For a few bleary seconds after she woke up, everything felt the same. Same bed, same house, same town, same Cathy Mousseau, a Midwestern Methodist trying to live a life of love and kindness as another day began. Then she remembered.
“It’s true,” she said to herself.
The president of the United States would be Donald Trump, who had called Mexicans rapists, proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and spoken of grabbing women’s crotches.
Now it was the morning after, and Cathy looked outside, her eyes still red from crying. A glorious sunny day. Gold leaves drifting down on the green lawns of Wheaton, Ill. She poured some coffee and scrolled through her phone. She sent a message to a Muslim friend and a gay friend saying that she loved them. She wrote to her 20-year-old son, Jack, that life would go on. She read a post from her 17-year-old daughter, Allie — “I’m still with her” — and cried again. Her husband, Jeff, came downstairs.
“Are you going to watch her concession speech?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Cathy, who was trying to resist the feeling that it was not just Hillary Clinton conceding the election but Cathy herself being asked to concede that love and kindness and everything she felt her life was about was lost in this new America of Wednesday morning. Part of her wanted to turn away. But she turned on the TV, and began listening.
She had always seen America the way she saw herself: not without sin but always trying to be better, kinder and more generous.
She was brought up in Racine, Wis., by parents of Armenian background. Her father ran a hair salon, and when Cathy worked the cash register as a teenager, she learned that he did not charge the blind woman who got her hair done every week. Her mother mostly stayed home, and as Cathy got older, she came to appreciate how her mother always forgave her, understood her, and how she would always come outside to wave goodbye after her daughter visited — waving until Cathy could no longer see her in the rearview mirror.
Cathy figured this was a childhood of unconditional love. And it was some version of this life that she tried to replicate with her husband — “my sweet husband,” Cathy still called him after 20 years of marriage — most of it spent in the same house on a wide street of sprawling oaks here in Wheaton, where Jeff worked as a vice president of sales for a carpet-cleaning company, and Cathy worked as a fundraiser for nonprofits, and on a Saturday morning 10 days before the election, they were heading to the farmers market.
“Are we going to drop off that stuff?” Jeff asked, referring to the bag of shoes by the door, which they were giving to a local resource center for struggling families and refugees from Iraq, Burma, Sudan and elsewhere settling in the area.
“Yeah, put it in my car, and oh, you know what? We should take some food over there,” said Cathy, grabbing some cans of beans from her pantry before they headed off.
This was regular Mousseau life. They donated shoes and worried later whether they had forgotten to put in the new sole inserts. They prayed before dinner, watched “Nova” on PBS, and took vacations to presidential libraries. On their refrigerator were photos of African girls whose schooling they funded, and in a kitchen cabinet were extra keys to their neighbors’ houses. They were regulars at church, the 9 a.m. service, right side, seven oak pews from the front, because being close helped Cathy focus.
“Share your bread with the hungry . . . for when we do these things our life shall break forth like the dawn,” the pastor had said nine days before the election, and this was exactly what Cathy believed, although she in no way thought herself exceptional.
She considered her family to be of the regular sort found all over America, the kind who weren’t necessarily Democrat or Republican but had long discussions such as the one they had the week before the election:
“We talk about tolerance, but I’d say let’s get to a place where we value people and appreciate people and have more empathy,” said Cathy one afternoon.
“Yeah, ‘tolerate’ sounds more like when you take your medicine,” said Jeff, and Cathy said that “as a Christian, you’re always in a position of trying.”
And so it was that five days before the election, Cathy drove to an early-voting center and cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton, who was raised in nearby Park Ridge and in her speeches often cited a Methodist creed: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
“Beautiful day,” said the voting clerk when Cathy checked in.
“So beautiful,” said Cathy, who felt slightly troubled at the sight of Trump’s name on the ballot, but not troubled enough to believe that he could possibly win.
“I have faith,” she said, walking back to her car in the warm fall sun. “I know some reasons why people are supporting him, and I think I understand. Maybe some are coming from broken places where life hasn’t been so good. But I think his character is at the heart of it, and I think in their heart of hearts, people will have a question about his character in the end.”
This is what Cathy believed as she went about her life in the days before the election. She believed this as she dropped off her library books at the community college. She believed it when she brought some winter hats to her church for a Christmas clothing drive and saw the boxes already full of donations. And she believed it as she drove through Wheaton, where fresh fall mums were clustered on corners and a “Make a Difference Day” banner was fluttering in front of city hall, and, in the days before the election, where the mayor said, “I wonder how we are going to feel about ourselves after this.”
