During a week marked by many Americans complaining about the failures of our city, state, and national governments, my husband became an American citizen. Born British, he said he didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. But my older son, the patriot, and his bride drove up from Washington, D.C., during the night, arriving at nearly 2 A.M. to be on hand on for the Friday-morning ceremony. And my younger son, knowing his brother was attending, felt he ought to be there as well.
So the pack of us arrived at the scheduled 9 A.M. at the federal courthouse on Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan. But we were told that, since 9/11, only the citizens-to-be are be allowed in the courtroom while the paperwork is completed. The rest of us should go and find something to do–have a cup of coffee, take a walk–until at least eleven. Luckily, my husband had brought his copy of the Wall Street Journal.
But it was a beautiful morning and the wait didn’t seem to matter. Some people, after all, had been waiting for years for this moment. When we were finally allowed back in we were escorted into the courtroom by a cheerful U.S. marshal named Jimmy Carara, who was more than eager to shoot the breeze while the last group of new citizens were slowly processed.
My husband, as it turns out, had been the first to be interviewed. All he was asked was to confirm his name, place and date of birth, and hand over his “green card.” The immigration official asked him jokingly, “Does the queen know you are doing this?” It was not the best question to ask since my husband was a little guilty about renouncing ties to any “foreign princes or potentates.”
He doesn’t care that much for Charles, Wills, or Harry but he watched the queen’s coronation, went to a dance with Diana when she looked her loveliest, and owns a collection of coronation mugs.
He was then given a letter from President Bush welcoming him as a new citizen and a copy of both the oath he would have to recite as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, plus the words of the first stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Prepping for the citizenship test he always had a little trouble remembering who wrote our national anthem.
As we waited (and waited) for the judge to appear to administer the oath, our new friend, Marshal Carara, a former New York cop, told us that at least 250 citizens are sworn in every Friday in Manhattan as well as in Brooklyn a couple of times a week. Of course, this happens all across America. There are more than 450,000 new citizens sworn in each year. Once in a while there is a really big show when 6,000 or more take the oath aboard the Intrepid, the World War II aircraft carrier, which is permanently docked in New York harbor.
Jimmy told us his immigrant grandparents came from Italy. We could have guessed that from his surname, even though it is missing an “r.” (“The nuns must have misplaced that r,” he acknowledged.) He said that some of his family came from a city he doubted we had heard of called “Trieste.” Wrong. My husband once worked there as a journalist on an army newspaper. Small world. And yet isn’t that exactly the mix and connections that can happen so often in America because it is America?
Finally, the judge arrived and said a few words about citizenship. She pointed out that even the newest citizen in America has exactly the same rights and protections as any other citizen. She also asked us to help, if we could, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast because helping each other is what Americans do. The judge also urged everyone to register as a voter–even though it carries with it the chance to be on jury duty. She said she was looking forward to seeing everyone again as a juror in her courtroom.
Then the oath, with a raised right hand, was mumbled by some and said with fervor by others. Everyone was instructed to congratulate the new citizen next to them. And then a rousing hand-on-heart Pledge of Allegiance.
Of course, there was more bureaucracy and more details. Haven’t we all just seen how bureaucratic details inevitably slow any process down? Everyone had to be called up again to receive their naturalization certificate and to be congratulated by the judge. My husband, since he was the first interviewed, was virtually the last to leave. While we were waiting, he was figuring out how the procedure could be done more efficiently and effectively.
Outside the courthouse, corny as it may seem, my daughter-in-law took family pictures of the new citizen. She also stopped on the way home to buy a red, white, and blueberry dessert for dinner that night.
As for the new citizen–still claiming he wanted no fuss–did one unexpected thing when we got home. He went outside and raised the flag.