“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America …” Three hundred sixty-two people crowded into Faneuil Hall in Boston to say the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as American citizens on Thursday. Although it was a collection of nearly every nationality in the world, the inductees looked like random people off the street. Black, white, Hispanic, young, old — there was nothing to indicate that this group of people had recently immigrated to the U.S.
Among the inductees stood 81-year-old Anne McCarron from Edgartown, my grandmother. She’s lived in the States since she was a junior in high school. That was in 1950.
“For me, the biggest thing was taking the test,” “Grannie Annie” told me as a way to explain her delay in taking the exam; “I was always a nervous test taker.” The citizenship test for persons over 60 is 10 questions drawn from a pool of 100. The questions cover U.S. history and government. In order to pass, applicants for citizenship must get six of them correct. When my grandmother graduated from Boston University, she received a work visa so that she could work in the States as a physical therapist. The citizenship test acted as a barrier for her to turn that permission into permanent citizenship.
“I’ve lived in this country,” she told me, “but I wasn’t a hundred percent a part of it. It was especially apparent during voting season. I would avoid Main Street so that no one would see me and invite me to come vote, because then I’d have to explain to them that I’m not a U.S. citizen.” When her husband, Richard (my grandfather), died in 2009, the family decided that it was time for a change. Anne had lived in this country for nearly 70 years; it was time she became truly part of it.
“The first time I came to America,” she told me about her arrival, “was when our boat from France landed in New York City, and we stayed there for a few weeks before moving to Canada. That was in 1942; I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time. I was so impressed with all the big buildings, I went up to the doorman at the Empire State Building and asked if he owned it!”
In 1939, at the dawn of World War II, Anne, her sister Eva, her mother Jadwiga (Mimi), her father Mieczyslaw, Aunt Sophie, and Cousin Andrew had escaped from Poland. Mieczyslaw had been a professor of terrestrial engineering at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. His knowledge could have had great value to the Nazi regime, making him a “high value” target. Mieczyslaw was among roughly 400 high-value people protected by the Polish government, which enabled the entire family to safely get out of the country before it fell to the Nazis. Poland’s efforts paid off for the U.S.; he went on to be the principal engineer for NASA’s lunar rover.
Anne was 5 years old when they left. She said, “Poland is a far-away place, but because of my parents and family, it’s been in my thoughts. I remember things, but I’m not sure if it’s my actual memories or what my parents told me. My parents were always Polish, and my father never lost touch with Poland. However, I always felt American.”
They made their way into France as refugees, hoping to emigrate to a nation untouched by the war. They remained in France until immigrating to Ottawa, Canada, in 1942, then to Hoboken, N.J., in 1950. For Anne, France was part of her childhood, and her memories from that time are colored by an innocence unique to youth: “I remember childish experiences from France, such as building a bonfire to roast potatoes and being told to put it out because of enemy planes being able to see it. Also, I had this mouse which I kept in a box. He was my pet mouse and lived in this box which I took everywhere. One day we were at Mass and he escaped, and I was trying to look for him without anyone realizing what I was doing. Also, during the air-raid drills, I would gather up some of the insects and put them in another box with leaves and grass and twigs so that they would be comfortable during the raids. Just childish memories.”
Her parents did their best to shelter Anne and Eva from the destruction. She said, “I was very lucky. My parents shielded us from the war. We weren’t allowed to look at magazines, like Time magazine, that had pictures from the war. I was even afraid of the King Kong movie — I would never watch it alone — I could never have looked at war pictures.”
America was a place of wonder for Anne. Aside from the skyscrapers in New York, it was a place full of new, exciting things. “I got this doll from the Salvation Army in France,” she told me, “and the address from the family who had sent it was on the bottom of the shoe. It was from this family in Montclair, N.J. — I forget the name of the family. When we visited the States, they invited us over for spaghetti and meatballs. I’d never had spaghetti and meatballs before.” She gave a little chuckle at this. She and my grandfather ended up having five boys and one girl, and spaghetti and meatballs became a staple of their diet.
When they moved to Canada, Anne and Eva were sent to a dual-language school that spoke French the first half of the day and English the second. Her parents had decided that this transition would be easier — the girls would have to learn English somehow. She said, “We were oddities to the other students; they asked me if we lived in igloos in Poland.” The sisters picked up English quickly, and with true Canadian flair, Anne became an accomplished skater.
By then, Anne had become a naturalized Canadian citizen — as a minor, the benefit transferred from her parents, who had become Canadian citizens, to her.
They moved to Hoboken, N.J., when Anne was a junior in high school. By the time her parents became U.S. citizens, Anne was over 18, and would have to accomplish that task on her own — something that proved to take almost 70 years.
At Faneuil Hall, the mood was festive. Family members and loved ones filled the gallery, and the inductees took seats on the floor. A large black man sitting next to us cradled a baby girl who fit on his forearm, from his palm to elbow. He pointed out the baby’s mother to us, up on the stage, in the process of being inducted. The man tried to focus on the child in his arms while he watched, with pride in his eyes, as his wife became a U.S. citizen.
I understood his excitement. The ceremony at Faneuil Hall signified a form of safety for him and his family. The little girl — a U.S. citizen — will never have to be afraid that her mother will be deported.
There were many young children in the gallery and, unlike this girl, some wailed at the top of their lungs, sustaining such high notes that I wondered that they didn’t lose their voices right there. I guess they couldn’t understand the significance of their loved ones becoming U.S. citizens — the right to not be deported, the right to free speech, and the right to vote didn’t hold sway over the fact that they were forced to sit in a chair for three hours.
For people such as my grandmother, though, the day was momentous. The most exciting part for her was getting the right to vote. She said, “I’m certainly not a political person, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more interested in the running of countries. I will give a lot of thought to who I’m going to vote for. As of right now, I’m not 100 percent sure, but I’m leaning towards Hillary. She has more experience on a national level and with foreign affairs. Her being a woman isn’t a consideration for me. She happens to be a woman, but she also happens to be a bright human being with a lot of experience in politics.”
Although she was born in Poland and has lived in three different countries since then, she said, “It was so long ago and I’ve changed so much since childhood. For me, life began in college and when I was getting married, and that was all in the United States of America. I’ve always felt American.”
Now she has the paper to prove she is.
Sophia McCarron, a junior at MVRHS, is an MVTimes intern and frequent contributor.