Mary Roberts gingerly slides behind the wheel of her husband's white Cadillac with its distinctive green ragtop and Catholic Radio bumper sticker. At 67, she's been widowed nine years and is retired after working nearly three decades as a high school guidance counselor. But her life is far from empty.
On this day, she's headed to one of her favorite big-box stores, a combination grocery and variety shop where she has two missions: to get some exercise and to find bargains for her church's annual school-supply drive.
She pulls down the driveway of the tidy gray ranch where she and Clarence raised a son and heads for the back streets that allow her to avoid aggressive highway drivers. On the rear of her Caddy is a "life" bumper sticker -- but not the kind you might expect from a devout Catholic who attends Mass daily. It says: "Donate life."
Two of Roberts' friends have received kidney transplants from strangers. She has her own medical problems.
She badly needs a knee replacement. But it'll have to wait until she can pay the enormous bills she owes for a five-day hospital stay last year for breathing trouble. She had an insurance policy as part of her husband's pension but dropped it when she turned 65. She expected Medicare to cover her but didn't realize she needed to sign up for the program; she thought it happened automatically.
Until she can afford the surgery, she's following doctor's orders: She has lost 70 pounds by walking and watching what she eats. She dutifully walks in the pool a couple times a week at the YMCA. And now she's added her rounds at Marc's Deep Discount.
She arrives at the store, eases out of the car and grabs a nearby cart to stabilize her. Inside, she methodically goes up and down every single aisle. As she walks, she thinks about how she can fill the small needs of others.
There's her grandson, TJ, who balances a full-time job with raising two kids and going to college. She wants to find a phone charger for his car. That way he can multitask, making calls about the business he hopes to start while driving to classes.
There's her goddaughter's daughter, Sanaya, who just left her water bottle on the school bus and needs a new one. Roberts spies a pile of green plastic ones in the corner.
And she picks up a favorite snack for her 44-year-old son, Terron, who is staying with her this week so she can drive him to his many doctor's appointments. He's a veteran, struggling to get the care he badly needs.
By the time Roberts hits the checkout counter, her basket contains half a dozen items for her extended family and nearly two dozen mismatched pens to go in the backpacks of kids beginning school with high spirits but little else.
Roberts knows what it's like to struggle for an education, not because of lack of talent but for lack of money and for the bigotry she faced. She grew up the oldest of 11, raised by a widowed mother deep in the segregated South.
She's come a long way since those days. And she wants to see her loved ones better their lives, too. But everywhere she looks, she sees trouble.
Here in Ohio, unemployment is 7.2%. Government jobs and the city's large insurance industry give Columbus residents a slight edge over other Ohioans looking for work. Still, the city's 6.2% unemployment rate is more than double what it was a decade ago, when Roberts counseled high school students who had every reason to feel optimistic about their future.
She gets by on a combination of investments and Social Security, but many of Roberts' family members must work second jobs to pay the bills. Her best friend's husband left retirement to try to make up some of the nest egg he lost in the stock market. Her daughter-in-law worries constantly about layoffs at her company.
The economy is Topic A for many in this battleground state as the November 6 election nears. They want to hear the presidential candidates answer the question: How will they get America working again? Voters here also care about poverty and social justice, core issues for Ohio's large Catholic population.
Roberts straddles several demographic categories the campaigns want to win over: She is a practicing Catholic -- and since 1972, no president has won office without taking the nation's Catholic vote. She is over 65 -- and seniors vote with greater regularity than any other age group. She is African-American -- and while African-Americans came out in record numbers to vote for Barack Obama in the last election, some experts question whether they will turn out again in the numbers the president needs to win.
Roberts has always been an Independent. She says she votes the person, not the party.
She has stopped watching her cherished TV shows "Jeopardy!" and "Dancing with the Stars" until after the election because there are just too many negative campaign commercials. "And now they're even calling me on my cell phone," she says. "They called my home phone so much, my voicemail was full, and no one else could reach me."
Calls and ads from the campaigns won't persuade her. What will help her make up her mind is seeing the candidates in person. She attends both parties' rallies. Body language is revealing, she says. A candidate's sincerity counts.
