Once upon a time, in the mid-1960s, there were two women who lived in a suburb. They first met at a meeting of the League of Women Voters, liked each other, and remained friends for the next 40 years, until one died.
The dead woman’s daughter stayed in touch with her mother’s friend. They exchanged Christmas cards and occasionally had lunch together.
Then came the election of 2016.
They’d met for a lunch earlier that fall. The subject of politics had never come up before, but it sure did that day. It emerged that the older woman thought Donald Trump was terrific: smart and ethical and just what this country needed. She talked about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and Benghazi and the “antics” of the Clinton Foundation. The younger woman was appalled. They argued in the restaurant, tried to change the subject, kept returning to the argument. Their hug in the parking lot was strained.
The older woman sent the younger woman a packet from an ultra-right-wing political organization: pages and pages about the Clinton e-mails and the “Obama gang,” along with a note saying she wanted to expose the younger woman to the view from an alternate perch.
They haven’t seen each other since. The older woman e-mails the younger woman, hoping to set up a lunch date. Sometimes the younger woman doesn’t answer. A couple of times she has written to try to explain briefly that the president and his policies horrify her, and that she thinks it would be better for the two of them — her and her mother’s old friend — to be affectionate from a distance for now.
In her head, she is still arguing with her mother’s friend. She imagines saying, You’re not a coal miner or factory worker scared that the job or even the industry might disappear. What are you afraid of losing?
She imagines saying, So do you still think he’s smart and ethical?
She remembers the older woman saying that Trump was only self-serving because he was a private businessman, but if he were president he would act unselfishly for the good of the country. And that the writers of the Constitution would have loved him.
She imagines saying, Huh?
She imagines saying, What about climate change? What about maintaining stable relationships with our allies? What about children separated from their parents at the border? What about gun control? What about emoluments? What about appointing corrupt and unqualified officials? What about characterizing the press as “the enemy of the people”?
She imagines asking, How would you and my mother have navigated this?
Because that, really, is the crux of it for her. She feels guilty about pulling away. She remembers her mother and the friend laughing together, sitting up late in the kitchen talking. She remembers the friend visiting her mother in assisted living, in the nursing home, and in the hospital the day before her mother died. She remembers her mother, barely conscious by then, laughing at something the friend said.
She also remembers that her mother was a passionate lifelong Democrat. She imagines that her mother, if she were still alive now, would say to the old friend, What the hell is the matter with you? You’ve swallowed a crock.
The daughter doesn’t want to hurt her mother’s old friend, or dishonor her mother’s memory. She knows that it used to be possible for two people to argue about politics, and agree to disagree. But this — Trump-era America — is different, with its constant sense of fear and outrage, its chaotic dismantling of basic institutions, its “alternative facts.” What divides her from her mother’s old friend isn’t a difference of opinion, it’s that their core values are irreconcilable. And she knows which side of the gulf her mother would have been standing on.
But would her mother have found some way to stay in the friendship? She, herself, can’t; there’s just not enough to keep her there. She’s unable — unwilling — to suppress her own feelings out of some misguided loyalty to her mother. The daughter pulls away. As she does, she hears her mother’s voice. No, make that two voices.
One is saying, “Good for you!”
The other is saying, “How could you?”
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.