My sister and I live in Lake Wylie, S.C. in a house sandwiched between two Republican families. Normally, proximity to people of a different party is not even a blip on our emotional Richter scale, especially when the people are our dear friends. But this is the first election year I have lived in a neighborhood that is a Republican haven, and I have noticed that as we draw closer to Election Day, things are getting a bit tenser between me and my next-door neighbors.
Before the uneasiness set in, we spent evenings in the summer and early fall on one patio or another chatting about our work days, comparing medications and planning our next trips. We sipped wine, celebrated birthdays and laughed late into the night.
We were on my patio one evening when our neighbors, Martha and George, hinted they might be leaning toward Barack Obama in the presidential campaign. My sister and I smiled. Dale, our other neighbor who we know comes from a long line of Republicans, was silent.
Then some weeks later Martha and George flipped to McCain. They didn't announce this change, yet when I ran into them wearing an Obama T-shirt, they ignored the shirt and didn't say a word. It was a sure sign.
"Martha and George, the flip-floppers, have gone over to the other side," I told my sister, surprising myself that I was calling the people I love dearly by any name other than their given ones.
Until this presidential election, the political conversations between us had been of the local variety. We mistakenly thought we could slip into talking about the presidential campaign. We were wrong.
One evening my sister, Carol, and Dale started talking about Barack Obama and John McCain. Carol can't even remember now what set them off, but she and Dale were bellowing at each other before the conversation ended. My neighbor, Martha, and I sat quietly, never weighing in on either side. But as Dale abruptly left to go into her house, the gathering ended and we all left the patio.
The intensity of that discussion signaled the need to take politics off the agenda for our evening chats—at least until after Nov. 4. Since that time, my neighbors and I work harder than usual at being polite and respectful of each other. All of this has helped me gain new respect for the legislators I often criticized for not reaching across the aisle to members of the other party. My South Carolina neighbors and I have an elephant—or a donkey—in the room, and we are trying our best to ignore it.
On another day, Martha sat on my living room sofa and told us that Dale was burning to put a McCain bumper sticker on her car so she could park next to my car, which is sporting an Obama sticker. But Dale drives a company car and bumper stickers aren't allowed. I smiled at the small victory: Dale irritated by my bumper sticker.
To my chagrin, she gave her bumper sticker to George, who showed up the next day with a "McCain-Palin" sticker on his van.
The cooler weather has arrived in our community as an act of divine mercy. It has reduced the opportunities for our sunset patio gatherings and the possibility of the forbidden discussion. But one evening my sister went over to Dale's to borrow some Cool Whip. George and Martha were there. When Carol walked in, everyone stopped talking.
"What are you all doing?" Carol asked.
"We were discussing politics," Martha said, as her husband George elbowed her.
Carol guessed that they had been blasting Obama.
"You can stay. We don't have to discuss politics," Dale offered, kindly.
"No, I just want the Cool Whip," said Carol, who truly wanted to go home to finish watching a TV show.
Then when hurricane winds in the Gulf stopped the full production of oil to the South and gas stations in my neighborhood shut down, I had to park my car.
Dale picked up a dozen of eggs for me on her way back from work. And when my sister and I wanted to make martinis and found our bar nearly bare, we borrowed vodka—yes, vodka—from George and Martha.
In the middle of all of this, a woman walked up to me at the post office and asked if I would take her offering of a bag of starter for "friendship bread." I've never fully understood what was in a starter bag, but now I do; it includes directions for baking bread at the end of 10 days of kneading the bag and adding ingredients. Before you bake the bread, you divide the starter and pass it on to friends.
I gave portions to Martha and Dale.
Soon we will go to the polls and then after a week or so of mourning by one side or the other, we will return to our light-hearted, fun conversations again. Until then, we cross the partisan divide with eggs and Cool Whip and starter for friendship bread. And vodka, of course.
Patrice Gaines is an author and journalist who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C.