“It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.”
This was the most powerful moment of Obama’s farewell address for me. The most important office in our nation’s democracy is being a citizen. The “joyous task” of being an American citizen is one many of us take for granted.
When I was younger my mom had a close friend with a massive library. Her name was Mrs. C. and she was much older than my mom, maybe in her 80s. Every so often Mrs. C. would call my mom and tell her she was cleaning out her books and wanted me to come over and take what I wanted. She knew about my love affair with books. She also knew about my obsession with presidents and her collection of JFK materials was substantial. Mrs. C. had worked for both his senatorial and presidential campaigns and they maintained a friendship when he moved into the White House.
So, a few times a year I had free reign in her library. I picked my favorites from her shelves to take home. Often we would find small scraps of paper in her books: newspaper clippings, personal letters, etc. in the books once we got home, pieces of ephemera that told the story of her life and served as bookmarks once. My mom would always call to let her know what we found and ask if she wanted it back. She usually told us to toss those bits of paper.
Even when we found this inside a book:
Her invitation to JFK’s inauguration.
Obviously we didn’t toss this.
I am forever grateful for the gift of this material and for the interactions I had with Mrs. C. while choosing books. At the age of 10 I understood that an ordinary person could be part of history. An ordinary woman in the 1960s could be friends with a president. I understood what it meant to be part of a democracy, what it meant to fight for what you believe in, and what it meant to be an American citizen.
Tomorrow on inauguration day I will be thinking of Mrs. C. and all the others over the years who have taken up the “joyous task” of being an American citizen in ways that have altered the course of our country. The guardians of democracy who have worked on campaigns and shaped policy and marched and volunteered to “continually improve” this great country. And, I will be thinking of all the children who are inspired by the stories of those citizens.