I was wide awake. 3:30am. Jet lag – I only arrived back from England last Monday, and it always takes me a week to get back on track with my sleep. Now 4:30am. Questions and answers running through my mind. I had them licked – but how would I fare under pressure? Who knew? Finally, sleep again. Until 6:30am.
OK, so maybe I am overstating my concerns about this, but believe me, I had known people blow this thing that I had embarked upon, so I made sure I was well prepped. I had a folder with every single document required, I had done my homework and I was ready. My husband insisted upon coming with me, even though I said, “You know, there’ll be a lot of waiting around – I’ll be OK on my own.” “Oh no,” he said. “This is way too important. I’ll be there in the waiting room.”
The instructions were clear from the outset. I had to be appropriately attired. So, what would it be? The red jacket with a blue and white scarf, just to set off on the right foot? Or should it be sober grey? In the end it was my black jacket (but should it be the 10-year-old first-ever-book-tour-crumple-free-in-a-suitcase jacket, or the eBay-Chanel-big-time-buyer’s-remorse jacket? I went with the crumple free, plus the six-year-old-fourth-book-tour-black-pants and the vintage Hermes scarf (pink, because it’s spring) – another eBay find, this time without regret. My late mother-in-law was responsible for my love of Hermes scarves – she bought me three, all told. She had served with the American Army Nursing Corps in WW2, shipping out to Europe on the Queen Mary in 1942, to return home some four years later – she would be proud of me, though I think she would have preferred that red, white and blue Hermes scarf. She loved her scarves, my mother-in-law.
I’d allowed time to get stuck in traffic, to go back home if I forgot something – so we were early. Time for even more adrenalin to flood the system. And then we were there. 630 Sansome Street in San Francisco. According to my husband, once inside it’s like a cross between Stasi headquarters and the DMV. Mind you, he can say that sort of thing – they can’t kick him out because he was born here, a Cleveland boy. For someone arriving for their citizenship interview, well, it’s just Daunting Central and you’d better keep your opinions to yourself.
This office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the INS) was not unknown to me – I’d been there years ago for my Permanent Residence interview. In fact, I need never have come again, because as a legal immigrant, I could have just continued renewing my green card every ten years. But there are advantages to having citizenship – and one is to vote in an election. As a US taxpayer for almost a quarter century that is something I wanted to do, and there were other considerations – it was time. And applying for citizenship is not something I had done lightly – Our Jim Born will attest to that. I collared him at the Virginia Festival of the Book (how many years ago was that, Jim?), to talk to him about the right to bear arms, and wanted to know what he thought. He advised me that I had to follow my heart, and if that was something I could not swear to – that effectively I would take up a weapon to protect the United States – then I should not do it. He was right.
I gave it a lot of thought. At the time I was disillusioned with what I thought were a bunch of gun-happy politicians – and not only in the USA, mind you – too willing to wage war. But I read the relevant parts of the Constitution and I read the Declaration of Independence, and I did my homework and a lot of thinking. And I realized that if I wanted to live in a country, I had better be willing to protect it – and that is what I saw reflected in those important documents. I was not being asked to tote a gun to Safeway, or to approve of those who do. I was being asked to protect the land of my choosing.
It was as I signed in for my appointment that I wondered how different people interpreted “appropriate attire” for an interview for citizenship. The young woman checking in next to me looked as if she’d come straight from a party with the Kardashians. A yellow mini skirt, black panty hose, red high heels and a leather jacket over a nicely coordinated turquoise-blue t-shirt. Make-up applied with a trowel. She carried only her iPhone in a twinkly little wallet. I wondered if all her docs were on that iPhone, and where she had put the copies the instructions indicated should be brought to the interview. She tapped her inch-long fingernails on the counter as she waited, looking sideways at the bulging folder I carried, marked “Naturalization Application.”
I was instructed to wait in section B. My husband sat next to me, and I watched as he eyed up other applicants. Only an Australian wore a suit – everyone else was in a variation of jeans and other very, very casual wear. John leaned in to whisper in my ear. “You are way overdressed,” he said. “They won’t let you in looking like a stuck-up Brit.” He grinned, which was just as well because my adrenalin was REALLY pumping now. This was no place to throttle an American.
Finally I was called for my interview. I swore to tell the truth and the officer started without missing a beat. Every single departure and entry back into the United States was reviewed, and I explained why I was away for five months in 2012 – that’s when my Dad passed away. I was asked to state my occupation. Writer. I was asked what I write, so I just said “Historical Novels.” I didn’t want to get into it, but then he said he was really interested in WW1. I grinned. We were on my turf. He said that he had always wanted to go to the battlefields of Flanders. Yes! “I’ve been three times,” I said. Then he looked at his notes. And we were back to business. Read this sentence. Write these words. Answer these questions – and they came fast. Had I ever committed a crime? Had I been married more than once? Or to two people at the same time? Had I ever lied on an official form? Had I done this? Had I done that? No. No. No. No.
Then onto the next jump. Questions on American history and Civics. You have to get six correct answers out of ten. I aced the first six, so he stopped there. It was the only time I slipped up – ish. “Can’t I answer the others?” I said. “I did all that work!” He laughed. “It’s OK. You passed.” Then he smiled and held out his hand. “Congratulations. You’re approved for citizenship of the United States of America.” My bottom lip wobbled.
It’s not a done deal until I take the Oath of Allegiance, which he said he would try to have scheduled for the end of April – turns out the next San Francisco Oath Ceremony is on my birthday, and he didn’t miss the connection. So, fingers crossed.
I left the office still shaking, walked along the bland antiseptic hallway and out into the waiting area. My husband stood up to greet me and I gave him the thumbs up. We hugged among that sea of plastic chairs and the smiling faces of people waiting –there weren’t many; it was a slow Good Friday in the Citizenship department. And I guess we looked kind of funny, the woman in business-black and a posh pink scarf and a guy in jeans and a sweatshirt. I looked around and smiled back – and I could tell that each of the earth’s continents was represented there in Section B, a gathering of people who had come searching for a new Life, Liberty and their stab at the Pursuit of Happiness in the United States of America. There’s nothing bland, really, about a latter-day Ellis Island.
Have a lovely Easter. It’s my favorite holiday, the herald of new beginnings.
PS: And what did my mother say in a ‘phone call on the morning of my interview. “The best of British luck to you, my darling.”