The moderate views of Republican hopeful Mitt Romney resonate with her. She thinks his business experience could better guide the economy. But lately, she has seen ads saying Romney's company, Bain Capital, sent jobs overseas. "That makes me nervous."
She says she's also bothered by the way conservatives often talk about the poor: as if they deserve to be just that. She doesn't buy the assertion that the government should stay out of people's lives, at least financially. Or that unfettered competition between corporations will allow Americans who work hard enough to share in this country's riches.
The lives of her broad inner circle prove otherwise, she says.
Roberts voted for Obama in 2008. She admired his fearless rhetoric about change. Today, she's torn. She says his actions haven't been bold enough.
"I hurt because I'm on the fence about him, just hurt."
Roberts loads her purchases and turns her car toward home. She can't help but notice the boarded-up houses she passes. It seems like they've multiplied. Favorite shops sit empty.
A political ad comes on the radio, and she snaps it off. She prefers to drive in silence.
Roberts heads back home to pick up her son. Terron is unemployed. He had a career as a highly skilled Navy corpsman during the Gulf War, until a fire erupted on his ship. Rushing to help fight it, he fell down a steep ladder. He survived with an injured shoulder and knee. But he found a bunkmate dead in his bed.
Now, Terron is on a long waiting list for treatment. He needs a knee replaced, shoulder surgery and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the ride to the VA health center, he talks about his job search. He hopes to work at the VA. He feels he'll be better understood there. He hasn't gotten a single call back, not even for a janitor's position. "It's so frustrating," he says. "I want to work, but I don't feel like they can give veterans all the help they need."
There are so many cars outside the VA that a harried-looking valet directs traffic. As Roberts navigates to a spot, Terron watches a homeless man on the sidewalk talk to himself.
"They just did a big renovation here," Roberts says, a look of concern crossing her face as her only son gets out of the car. "But he still has to wait for help, and he'll have to go to another town for the surgery."
She shakes her head. "So many people did their patriotic duty, but his PTSD is untreated. He was so focused and was doing so well before this."
Roberts' worries extend to the rest of her family. Ciara, a goddaughter she helped raise, and her grandson, TJ, are both in their 20s and trying to start a business together. It would assist seniors who are less mobile than Roberts and need help with errands. The Small Business Administration seems interested, but they still must raise some capital to get their dream launched -- all while working, raising young children and attending college.
"I wish they could concentrate on just one thing," she says, "but none of us can afford that."
As she makes her way inside, she smiles at the many men standing in line. Roberts lives on the other side of town but recognizes many of them. Some are former students. One worked overnight as a janitor at a nearby hospital until he was laid off. The food pantry helps him feed his five children.
Another lost his job at the car wash where she regularly takes her husband's Caddy. He dropped out of high school to care for a girlfriend's children, kids who aren't even his own.
Not all of her former students struggle. Roberts sees many of them while running errands around town. They are clearly still devoted to her. One recent night, she encountered Tina, a member of the South High School drill team, which Roberts ran for more than 20 years. Tina credits Roberts with giving her the confidence to get through college. Her simple act? Encouraging Tina, a large woman, to run for homecoming queen. Tina worried people would laugh; Roberts knew better. When Tina was crowned, they both cried.
At the food pantry, Roberts finds a flurry of activity. Volunteers put large cans and boxes of cereal in plastic bags. A woman in a T-shirt that says "Grumpy" asks whether there's any peanut butter left.
The retired church women rotate tasks. Roberts positions herself under an American flag, ready with her clipboard to check IDs. There is so much demand that the pantry restricts aid to people who can show that they live in one of three nearby ZIP codes.
A rail-thin woman comes in and moves hesitantly to the counter. Tagging along are two boys and a girl. All have colds. The tallest boy walks with a confidence that suggests he is the man of the house. He can't be older than 5. He holds the hand of his sister -- a thumb in her mouth, a dirty stuffed bear under her arm. The other boy, whose pants are too short, awkwardly pushes an empty stroller.
The woman quietly asks Roberts whether bus passes are being issued today. Sometimes the center has them available for emergencies.
A man sitting nearby tells the woman he's waiting for a pass, too. When he looks up, he notices Roberts.
"That's Mary," he says. "She was at my school and was always in the halls telling me to go to class. She was right," he adds, shaking his head. "She was right."