Cathy had those worries, too. But she was sure which way her country would go, right up until Tuesday, when she and Jeff had a glass of red wine with dinner and turned on PBS in the background.
“Wow, look at Florida,” Jeff said.
They moved into the living room, and Jeff turned up the volume as a reporter talked about Trump holding his own in Georgia and North Carolina.
“Those are some of the states hardest hit by the recession,” Cathy said, looking concerned.
Now New Hampshire was wavering. Allie came home from her evening play rehearsal.
Her mom asked her, “Missy, have you been following it?”
“Like everyone,” Allie said, sitting on the floor and spreading out her homework, which included a college essay about a church mission trip to Guatemala, in which she wrote about how she came to understand what it feels like to be an outsider, albeit a “privileged” one, displaying an empathy and sensitivity that made her mother proud.
North Carolina was lost.
“Can you believe it?” Cathy said.
Pennsylvania and Ohio were falling to Trump.
“Here I am in my little bubble,” Cathy said to herself.
“Wisconsin?!” said Jeff, who was also from Racine, and now CNN was showing the Empire State Building with a huge smiling image of Trump projected on it.
“My gosh,” Cathy gasped. “I just don’t believe my nation is voting for that.”
She began checking her Facebook page, worrying about her Muslim friend, who had just posted something that Cathy read out loud.
“I will pray until the last moment — God bless America,” and Cathy tried not to cry.
She went over and hugged Allie, and as the returns kept coming in, Cathy and Jeff were quiet.
The next day, Allie went to school with a stomachache that Cathy knew was emotional, and after she finished watching the concession speech, she sent her daughter a quote from it about girls being able to do anything they wanted. Allie sent her mom a heart. Cathy’s phone rang.
“Hey Kim, how’s it going?” she said to one of her best friends.
“Yep,” she said.
“Yep. It’s getting a little better each hour,” she said, wishing that to be true.
In cities across the country, protests against Trump were beginning to break out, and there were reports of hate crimes and racial harassment spiking. Cathy turned off the television.
On the kitchen counter was a fundraising letter she needed to work on, and a thick envelope that was one of Allie’s first college acceptances. She checked her phone. A Methodist bishop had sent out a message: “We must pray and work for the healing of the nation and the world . . . we must start in our own families and communities.”
Cathy tried to start her day, the same as ever. She took a shower, got in her car and headed over to an elementary school to help set up for a fundraising breakfast. She stopped to pick up some donated food.
“And here are your two large fruit trays,” said the Chick-fil-A worker.
“Oh, thank you!” Cathy said in her sweetest possible tone.
Driving along, she noticed two young women wearing hijabs walking in the bright sunshine.
“I’m glad they don’t feel afraid,” Cathy said. “I don’t think they should be afraid.”
She arrived at the school, walked into the library and looked around at the low shelves of cellophane-wrapped books and the tiny pastel chairs and construction-paper signs from a mock election between two book characters named President Squid and Bad Kitty. She inhaled.
“I love the book smell,” said Cathy, who thought that what she was going through was like the stages of grief. Maybe she was in shock or denial. She wondered whether she would ever reach acceptance.
Her fellow volunteers arrived, women she’d known for years from church or her kids’ schools or some volunteer stint, and they draped table cloths and arranged fall leaf centerpieces in silence.
“My emotions are everywhere,” one of them finally said.
“You know Clinton won in Wheaton, right?” said Cathy, who had looked up the results.
“Thank you for sharing that — that’s comforting,” the volunteer said.
“I was thinking maybe I was in an echo chamber, and maybe we were just a little unaware,” said Cathy, and then the women were quiet again, and Cathy was arranging flowers in little vases.
In these days after, she was thinking so many things. She wondered whether she really knew these fellow Americans who had voted for Trump, even the ones who were her neighbors. She wondered about herself. She knew her worst characteristics. She could be arrogant. She thought about what her pastor had said one Sunday, a parable about a Pharisee who did good works but lacked humility. “Am I the Pharisee?” Cathy wondered. Had she let that get in the way of listening more? Had she tried hard enough, been good enough? She worried about people who might now feel outcast. She put the vases on the tables. Her friend counted chairs.
