(Kathy's Got a Sharp Knife!)
I was four years old the first time I went door-to-door canvassing. My mom was running for city council. This story has become such a staple of family lore that it’s difficult to distinguish between what I remember and what I remember imagining when I listened to my mom tell the story.
In my memory, it’s a warm fall afternoon of dappled sunlight. I’m walking next to my mom as she knocks on doors and drops literature printed at the copy shop in the small shopping center of our suburban Kansas City town. Toward the end of our quiet street, an older woman answers the door to her house--it’s one of two on our street that was painted olive green. I had a vague bad feeling about the completely unconnected neighbors who lived in these olive homes.
The next part I know I don’t remember, but I’ve heard it many times. When the woman answered the door, I held up my rag doll, Kathy (named for the comic, of course--this was 1986). Through clenched teeth I hissed something I’d heard my plastic Donald Duck toy--which I still remember very clearly--with a pull-string say: achidachit! This, I understood translated to “easy does it,” something my dad’s mom also said, often, I assume, when I was interacting with the kind of household item that might be dangerous for a small child. “Achidachit!” I said, “Kathy’s got a sharp knife.”
My mom lost that election, and she often joked that the wide-eyed woman behind the door of her olive green house must have spread the word in town that Diane Parrish’s daughter was threatening to knife people with her rag doll.
Later, in 2004, a time that feels closer to the present but I realize now was actually closer to my preschool days, I got a job as a canvasser for John Kerry in the summer of 2004. Technically, I worked for Grassroots Campaigns which had been hired by the DNC to manage the door-to-door fundraising in the run up to the election.
I was very bad at my job and always afraid I was going to get fired. We had to bring in at least $200 a day, of which $50 went to our salary. We made 10% commission on anything above that. If we didn’t make our quota for two nights we could be fired.
I hated knocking on strangers’ doors and asking them for money. I hated the canned speech I had to give. I hated starting conversations that lead to contentions, emotional, or hostile exchanges about abortion or Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War. I hated interrupting dinner, catching a glimpse of a peaceful, happy family, tired from a warm summer day in the moment before I rang their bell with a crass request for money. More than once I had to call my parents, my aunts and uncles, my friends’ parents, to see if they might be interested in making even a $5 donation so that at least I would not go back to the office with an empty sheet.
But, sometimes that job was good. I worked with smart, funny, quirky people, who, mostly like me, hadn’t really known what to do after college beyond a vague notion of wanting to do something “good.” I met my first boyfriend at that job. I got to know intimately the neighborhoods of Chicago that I’d only passed through on the El and the suburbs I’d zipped through in the team van on the way to a college track meet. I got to be outside most of the day, and on the rare occasions when I made quota early, I could walk peacefully, doing what we called “cherry-picking”--the forbidden practice of skipping the houses with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers or military insignia on the door and going right up to the porch decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, a Subaru in the driveway, or an Obama for Senate lawn sign.
At the end of the summer, when the DNC figured its work collecting money and names (really the names were the valuable part) from reliably blue zip codes in and around Chicago was done, we canvassers were abruptly without work. Many of us applied for jobs with other progressive organizations or with the DNC itself organizing voters in swing states. My boyfriend and I got jobs in West Virginia, which it seems strange now anyone was considering a swing state, and after that began proving futile, we and the other field staff were dispersed again, the two of us driving just over the Ohio River to Meigs County, Ohio.
Because these rural Appalachian towns were generally more spread out, and because our main purpose was to maximize voter turnout, and the blueprint for doing that was, at that time, more about organizing than canvassing. We were meant to recruit volunteers and meet with local organizers, state-level politicians and civic organizations and work together to get voters rides to the polls, to be sure long-time Democrats knew their polling locations, and to offset the persistent notion that Kerry wasn’t the kind of candidate that Appalachian voters ought to be supporting.
