Vivian Zeigler was born the year American women finally secured the right to vote.
She died four days after voting for the candidate she hoped will become the first woman President of the United States.
“She was quite clear that she really wanted to vote in this election,” her youngest son, Jay Ziegler, told the Daily Beast this week.
Vivian did so on October 14 while under hospice care and knowing that the end was very near. She was a 96-year-old writer and elementary school teacher from Arcata on the north coast of California who had favored Bernie Sanders during the primaries as more in keeping with her sense of social justice. She had then supported Hillary Clinton and viewed her candidacy as an opportunity to affirm what should have been a self-evident truth all along.
“Women can be leaders of the country,” Jay, who is 54, said. “I think that notion was particularly important to her.”
She reminded her family that her birth in 1920 coincided with women’s long delayed suffrage. Her entire long life had nearly passed without her having had the opportunity to vote for a woman candidate for President.
“This is overdue,” she announced.
Vivian also voted for Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate, not because of her gender but because she seemed the more worthy candidate. She voted to re-elect U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman for the same reason and proceeded on through the whole long ballot, which includes a host of statewide propositions and local measures. She voted in favor of a school funding provision, as might be expected of someone whose professional life had been a continual affirmation of the importance of education. But she voted against a local utility tax.
“She wanted to see how the city was spending the money,” Jay reported. “She’s an independent thinker. She made her own decisions on the ballot.”
Jay filled out his own mail-in ballot at the same time. They largely agreed, save on Proposition 64, which would legalize marijuana. He was for it and she was opposed as someone from an area where illegal pot growing had become big business.
“Her comment was, ‘Look, I’ve lived on the North Coast and I’m too close to it and there’s just too much of it already and I’m voting against it,’” Jay recalled.
The ballot complete, Vivian also made sure to sign her tax return with the belief that we should all pay our due share.
“She had a real sense of duty,” Jay said. “She voted and she paid her taxes.”
Jay completed his own ballot and later dropped his with hers in a mailbox. Her oldest son, 72-year-old Jeff, would recall that she was cheered when Jay told her that Hillary was leading the race.
“But that was before Comey,” Jeff would note, meaning before FBI Director James Comey announced that he had reopened the investigation into Hillary’s’ emails.
Vivian had been largely confined to her house for 10 months because of heart troubles and as the end now neared she was joined there by all three sons and all seven grandchildren.
“We were all able to be with her those past few days,” Jay said.
Jay sensed that she had grown weary of being ill with no hope of getting well again.
“She was a very active person,” Jay said. “She was ready to go.”
Her granddaughter, Dulce Ziegler, is a nurse and was at her side on October 18.
“She died holding my niece’s hand,” Jay said.
Vivian thereby seemed to achieve a perfect passing, connecting to the future in the immediate person of her granddaughter. She would remain connected in spirit to all who knew her by having become exactly what she strove to be.
“The kind of example she wanted to set for others,” Jay said.
And, as that example guides them into the future, Vivian will have preserved the past for them with a multi-part recounting of her mother’s life in the “Humboldt Historian,” the journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society.
Two days before she died, Vivian had met her editor to go over the latest installment. The first two parts had already been published, recounting Anna Elizabeth Larsson’s childhood in Sweden and emigration to Arcata in 1900, when she was just 15. Anna had worked long hours for scant wages as a maid, getting only one evening off every other week.
“If their day’s work was done in time,” Vivian wrote.
Anna then began courting a fellow immigrant from Sweden, Louis Larson. The two made such a fine looking couple strolling Arcata Plaza that a town resident would describe them vividly to Vivian decades later.
“People would stop and admire them,” Vivian would write “Louis had his dark curly hair and moustache perfectly trimmed. His clothes were made from the best material, by the best tailor in town, and his shoes were always shined like mirrors. He usually wore a derby hat and tipped it politely to ladies they met with whom he was acquainted. …Anna was only a maid, and so must have been a good dressmaker, for she always looked so attractive, had such a good shape, and her clothes fit her perfectly.”
