In May of 2017 my mother was 97 and I took her to vote in the French elections in a school gymnasium in Mamaroneck, NY.
She hadn’t joined me the last time I’d come here to vote. For some reason she believed she wasn’t registered. I didn’t think that was correct but knowing the French Consulate, it could have been true. The French consulate, before it was computerized, was chaotic and any visit was excruciating. So much so that we did everything to avoid going.
My last time was to renew my passport. Everything was going smoothly, so I decided to ask if I could register my wedding. Of course, I was told, we can do it right now. The woman helping me began clicking her computer keys and reading. "Madame Chong," she announced, looking up at me, "your wedding is already registered."
“Non, non,” I exclaimed. “I’ve divorced and remarried.”
She looked troubled. “Non, Madame, according to our records, you are not.”
I silently reminded myself that everything was now computerized so I shouldn’t panic. "Okay," I said, “can I register my divorce and new marriage?”
“Mais oui, Madame,” she answered and proceeded to list documents I would have to provide. "You will need the yellow copy of this document, the blue copy of this other one." She listed more documents than I thought even existed to register my divorce.
“Where will I find these documents?” I asked.
“At the courthouse where your divorce was registered,” she replied. "You will need . . ." And she proceeded to list all the documents I would need to register my new marriage, but she emphasized this can only happen after your divorce has been properly recorded. "One more thing," she continued. "You will need to have everything translated. We only accept translations from these companies" And she printed out a page with the names of five approved translators.
The smile on my face had long disappeared and I thought maybe I don’t really need to register my wedding in France. To this day, I still haven’t—to my current husband’s dismay. I explain that I’ll have to take a week off work just to get the necessary documents and at that point there is no guarantee I’ll have the right ones and I might have to take another week off to try and get it right.
The last time I had voted in the French election, I'd also inquired whether my mother was registered. I gave them her married name, the only name I’ve known her by.
“Non, Madame. There is no record of that name in our registry."
I asked what she needed to do to register. As the clerk started to explain, he asked if I had given him her maiden name. I hadn’t. I suddenly remembered that in France you never lose your maiden name; that is the name on all your legal documents. Providing my mother's maiden name quickly proved that she was registered to vote.
Taking my mother to vote in 2017 was important. She had never voted and I knew this would probably be her last opportunity.
Entering the gym was like stepping into a room in France. French was the spoken language and we were welcomed and shown where to register. Everything went smoothly and within a few minutes my mother was taking an envelope and the two pieces of paper with names of each candidate. We were then pointed to the curtained area to privately select the name of the candidate of our choice and place it into the envelope, while discarding the other into garbage can, already half full with names. From there we moved to a table where a large acrylic box was waiting. My mother went first. They found her name, asked her to sign, and then lifted the covering over the slot in the center of the acrylic box. My mother was told to drop her envelope into the slot. As she did, the woman called out, “Elle a voter” She has voted. She had finally taken her first vote to support a government she believed in.
As we walked out, I noticed a tear in her eye. "Thank you," she said to me. "I had no idea how important that would be for me." She was moved. The right to vote isn’t frivolous; it is a right we all have as citizens.
Back in the car, my mother leaned over to me and said, “France is really a wonderful country,” as if we had just been there. And in a way, she was right; we had just been there.
I was glad I had the privilege to give my mother this extraordinary experience.
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