Although we may chafe at this image, it is something all first generation American citizens have in common: we were anchor children. My parents came with their families in the great migration from middle and Eastern Europe of 1912-1915. The Statue of Liberty was in place and every early narrative of the harrowing voyage (they did not come Cunard but on steerage ships bedding down with cattle) includes the first glimpse of "Lady Liberty." These were Emma Lazarus' "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." My maternal grandmother "Bubby" was more forthcoming about her journey with four small children than my father's stoic mother who chose to simply shake her head and sigh. We did not press her. Bubby however never tired of retelling her story of crossing from Minsk on foot to the Black Sea to get the boat. A Herculean feat for a woman with children and little money in excess of what her husband had sent for their tickets. As she grew older the story became more quixotic, embellished with Cossacks, swamps, river crossings, kind people and thieves. She had a rapt audience of grandchildren.
My parents did not meet in Pennsylvania where their families first settled, nor in Los Angeles their next stop, but in Tucson, Arizona. Mother was visiting her father who was slowly succumbing to tuberculosis at a tent city in the desert, the dry air then considered potentially curative. In the early 20's TB and SP (the railroad) were Tucson's primary industries.
My father was a young Tucson merchant, and a nurse from the sanitarium introduced Mother to him in a Tucson coffee chop. Ah, the vicissitudes of fate.
But this little story is about what I call my mother's "peasant paranoia." After America's entry into WWII and the internment of west coast Japanese, citizens or not, Mother started doctoring our birth certificates on the line which indicated "mother's place of birth." Finally she announced she would become an American citizen with proper documentation and would need our help. My hardworking father, mildly amused by all this, left it to my sister and me to mollify her. We brought home our American history books and she immersed herself. The test loomed large. She was possessed and we coached her until she could parrot the Bill of Rights, divisions of governmental powers, the first ten presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and identify our congressional representatives. At last the day of her appointment at the court house came. Always clothes-conscious, having been voted Tucson's "Best Dressed Woman" two years running, she went for serious elegance and nailed it.
Like many women of her era, Mother did not drive, taking buses or cabs. This was a cab day. The judge had known my parents for years and the rest of this story comes from his account. He told my father that he signed Mother's citizenship papers forthwith and that she was furious that he had not tested her. "I told her that testing would be a waste of everyone's time and that I had no doubt she was already an exemplary citizen." Noting her dismay he urged her to go home and perhaps display an American flag in a window. Mother fumed out of the courtroom. She returned home frustrated and depressed. "I studied; I wanted that test." The papers were put in a safe place but there would be no flag in the window. That was that.
There is no such seamless route to citizenship for the many who lead productive yet precarious lives in our country's shadows. With no judge to readily grant them peace of mind, they wait and hope that the promise on the proud lady in New York's harbor will someday be granted them. 'Til then they can only yearn and dream beside the golden door.