I want to veer way off course for a minute. This is Friday Feature, the grand old flag edition.
Last Thursday I witnessed one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I attended a naturalization ceremony at Faneuil Hall. It was extra special because my husband, Nik, was sworn in as a United States citizen. Even apart from my personal connection, it was one of the most powerful, emotional ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed.
For starters, the ceremony took place in a building built in the mid-1700’s in a hall where Samuel Adams gave speeches during Revolutionary times. For another, 377 individuals took their oath that afternoon, from 84 countries around the world. 77 people were having their names changed along with their allegiance. The federal judge who presided over the ceremony — the child of immigrants herself — named each of the nations represented and invited people from each country to stand. Brazil, Cote D’Ivoire, France, Germany, Uganda, Senegal, China, India, of course.
I was overcome, looking down from the balcony among family and friends, imagining the circumstances from which all of these people came. No one’s story is simple, I thought to myself, even the ones that seem most black and white. I wondered if people were changing their names for a fresh start, to outrun their past, or because they had dreamed of being someone else. Years ago, while working in California, a colleague told me a story about his family — that his father had been assassinated by the government and his mother escaped with the children. Were these people’s stories harrowing, I thought.
A family sitting nearby held a big printed sign: Congratulations on your U.S. Citizenship, Mom! A Day Never To Be Forgotten! As the judge named each of the countries represented, families erupted in cheers. Two little boys behind me giggled to their father, We cheered so loud for Ireland!
In her address, the judge talked about civic duty, the responsibility to vote in elections and to serve on a jury. I’m so excited for Nik to vote, to influence and weigh in the elections that impact his daily life. I’ve wanted to sit on a jury panel for as long as I can remember — I’m so curious about the process and eager to play a role in it — though sometimes it seems I’m the only one.
A few summers ago, Nik and I traveled to Germany to visit my parents, who were living in Cologne at the time. Our trip overlapped with some younger cousins who were also visiting. One of the cousins is earnest, enthusiastic, and an easy, happy kid. The other is whip smart and curious, imaginative, and a little bit cynical. We are of the same generation, but years apart enough that it doesn’t feel exactly the same. We came of age with different world-circumstances: different Presidents, 9/11 and the Taliban, should-we or shouldn’t-we stances on war. During our visit, I got the sense that the one cousin was eager to learn, happy to be there, while the other was a little bit down on America. It wasn’t cool enough, or old enough, or foreign enough. When I said that to my father later, he told me a story about taking the cousins to Belgium. They toured a World War II battleground and cemetery, and the tour guide was effusive in his praise of the United States. Without you, he said, I would be German. I’m happy to be Belgian. You should be proud to be American. He sensed a shift in her attitude after that. I thought about that a lot last week, seeing hundreds of people take an oath to become American citizens. They wanted — for hundreds of reasons, I’m sure — to identify themselves as American. This country is young and tempestuous, but also innovative and inclusive. There have been missteps, but also great, far-reaching victories.
Following check-ins and paperwork, distribution of flags, and finally, the oath, the entire crowd was invited to stand. Led by an elementary school student, who’s mother had been sworn in moments before, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Surrounded by family and friends, strangers, new citizens, people who aspire to be, and those who are not interested or able, I found it difficult to utter the words without being overcome by emotion. There are plenty of times I watch the news, or see people behaving badly abroad that I wonder about our role in the world or others’ perceptions, but Thursday I wanted so deeply for everyone to experience a ceremony like this.
As a child, when we study heritage in school I’d ask my mom “what” we were and she’d tell me we were American. No! I’d sigh, I mean where are we from? Like in the olden days? You’re American, she’d repeat. It isn’t often that I feel deep, true pride when I think about being American; it’s not often I think about it at all, but last week, sitting in such a historic building, listening to the judge’s wise words, seeing my husband and hundreds of others stating such a loaded oath, well, proud is the only word I can find.
Have a powerful, meaningful, proud-of-who-you-are weekend.