Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

At Mackie's apartment--small, tidy, and sweet with the smell of banana bread--the two women dispense with the requisite health updates in a few minutes. "Talking about new recipes, personal things," Mackie grins, slicing the loaf and brewing a fresh pot of Folgers, "that gets kind of boring for me. Sometimes we start talking about how horrible or good something is and we don't hardly ask 'how are you?'"

The pair's exchanges have gained a distinctive rhythm over the years--rapid-fire chats that blend the headlines of the day with the political principles absorbed long ago. Mackie on Jesse Ventura: "He's kind of a screwball." Savola: "Talks before his brain is in gear. But there are things that come through once in a while." Mackie on the Reform Party: "I have no trust in Ross Perot at the top. What do millionaires know about people's problems?" Savola on the farm crisis: "Look at cereals. The people who provide the packaging get more money than the farmer."

If an issue gets thorny and requires documentation, or if the women's memories can't retrieve a date or fact, Mackie retreats to her archives. She rises from the table with the poised dignity of her 89 years, but as she disappears into the huge closet a few steps away she seems to gather the sheer brawn of a young Teamster. Through the wall there is the sound of boxes shoved fearlessly back and forth, then a gasp or chuckle as she comes across a notable detail. Ultimately she emerges, proudly bearing a clipping, a poem, a newsletter from files spanning the better part of the century. "I have so many things in my archives," she says, a little out of breath, "it overwhelms me."

Then comes a topic that will crop up again and again. Mackie raises it first: "How are we going to get this newsletter done, Helvi? We can't do this whole newsletter ourselves." The People's Path, the local Communist Party sheet, was started by Matt Savola, back when he and Helvi became district organizers in the early 70s. The two women have kept it going for the past two decades, writing and coordinating articles to fill eight pages every other month. But the task has been getting more difficult as the ranks of potential writers have dwindled with age, death, and--among the younger supporters--crammed schedules. "I have been calling up people," says Mackie. "But everyone is so busy."

And "everyone" isn't a very large group. The Communist Party of Minnesota and the Dakotas has about 500 people on its mailing list; of those, only about 50 are dues-paying members. Savola has read that the national party is getting some people to join through "that Internet"; Mackie has heard that around New Year's, when the national party aired an infomercial featuring Gus Hall, "they had people calling by the hundreds." She throws up her hands. "But it's not happening here."

Maybe, they reason, it's the word. These days, says Mackie--who for decades doorknocked on behalf of the party--you can't hit people with it right away. "You've got to ask about their beliefs for world peace, affordable housing. Do you approve of those? Okay, you're a Communist. Instead of saying, 'I'm recruiting for the Communist Party,' because then they'll immediately say, 'No, thank you.' Communism is just a scare word nowadays."

And, chimes in Savola, it starts with the kids--just like the radical credo did many years ago. She remembers a day when her daughter came home from school upset because the kids had called her a Communist. She taught her a comeback from the timber-union days: "Those who would call you a Communist don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism."

Mackie turns, a devilish look in her eye: "But Helvi, did that help? They probably didn't even know what rheumatism was."

She pours some more coffee and leans back in her chair. "Now Helvi," she inquires, "did you hear Bill Bradley today? How can people have a problem with the idea of national health care?"

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