The Song of the Election: “Grandma’s Hands”

On October 8, a week after being hospitalized with COVID-19, Donald Trump released a two-minute video on Twitter directed to his “favorite people in the world,” the senior citizens of America. And while the obvious goal of the piece was to shore up his poll numbers – on the same day, Politico ran a piece with the headline “Why Senior Citizens Are Flipping On Trump” – even that purely selfish motivation could not compel our president to express any remorse whatsoever for the nearly 170,000 Americans over 65 who have been killed by this virus.

But as we’ve learned over the last four years, abject cruelty and the refusal to admit fault are the default state of this administration. The reason this video stands out to me is the moment at the beginning, where Trump tells his favorite people that he’s ashamed to be one of them:

“I’m a senior. I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell ’em, but I’m a senior.”

Presidents are supposed to at least pretend to care about their most vulnerable populations, because to do otherwise would offend a loyal voting bloc and make you look like a deranged asshole. Why on earth couldn’t this 74-year-old lie factory express pride in being a senior citizen, even if he doesn’t mean it? The answer to that question cuts to the core of why Donald Trump is extremely unfit to lead our country, and absolutely cannot be re-elected on Tuesday.

He hates vulnerable people.

In 1971, the R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers released a hauntingly beautiful acoustic-blues ballad about how much he loved a vulnerable person – his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, who died when Withers was 15. Like Trump’s video, “Grandma’s Hands” clocks in at just over two minutes. It’s the loving, heartbreaking, empathetic antidote to his obscene narcissism.

Over a mournful, minor-key riff, Withers starts the song with a reassuring, now-iconic hum. The sweetness of his voice is an immediate comfort, a signal that we’re about to be smiling through our tears. Then the artist starts singing about how his grandma looked out for him. His lyrics, which often quote Galloway, are direct, honest, and effective – perhaps a stylistic homage to the way she treated others:

Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
Might be snakes there in that grass

In the second verse, Withers points out his grandmother’s physical vulnerability, but as a way to provide further evidence of her strength – her painful arthritis can’t stop her from offering solace to a woman who was likely being shunned by others:

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell

The song’s simple blues arrangement continues, steady and slow, for the entire track – three verses, no chorus, no bridge. Even the studio ringers brought in by producer Booker T. Jones cede the spotlight. Stephen Stills’s lead guitar runs are quiet and gentle. Drummer Jim Keltner plays a basic 4/4 beat. All so we can truly feel the warmth and gratitude in Withers’s voice, as he passes down memories like the elder he’s memorializing.

On the final verse, we understand just how much Galloway protected her grandson – and not just from hypothetical snakes:

She’d say, ‘Mattie don’t you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core,’
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

On March 30 of this year, Withers passed away at 81, from non-COVID-related heart complications. Weeks into the pandemic’s terrifying, disorienting first wave, everyone was listening to him again, finding solace in his lyrical sensitivity and deep, burnished tenor. So many of his hit songs were about love and compassion and the beauty of being together, from the blissful “Lovely Day” to the gut-wrenching “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the profoundly supportive “Lean On Me.” He wrote “Grandma’s Hands” before all of those classics, showing the world how he learned to love before teaching us.

What if Lula Galloway had contracted a horrible virus and died before her time? What impact would that have had on her grandson who loved and needed her? Would he have been inspired to write these songs that, even today, make me feel like everything’s going to be okay? Or would that legacy of love have been ripped from us?

Every time a senior dies unnecessarily from this unchecked pandemic, we are losing so much more than their physical presence. We’re losing the knowledge they have to impart, the love they have to give, the lessons they have to teach. These are precious natural resources that help our younger generations grow into well-rounded, kind-hearted adults who know what true strength really looks like – someone who uses their hands not to grab whatever they want, but to protect the people they love.

So if you haven’t voted already, please vote for Joe Biden on Tuesday. He’s an (admitted) senior citizen who understands grief. Who will tell our nation every day that wearing a mask is an act of strength. Who will work to protect the vulnerable populations of this country, and teach our children to respect them.

Until I read the headline that announces his victory, I know what I’ll be listening to.

R.I.P. Bill and Lula.

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