voted in the primaries for Old Man Sanders.”

As it turns out, my bubbeleh has already voted. Like many women roughly of her age, she voted early. At 104, she votes from home — absentee. She stuck with the issues that align with her core beliefs, stayed true to her party, and ultimately did vote at the top of the ballot, for Hillary.

Yet now when I call her to talk politics, news, love, and work, she maintains she hasn’t voted yet. She sticks with her threats that she’s still not sure if she even will. She is witty and sharp — she calls me out on most things I promise and follows up on whatever plans I had the day or night before, demanding recaps — so I have a hard time believing she forgot about voting in this very contentious, historic election.

Rather, this seems more like some very, very selective memory loss. Like her selective hearing that reappears when I shout: “Can you please wear a hearing aid?!”

GRANDMA: No, I don’t need one. I’m too vain. It’s for old people, and I can hear you perfectly.

ME: Did you send your ballot in yet?

GRANDMA: I told you, I’m not voting. I feel I voted when I voted in the primaries for Old Man Sanders.

ME: Oh, Mom said you already voted absentee. Dad came over and helped you.

GRANDMA: Ohhh, no I didn’t. No way, Jose. I didn’t vote. My vote doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about something different. How’s the weather? Where are you? Hollywood? Broadway?

Shira Levine is a storyteller who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. She mostly tells travel, small business, and popular culture stories. She has a monthly real estate column with Modern Luxury's Manhattan magazine, and a culinary destination column in Accent and Forum magazines. Shira also consults as a communications expert and project manager for the United Nations, where she specializes in dignity, human rights, and sustainable development with a focus on youth and aging populations. She is developing a half-hour comedy about some of the above.

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