Tuesday, October 4, 2011

New Citizens

It was way too early to be in downtown Nashville.  The traffic had not been too bad as we had left exceptionally early.  However, downtown was coming alive as people were finding their way to work.  The Federal Courthouse offered no parking.  We found a public lot behind the building and paid an exorbitant $12 for parking.  But the walk was short; it was worth it.

My shoes set off the security.  It took three tries to gain entrance to the building.  As we meandered the corridors to the elevator, it was obvious, this was a special day.  Nervous and excited people were following the Naturalization Ceremony signs just as we were… As we got off the elevator, there were more signs.  Finally, we saw the small crowd gathering.  It was obvious we were in the right place.

There were so many smiles.  Yet, the nervous excitement was palpable.  Little children were dressed for a party.  Mommies and Daddies did their best to keep the children in line.  Finally, the door opened.  We went in with the rest of the crowd. 

I am an observer of people.  I love people.  They are so diverse and so interesting.  What a wonderful place to watch the cultures of the world!  I had been to this ceremony once before.  It was many years ago in Connecticut.  That day, my husband was sworn in as a citizen of the United States.  Today it was his brother and his family who were to be sworn in completing their five-year odyssey into American life.

As I sat on the hard bench, one by one, the new citizens were called to the front.  They signed documents and were given a place to sit.  Sixty new citizens from 26 nations were naturalized that morning. Soon a judge would arrive and administer the oath...I was happy for all of them.

I wondered about my father’s naturalization ceremony.  I wished I had asked him about it.  But children never think of such things.  He had been here many years before he was able to become a citizen.  He would forgo trips home to see his family because once he left, he would not be able to come back.  Before he had a wife and children, he worked for nearly 20 years part of the time to help send a sister and her children back home to Norway. 

But the day finally came.  There was some amnesty given and he took it.  He became a citizen of the United States.  I could picture my dad in a courtroom like the one I sat in on Thursday.  He would have had his full suit on.  He would have had his papers with him.  He probably rode the subway or bus to get there.  I don’t know if my mother or my brothers witnessed that day.  I know it was an important day for him.  I know he was bursting with pride.  He loved Norway but I think he loved his chosen home more.  He would say to other Norwegians who would talk of the old country – “if it was so wonderful there, why don’t you go back?” 

As the judge on Thursday spoke of the responsibilities of citizenship, he mentioned voting.  I thought yes, my dad must have heard that too – he never missed an election once he could vote.  My mother to the contrary, although born in this country, never voted.  She said it was all rigged anyway.  She had seen slick politicians load the poor people into cars and tell them how to vote.  She did make an exception to her no voting rule when my husband, a naturalized citizen ran for local elections (and won!).

My dad was probably one of the most patriotic people I ever knew.  I wonder about these new citizens.  As I looked at those that came full of eager anticipation, well dressed, and excited, I thought yes, most of these folks will contribute to this country.  They are happy to be here.  They stood in line to have pictures taken with the judge whose decrees made them new citizens. This day was special for them.  They would honor the country they had chosen.

However, a few didn’t seem to have that same passion.  Their clothes and demeanor spoke only of a process to be completed.  They had no love of this country.  They had no desire to contribute.  Okay, I don’t know that for sure… but that’s what I thought I saw in their faces.  I hope I’m wrong.

The judge said that he (and I and all of us born here) were fortunate to be citizens just by chance (or providence) of birth – these new citizens chose to be Americans.  I understand his point, but I still think all of us need to choose to be Americans.  We chose by contributing.  We don’t all think alike.  We are divided over politics and interpretation.  Nevertheless, we live in a country where each person can live in relative peace, pursue a good life, and respect others - even those we don't agree with.  

I chose to be an American.

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