Anna still owed money to her uncles for her passage to America and a letter she wrote home to Sweden suggests that she figured she would have to keep working in her present position until the debts were paid. She appeared to make every effort to look at the bright side.
“I am happy here at my present place, as usual, and only hope I can stay here for ten years – if I have my life and have my health,” the letter read.
But, by the end of the year, Anna had married Louis, going from a Larsson to a Larson. They had five children, two boys who became accountants and three girls, all of whom became elementary school teachers. Vivian was the youngest daughter and was only 10 when their mother died.
Anna left them a Bible her father had given her when she left Sweden and a red, yellow and dark blue woolen apron her own mother had carefully wrapped and slipped into her travel bag. Anna’s mother had worn it as part of a dancing costume and it had been meant for festive occasions.
“I still have the apron, still wrapped, wearing out from age rather than from parties, fun and dancing,” Vivian wrote.
Anna had also bequeathed Vivian an exquisite set of values. Family. Individual responsibly. Duty. Education. Family. Work. Resiliency. Love of others. Fidelity, beginning with the self.
Vivian embraced them as her own and passed them on to her students well-warmed by humor and compassion. Her son Jay said that she especially loved teaching kindergarten.
“That was really her passion,” Jay said. “Being able to have that first connection as they're getting into school, to shape how they learn. She loved working with kids in trying to help them find how they learn best.”
She tailored her particular approach to the particular child.
“I think she really had an appreciation for individual differences,” Joel said. “She realized that everyone does not learn the same way in the classroom. She would try to tell children to understand how it is they are learning and use that year to make them understand that everyone is different and that each child has an individual way to learn about the world around them.”
She had met her future husband, Bill Ziegler, at Humboldt State Teachers College. They were married in 1942 and he taught high school and junior high. They were also politically active, happy to pay their due taxes and passionate in their belief that the government they helped finance should strive for greater good.
“There's a certain sense of, ‘Hey, I’m part of all this, and I need to do my part,’” Jay said.
Jeff, said of them, “Rebels with a cause.”
Vivian and Bill enlisted their kids in Clem Miller’s successful campaign for Congress in 1959. Miller was a World War II veteran who became an early environmentalist and introduced legislation that established the first national seashore. His proposal for a cabinet position called Secretary of Peace inspired the creation of the Peace Corps the year before his death in a plane crash in 1962.
After 60 years of marriage enriched with family and worthy work and politics and art and travel and gardening, Vivian's husband died in 2002. She carried on without him, doting on grandchildren and growing award-wining rhododendrons and supporting Obama and then Bernie Sanders. Her support of Sanders stemmed in part from her early experience of the Great Depression and the conclusion that our failure to learn from history had led us to repeat it with the Great Recession.
“Our society is fraying and we need to kind of pull things back together; that was her connection point,” Jay said of Bernie’ s appeal to her.
Jeff offered, “Populism. Taking on the banks.”
When Bernie failed to secure the Democratic nomination, Vivian saw immediate value in supporting Hillary as a step toward gender equality to follow Obama’s step toward racial equality.
“I think she looked at the Obama election as a helpful breakthrough as to how Americans would look at race, even though now, years later, we’ve gone backwards,” Jay said. “Hillary’s election would be an accompaniment.”
She remained vibrant into her final week, when she voted and paid her taxes and spoke to her editor about part 3 of her mother's saga, which will be published in December.
When she died four days later, her ballot had likely been received via post by the Humboldt County Office of Elections on Sixth Street in Eureka. Officials confirmed that under California law her vote is valid and will be counted on Election Day.
Whatever the outcome, even if Trump wins, her family will be gathering on Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate an immigrant’s daughter who became a figure of true American greatness, an independent thinker who treasured individual differences and honored civic duty and made sure to pay her taxes as well as vote when she knew she would be leaving us in body, but hopefully never in spirit.
“We’ll be celebrating,” Jeff said.