Holding a Candle to a Citizenship Oath
Pierre Tristam | December 16, 2013
I don’t often enough speak of my fondness for the United States because it’s so easy to take this country for granted. It’s one of those things Americans do best, and an unfortunate symptom of successful assimilation in immigrants of long date. But once a year, on December 16, I light a candle to my adopted country. It’s as religious as I get the entire year, though it has nothing to do with advent or a Hanukkah abridgment. Just as Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas a couple of weeks late, my Thanksgiving falls about three weeks later than the one officially proclaimed by Macy’s and FDR. It’s the anniversary of my naturalization.
That grayish morning 27 years ago I was one among a few hundred Technicolor-skinned and Babel-tongued immigrants who jammed into an enormous hall at the Federal court for the Eastern District of New York on Cadman Plaza, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and recited the oath of citizenship. As any immigrant will tell you, it’s one of the most important days of our lives, a sort of second birthday that can sometimes have more significance than the first. We don’t choose to be born. We choose to become American, a primal choice in a land where choice is bounty and burden.
We did it all together like at one of those mass Sun Myung Moon weddings, but with a lot more certainty that this kind of marriage would last even though it was 1986, well into the era of borrowed certainties inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. America can be harsh, it can be punishing, cruel and indifferent, and it can be disturbingly violent, still a surprise for some of us who came here to escape the violence of our own native land. Most of us learn all this first-hand during our Green Card years, that probation period when the country makes us wait at least five years before we can take the oath.
But like the best of spouses, it is also forgiving, generous, surprising, and amazingly indulgent. In illness and in health, America will stand by you. It’ll bill you ruinously for the privilege, if you get sick especially. But in a land with the world’s second-highest divorce rate (after Russia, where marriage is a job like any other: you move on when you can), immigrants would have to rack up a hell of a rap sheet to be deported. Not that, false assumptions aside, the nation has to worry about immigrants: they (we) are far more law-abiding than native-born models. We also work more obsessively and contribute proportionately more to the economy than the native born, and vote in higher proportions, though that last distinction, given the majorities of political retrogrades and degenerates we’ve been enduring, isn’t to our credit.
Let’s not brag: the native born might complain about us taking that particular talent away from them. Today’s occasion is more about gratefulness. And so: the candle. It’s the same candle I’ve lit for the past 27 years, the first time taking place I think in New Jersey, of all altered states. It was a gift from Carl Joslyn, a high school friend from Jersey I now meet at Epcot once a year so we can talk about the American children we’ve fathered and the things they in turn are taking for granted. More than we ever did of course because ours was the last of the great generations and theirs is the worst since the one that brought on the Flood: illusory belief in a golden age is also an unalienable right of American citizenship, though not so much one unique to this country.
The candle is old now, the red and blue stripes on its octagonal sides fading (these colors do run). The wick takes a long time to exhume from its bed of wax, and to fire up: like its owner, it’s so much past its prime that it needs caffeinated fuel to get going. Once it does, the flame is modest, the self-assurance replaced by flickers, the greenhouse-gas emissions more Hard-Times-Dickens than Kyoto. But it still lights up, and I suspect it’ll continue to should my son keep up the tradition long after I’ve been made catnip for a crematorium’s fuller flames.
Its modesty is a useful corrective to undue bluster. I’d love the flame however it burns. I love the candle just as much the 364 other days of the year when it sits unlit on top of a shelf, a reminder that it doesn’t need a daily proclamation to validate what it stands for. It is enough to know it’s there.