I call my grandmother every evening, as I leave the office and head to the subway. At 102, Belle Littenberg is the revered matriarch of our small family: She’s generous, indomitable, beloved.
Grandma Belle was born in Brooklyn, New York City, in 1914, a few months shy of the outbreak of World War I. Six years before the 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women. In 1936, she joined the thousands of white women who could truly exercise that right, when she cast her first vote in 1936, to reelect Franklin Roosevelt as president.
She met her husband as a camp counselor in upstate New York, and spent much of the Second World War living on an Army base with him in Jim Crow Mississippi, where he worked as a dentist. They returned to Brooklyn, where my mother and aunt were born in quick succession during the baby boom of the early 1950s.
And then, just a few years later, her husband died. Belle found herself a widow and a single mother of two, her livelihood – keeping the books at my grandfather’s practice – suddenly gone. She became a public school teacher, for the schedule, the pension and because of limited options that a married woman faced (even one with a Bachelor’s degree). She also wanted to be of service and spent years teaching and working as a guidance counselor. Belle fell in love with a math teacher and married him, adding two stepchildren to her brood.
As her daughters grew up and prepared to leave their home in Long Island, New York City, a new feminist movement was brewing, hinting at the monumental shifts that would soon arrive. A cascade of legal and cultural changes that would begin reshaping the nation, opening up opportunities for a new generation that were barely imaginable when Belle was a girl. Soon women would take to the streets, raging against their restraints, demanding their fair share. Belle watched as her daughters reaped the benefits of this brave new world, sat in the audience as my mother became one of the first few hundred women to graduate from Yale. She watched, she worked, she was widowed yet again.
Belle retired from teaching and began volunteering, playing more bridge and taking more trips, but still determined to serve. One of the things she likes least about old age is that she can no longer volunteer. “I feel as though I still have something I can contribute,” she told me, shortly after turning in 102 May.
In the 1980s, grandchildren arrived, all five of them girls, all five of them born into a world of post-Second Wave feminism. We grew up taking for granted rights and opportunities our mothers had marched for, imagining giant lives for ourselves in a way that Belle wasn’t permitted. My sister and I were raised on the other side of the world, and my family made annual trips to Belle’s house off Rockaway Turnpike, where my sister and I put on dance performances on the pea-green shag carpet and got to know our mom’s mother.
When I moved from Australia to America’s East Coast over a decade ago, I relished my new proximity to Belle – what a luxury to be able to visit her whenever I want, and without spending 20 hours on a plane. There are no dance performances now. Instead, I cook her dinner, and we play Scrabble. She is fiercely competitive, and keeps a list of obscure two- and three-letter words tucked inside her official Scrabble dictionary. My grandmother is unafraid of playing filthy words, and once beat my father at the 11th hour by scooping up a triple word score for one with an F (four points), a C (three points), and a K (5 points).
In April last year, I sat with Grandma Belle and watched her witnessing Hillary Clinton announce on television that she was launching a campaign to become the first woman to be president of the United States.
I hadn’t planned the visit to coincide with the campaign launch but, sitting on my grandmother’s bed as the crowd on Roosevelt Island cheered and waved, I was grateful for the fortuitous timing.
As the primaries wore on, I asked her who she’d be voting for. And she said she was backing the woman who was once her senator. “Because she’s very well-qualified,” Belle said. “She’s been in government and knows what goes on in politics. And she’s a woman.”
It has been unexpectedly moving for me to watch Clinton run, but in hindsight, it makes sense that her candidacy struck the emotional chord it did. She’s a woman of my mother’s vintage, who, like my mom, has spent her life navigating a sexist culture, changing herself in the ways she must in order to make the change she wishes to see.
When Clinton keeps her cool answering a condescending question, I’m reminded that my mother has spent decades honing the same skill. When Clinton smiles through an insult from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, I recognize her expression, that pleasant and well-practiced mask concealing what I can only assume is righteous, rightful fury. I see my mother. Belle sees her daughter. “She’s like your mother,” she told me a few days after the final presidential debate. “She’s tough. She’s not taking anything from him.”
Clinton’s performances in the debates have particularly impressed Belle and Trump’s attempts to belittle, while dominate his way through the three head-to-heads has unnerved her. The evening after the second debate, we talked about how Trump had prowled the stage, crowded into Clinton’s space and into every camera shot he could. Belle was in awe that the former New York senator could continue articulating policy positions despite such sinister distractions.
As Nov. 8 draws near, and Clinton’s chances of winning rise to near-certain levels, my daily calls with Belle have become increasingly tinged with excitement and exhilaration. And with pride. “I’m so proud that after all this time, we’re going to do this,” she told me last week. “I have waited for this for so long.” A few weeks ago, she proudly voted for Clinton and mailed in her ballot. “She’s not perfect,” she told me. “But I know she’ll do a good job.”
On election night, I’ll make the journey out to her place yet again ― this time, the timing is deliberate ― and we’ll raise a glass to the end of a bitter campaign, and, hopefully, the beginning of a new American era.
Belle didn’t think she’d live to see a woman elected to the White House, and she’s had to live an exceptionally long life in order to witness it. She has watched as the world has changed around her – as wars remade maps and movements swept the nation, as we celebrated one milestone of progress after another. She remembers the progressive activist Frances Perkins, who became FDR’s Secretary of Labor. She remembers Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. She remembers the pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk. She witnessed Sandra Day O’Connor be appointed to the Supreme Court, Madeleine Albright become secretary of state and President Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief.
On the night of Nov. 8, she hopes she’ll be watching another first, as Clinton wins the White House. And I’ll get to witness that.