“Okay,” Cathy said, looking it over, and the next morning, the Student Excellence Foundation breakfast was packed with chamber of commerce members, the local bank president, the mayor and others who talked over coffee about grants for science projects and remodeling the old library and how good it felt to be doing good. They spoke of anything except what had happened the day before.
“This was great,” someone said to Cathy as the event came to a close.
“It’s so good things like this are happening,” someone else said as Cathy thanked them.
“This was reassuring,” said another resident, and this was how Cathy was trying to feel, too, and so later, she decided to attend a going-away party for a friend.
She headed for downtown Wheaton, past houses where the decorations were changing from Halloween to Thanksgiving. She parked and went inside the plain brick building that was the People’s Resource Center, which everyone seemed to agree represented the very best of what a town could be, and where Cathy had spent many hours working.
“Neighbor-to-neighbor help,” was the slogan, and inside was a food pantry that was always full, and racks were always crammed with donated shirts and coats and shoes including the ones that the Mousseaus had dropped off. On any given day dozens of volunteers worked doing literacy or job training for struggling county residents that often included newly arrived refugees, many of whom, Cathy knew, were asking questions on this day about what a Trump future might mean.
“Hiya, Cathy,” said one of the volunteers.
“Hiya, Joe,” said Cathy, walking down a hallway plastered with photos of the smiling faces of refugees and their handwritten thank-you notes. Cathy looked at them.
Just beyond was the room where everyone was gathering for the goodbye party. A big goodbye cake was in the middle. And when Cathy’s friend came in, the volunteers and people just learning English sang “Happy Trails.”
“This is really hard,” Cathy’s friend said, beginning her farewell speech. She paused to keep her composure. “I think each of you are here because we have shared values. We believe in dignity, respect, creativity, integrity, and then we work from those values and then we have a miracle.”
“What we are doing here is creating Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community,’ right here, all of us,” she said, looking around the room.
“We must try to contribute joy to the world — we must try,” she said, and when she finished everyone clapped for a long time.
Cathy gave her friend a hug and whispered thank you so much, and then she hurried out to her car. She had to get home. It was late afternoon, and as she walked quickly along the sidewalk, she started crying and found it difficult to stop.
Sometimes, Cathy liked to take long walks in the woods near her house to clear her head, and early one morning she headed out. In Chappaqua, N.Y., Hillary Clinton happened to be out for a hike, too. In Washington, Trump was figuring out who would be in his Cabinet. In cities across the country, protests were carrying on.
In her own way, Cathy was trying to decide how to respond, and what she decided was to do what she always did. She would try to be better. She would try to listen more, care more, and be loving and kind to everyone, including people who voted for Trump. She would try.
Later, that evening, she put on an apron her mother made. She checked the squash in the oven, and put the shish kebabs on the grill
“Allie!” she called up the stairs to her daughter. “You still want to eat early?”
“Yeah!” Allie called back.
Cathy checked the kebabs and Jeff came down and began setting the table.
“I saw Trump was at the White House today,” he said, putting out the plates.
“I think we can’t spend our whole four years talking about that,” Cathy said, tearing the lettuce.
“It is kind of interesting,” Jeff said, putting out the napkins, but what Cathy wanted to talk about now was her own life, her own family, her own town, which she was sure was the same as it was before the election. She had just received an email from her Muslim friend, saying she was “heartened by all the support and love we as a community have been receiving.”
“No act of kindness is too small,” she wrote.
“I love that,” Cathy said now. “No act of kindness is too small.”
She thought about that. She was feeling stronger and stronger. In the days to come, she would write on her Facebook page: “This is not as simple as good people of America vs. the bad people of America . . . we need to recognize that, understand that better and not feel afraid of our neighbors, friends, and fellow Americans.”
Right now, though, she was thinking about Allie, whose play was opening tonight, and who came downstairs in her full theatrical makeup, ready for dinner, and picked up a binder she had left on the counter.
“Someone spilled something on my binder,” Allie said, trying to clean it.
Inside was a poem for speech team about mental illness and homelessness, which she prefaced by writing that her hope was “to find sympathy for those we know nothing about.” When she had rehearsed it for her mother, Cathy had cried.
“Okay, we’re good,” Jeff said now, bringing the kebabs to the table.
“Where do you want to sit, Missy?” Cathy said.
“I don’t care, I can sit at the head of the table,” Allie said, and sat down.
Jeff sat down, and Cathy sat down.
“Allie, how about you do the prayer tonight?” Cathy said, and they bowed their heads.