Education and determination, Roberts says, were the key to her large family's success. All of her 10 siblings went to college. Roberts earned a master's degree.
They grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the height of the civil rights struggle. Her father was a Navy man who was murdered while home on leave. "It was a tragic case of mistaken identity," she says. Her mother, a nurse, switched to the hospital night shift so she could be home during the day for her kids. To help her mother out, Roberts and her sisters took the bus across town to clean the homes of white families.
As a teenager, she became enthralled by the words and promise of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She'd sneak out of the house to hear him and other civil rights leaders.
She rode with her grandfather as he secretly drove people to work during the famous Montgomery bus boycott. He would have lost his job at the courthouse had the judges known.
During her senior year at the Alabama State University laboratory school, the state's first accredited high school to serve African-Americans, the movement called her to action. A friend invited her to attend a nonviolence training and organizing meeting. They needed trusted volunteers to help register people to vote.
Roberts was the perfect choice: someone with a natural habit of making and keeping a large circle of friends. She began visiting neighbors' homes to encourage them to register.
When the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, Roberts was finally able to vote. "I was so proud when we got to vote ... for the first time, but I was scared, too," she says. "There were all these photographers standing around the polls. I didn't know who they were taking photos of and if I'd end up on some list somewhere."
More than four decades later, Roberts participated in another American first: the election of the nation's first black president.
Initially, she wasn't sure about Obama.
"I went to a rally he had here in Columbus and took one look at him and thought, 'He's too young to be president,' " she says, laughing.
After watching him connect with the crowd, she changed her mind. She began to believe in the sincerity behind his message of hope. "I admit I got caught up in the moment."
With so many family members having served in the military, she admired Obama's strong rhetoric against what he called "dumb wars." He showed courage speaking out on behalf of the poor, she thought. And she shares his philosophy that education can shape someone's destiny.
Yet now, she feels impatient with her president.
While she hoped he would take bold political action, no matter the consequences, she doesn't believe he's gotten there yet.
"I want a president with courage to bring people together. Real courage to act."
Roberts sits with her hands folded in a room in the church rectory. Only about a dozen parishioners attend daily Mass, so Father Joshua Wagner moved the congregation from their large Gothic church to this simple place of worship.
The gathering begins to say familiar prayers in unison.
Though raised in the Christian faith, Roberts hasn't always been Catholic. Growing up, she liked how the nuns in Montgomery helped her family. They found them money for college. Now, her brothers and sisters attend a variety of churches, but the religious sisters' kindness stuck with Roberts. She liked their philosophy about the poor and their dedication to social justice.
She and her husband married at Holy Rosary and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in a simple ceremony right after a weekday Mass.
Roberts doesn't talk with her fellow parishioners about the headline-grabbing issues that concern Catholic bishops, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The fact is, Roberts doesn't agree with the bishops on either.
"Jesus was about love," she says. "Nowhere in the Bible does he define what marriage is." And abortion, she believes, should be safe if it's needed. She says she knew women who died going to "butchers" before abortion was legal.
After Wagner reads the gospel, he engages the worshipers in discussion. It's the feast of St. James, the patron saint of laborers. Who, he asks, are the saint-like people who've lived in your midst?
One man describes a parishioner who always knew who was behind in rent. During Mass, he'd quietly slip a $100 bill into their pocket without them noticing.
Another picked up church members on Sunday when they were too old to drive.
This is this kind of quiet service to the community that Roberts values most.
When Wagner asks for intentions, she offers hers. She prays for her extended family: an uncle who needs unexpected surgery. A cousin who has not been well. Her son. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her aging neighbors. Fellow retirees. Former students.
Her own needs go unmentioned.
When Mary Roberts goes into the voting booth this fall -- and she will go; she's never missed an election -- she will have in mind this beloved community she has created. She will carry inside the worries and fears she has for the people in her life. And like millions of other Americans, she will vote for the candidate she thinks will best help those she loves.
No one she knows wants a handout. Everyone in her circle works hard, stays out of trouble, helps one another when they can.
Roberts wants to pick a president who will make sure all that hard work and genuine love pay off -- and that the path becomes a little easier.