My parents had immigrated to the U.S. after my brothers were born, but before my sister and I came along. My brothers became naturalized citizens when they were in college, and a few years later, when my sister and I were in high school, my mom decided to take the test to become a U.S. citizen.
Often at night, she would go to bed early and listen to a Seattle Rainiers’ baseball game or to KIRO’s talk show on the radio, and my sister and I would iron our clothes or curl our hair for the next school day in her room. But once she decided to apply for naturalization, she’d use this ‘bedroom time’ to study for the citizenship test that would make her a legal U.S. citizen, instead of a documented alien.
As the day got closer for her to take her citizenship test, we would prep her with the questions and drill her on the correct answers.
It was hard for Mom to knuckle down and memorize the right answers to the questions. Common sense, everyday experience — and helping us with our homework — had taught her some different concepts from the ones we learned in our school civics and history classes. Or the answers would invite more questions from her:
What are the three branches of government, Mom?
Republican, Democrat and the IRS
Why did we break from England?
Because taxes were too high and we didn’t want to give them all our money.
What does the U.S. Constitution guarantee to everyone?
That anyone can work.
No, Mom – Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But the slaves weren’t given liberty.
How is the president elected?
Well, they say through majority vote of the people – but then why does he have to go to an electoral college?
With her screwball, Gracie Allen-like intelligence, Mom had us questioning the integrity of our country’s system of government. But she wanted to be a citizen. This was after Kennedy had been assassinated; the Vietnam War was causing grief and my brothers were all in different parts of the U.S. Army – as officers, enlisted men, and National Guard. We had many discussions about the direction the U.S. was taking with our Canadian relatives; maybe that prompted Mom to cast a vote of loyalty to the country where she’d lived the last 20 years.
Mom was better than any satirist or comedian at pointing out the double standard in many of our laws, and she challenged us to explain them, even as we giggled at how ‘ridiculous’ she was. But she persisted in answers that made sense to her, not rote repetition of the right formulae.
The day came for Mom to take her test. We had after-school jobs, and it wasn’t until Mom was in bed and we were once again in her bedroom that we remembered she’d gone to immigration headquarters that day.
How’d it go Mom?
Oh it was almost a fizzle, she said. “At first this nice young man testing me was sort of smiling and then he got kind of impatient and so he went to get his boss to find out what to do with me.”
The young man returned to the exam room with the head of U.S. Customs and Immigration in Seattle and started to introduce him to Mom.
“Oh I know May Doyle!” he said. For the past twenty years, his kids and her kids had gone to school and church together, played sports, had parties, and gone to college and work together. “She’s just fine. I can vouch for her citizenship.”
So Mom became an American, or as she would always correct us, “A United States citizen: Canada and Mexico are America too.”
But if it hadn’t been for our neighbor, maybe Mom’s citizenship would not have measured up, although she raised five kids of her own, and numerous other children, worked in a university nursing school, monitored elections, gardened and recycled, lent us all money, and looked after old people until she was older than the people she was taking care of. Her one complaint of old age was that she felt “so useless.”
Sometimes I think she was the best teacher I ever had, and one of the finest citizens that ever served “her” country.