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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

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Mexico, 1996

The first time I attempted to come to the United States to see Patrick, I was turned back at the border. It was a wretched autumn day in 1995, shortly before my twenty-sixth birthday. I was travelling on a one way ticket, I had no cash, no job, and no idea how long I expected to stay. It hadn't occurred to either of us that these circumstances would raise an eyebrow with anyone. As the immigration officer at the Toronto airport verified them, my hands and voice shook. Not because I was making any effort to deceive him, but because I was the middle of coming completely unglued.

"Come with me, please" the officer said, and I was deposited in a waiting room, under an enormous circular wall plaque of a bald eagle, that looked like it might swoop down and eat me. I thought I was going to be sent to the gulag. My departure flight came and went. By the time I was called into an interview room, I was ready to click my heels together however many times it took to go home. The interviewing officer never got past the entry menu on his computer screen. In desperation, I blurted out my story: I was running away from home, but would turn around and go back if only he would let me.

He stared at me a long moment across his desk. Then he silently and slowly handed me back my passport, took me by the arm, and walked me back to the Canadian side of the airport. I found a bank of payphones and made two calls. One was to Patrick.

We still refer to the entire episode as "the Toronto fiasco."

Very shortly after, Patrick left Little Rock for Mexico. I had a letter from him in December. On January 16, I woke up very early in the morning, kissed everything beloved and familiar goodbye, and boarded a bus.

Five months later, we came across the border together, having completely run out of pesos. We had decided, because it was closer, that we would drive to Arkansas, stay with Patrick's family a while, and he would find work just long enough to get us back to San Miguel as soon as possible.

My first night in the United States was spent in a fleabag motel in Laredo, Texas. After coming through customs, we drove through the town in search of a cheap dinner. Huge signs everywhere advertised "GUNS BEER AMMO" in handpainted letters. After eating a fast food meal that seemed to be of obscene proportions, Patrick dropped me back at the motel, and said he was going out to buy cigarettes. You might think I am joking, or exaggerating, but I was literally afraid he would be shot if he left our room. As far as I knew from television, every United States citizen was armed to the teeth, running around shooting each other over imported vehicles, and blowing up each other in their own federal buildings (bear in mind this was pre-Columbine, pre-September 11.)

We never did make it back to San Miguel. Patrick got a job, we got an apartment, got married, had a bunch of children. I haven't the slightest regret about that. It has been good to settle.

Upon returning from Ireland last winter, I revisited those early years in America, in this post. I won't go into them here, except to say that my initial terror soon gave way to bemused detachment, and I might have stayed there, except that I became a mother to three United States citizens.

When my firstborn was very small, and I would think about sending him to school here one day, I obsessed over whether I could, in good conscience, let him recite the Pledge of Allegiance, as all American school children do. This is amusing to me on so many levels now, but at the time, the dilemma was every bit as serious as my perceived threat of random gunfire in Laredo. It wasn't until after my second child was born—when it began to dawn on me that my offspring were not me— that I realized he is the American, whatever I think about it. It's his country, his pledge.

I was beginning to warm up, little by little, to the idea of America as Americans understand it, not as the rest of the world unfortunately experiences it. I was learning about the America of Thomas Jefferson, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr., and Katharine Lee Bates. I was starting to appreciate Leonard Cohen's take on it, as "the cradle of the best and the worst." You could peel back the onion skin forever and ever, and never get down to one, singular truth about this country. But my appreciation for the complexity of it was still intellectual.

I don't know when I crossed the emotional borderline. I only remember when I noticed that I had. I was driving my mother's car through my hometown, on September 14, 2001. I had been home for my father's funeral, and was stranded, once again, on the other side of the border from Patrick. On the CBC radio, there was a live broadcast of ceremonies in Ottawa to observe the fallen of September 11. They opened with the Canadian anthem. Then someone sang the Star Spangled Banner.

I wept with a heart that was broken. And I knew it was no longer "their" anthem. It was mine too.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

—excerpt from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus,
inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty

Have a glorious fourth of July. Let freedom ring for all. Be peace.

To read more about my American experience, see the label below for "america". Also, read this wonderful tribute by my friend and fellow Commonwealth expat, Georgia.



Blogger Tom said...

Nice post and much appreciated. Sometimes even us cynical-of-our-country Americans need to cut the ol' girl a little slack. Reading your entry helped me do that.

Below is a link the best version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" I've ever heard. It was done by singer/songwriter Michael McDermott at the Cubs/White Sox game on the 2th of July last year. (It is a video file, although not an enormous one.) I hope you don't mind my linking it here; feel free to delete this comment if you do.


3:45 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

as my lovely american mother would say : "here's to the glorious 4th of july"

8:28 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

tom, this a test of allegiance?

Kidding--I don't mind the link one bit, and will give it a listen. Lyrically, I much prefer America the Beautiful for an anthem, but there are few melodies as stirring as the ole' star spangled.

Happy 4th.

11:23 PM  

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