I showed up for my first day at an office that would never be wired for broadband internet wearing a shirt I’d bought at the Anthropologie in downtown Chicago, driving the foreign car my parents had passed on to me, still with its Connecticut plates. I was the wrong person for that job personally, culturally, and professionally. I was obsessed with the possibility that my boyfriend and I might break up after the election. I liked John Kerry not in spite of what came off as New England elitism but because that brand of authority seemed like the Platonic Ideal of Presidential. I had never organized anything more complicated than a track team road trip or a summer camp game of red rover.
On a few Sunday afternoons, I’d walk through a few of the county’s more tightly-plotted neighborhoods and knock on doors, making sure Kerry supporters were registered to vote, knew their polling location, and had a plan to get there. I was doing what I thought I’d like better back when I was in Chicago. But, like I had that summer, I felt profound homesickness when I saw football games on the television and pumpkins on the front step.
This past summer, I listened to Emma Eisenberg’s 2020 memoir and true-crime book, The Third Rainbow Girl with rapt fascination. Eisenberg, like me, is from the northeast, and ended up in Appalachia for work that she hoped would be meaningful on both personal and community levels. The book blends her experience living and working in West Virginia with research about the unresolved murder of two women from out of state in 1980.
Eisenberg lived in West Virginia much longer than I did, but the question at the heart of her book is one I’d considered, uncomfortably, many times. How--if at all--can we write about a place we’re not really from? How can we do so respectfully and authentically and rigorously? I think she manages to do all those things. And, every time I want to write about the winding drive to the motel where I met with a long-serving state senator, or the dirt road behind the dam that was home to many frightening dogs or the smell of the lipstick favored by the teenage girls who were the only volunteers I ever managed to recruit or the diner where we occasionally went for breakfast on the weekends or the sweeping views of green mountains and tumble-down houses to my right as I finished my long runs each morning, I can tell that I’m not getting it right.
This fall I took my son, Simon, canvassing with me. We live in Connecticut now, just a few miles from the house where I spent most of my childhood. Simon is three and I have a daughter who just started first grade. Because of our district’s hybrid schedule, she’s only in school in the afternoon and Simon is in preschool in the morning. I’d thought since having Simon that this would be the year I’d finally write five days a week, pitching and drafting and editing and maybe selling a book. I haven’t figured out a way to write much with this schedule, and not at all when either of them are home and awake, but I have seen that there is a lot we can do together. We read the books I loved as a child and go on hikes and embark on bike rides that end with a very slow and whiny struggle over the last few blocks. I’ve also been canvassing for local candidates.
Canvassing is different this year, of course. We’re not ringing doorbells or even trying to make any kind of face-to-face contact. Instead, I’m dropping literature, wedging it in the door handle or between the mailbox and its flag (it’s illegal to open someone else’s mailbox). I have a list--its an app now--of registered Democrats in our neighborhood and at these houses I leave a pamphlet with information about a woman, about my age, with kids the same ages as my kids, who is running against our Republican incumbent State Representative. Her policy positions are straightforward and mainstream--at least for suburban Connecticut. My neighbors know, or at least recognize me, as one of them.
At one house, Simon tried to stand up backwards in his stroller and tipped it over. I ran from the porch where I’d been about to leave a pamphlet to scoop him up in a hug. The man who lived there came out, and I apologized, both for disturbing him and for still being there on his driveway, continuing to disturb him. It was fine, he reassured me, and asked if I needed anything.
He asked again if we needed help, which we didn’t, and we were on our way. We picked up Thea from elementary school. Later, after I’d packed up the leftovers from our Friday night pizza and tucked both kids into bed, my phone rang with a text from my friend Abby. We had plans to run in the morning and had been texting back and forth to coordinate time and place. Instead, she wrote “Oh God. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died,” and I sat on the top step and wept.
The next morning I felt hungover, congested and dehydrated from crying so hard and long. I met Abby at the track and we alternately shared our deep grief and grew quiet with worry. That afternoon while my husband was working, I let the kids watch a movie and we made funfetti cake from a box. And then, in the last hour before sunset, they put on their helmets and got on their scooters and we finished dropping pamphlets at the rest of the houses on the list.