The Long Road to the Ballot Box

I stood in the voting booth at the high school in rural California, 200 miles north of San Francisco. The pen made a soft noise as I filled in the bubbles next to the names I had chosen. I was excited. This was my first time voting in the United States. It was a school-board election.

"Congratulations," said Mike, my husband.

"Did you vote, Mom?" asked Stephen, my teenage son. "Cool. In a few years, I'll be able to vote."

Several years ago, as we sat down to eat Thanksgiving dinner, Mike had said, "Well, Joan, you can cook a delicious turkey dinner. You've passed the test: You can apply to become a citizen."

"Sure can, Mom," Stephen had said. "This is award-winning gravy."

"You'd pass with flying colors," murmured Colleen, my 13-year-old daughter, her mouth crammed with candied yams.

"Maybe the test will be about baseball," my mother-in-law said, laughing. "You love the game."

My husband and I met in New Zealand, where I was born. We married in 1976 in California. I had an alien registration (green) card. I had lived in the US for more than five years as a legal resident, so I was eligible to apply to become a citizen.

But I loved my place of birth also. Would I have to give up my New Zealand citizenship? And where would I find time to study? I lived nowhere near a college. I'd have to study at home.

I learned through the New Zealand Consulate that I'd be able to keep my New Zealand passport.

My husband said, "I'll help with the dinners and the dishes."

"I'll quiz you," said Stephen.

"Mom, I'll help Dad with the dishes," said Colleen.

So I sent my application, two recent photos of myself, and my fingerprints to the Immigration Department in San Francisco.

I put the books I needed to study on a table by my bed. Every spare moment I'd dash in and read a chapter. The books were: "United States History 1600-1987," "US Government Structure," and "Citizenship Education and Naturalization Information."

Stephen arrived home one day and dropped three large history books and several videos in my lap. "I guess we can watch history together," he said.

We enjoyed learning about the first colonies, the 13 original states, the Revolutionary War, and how the nation grew.

"This is certainly a good review for me about all the forms of government," Mike said. "Soon you'll know more history than I do."

"I'll know it all when I get to 10th grade," Colleen said.

Stephen gave me an examination at the end of each chapter.

Then one busy day I received a note to appear in San Francisco to take the test. As we packed the car, my son threw his pillow in and said, "Dad, do you have the baseball tickets?"

"In my pocket," my husband called back.

"Mom, do you have all the answers?" Colleen said, giggling.

We huddled together in the noisy room on Sansome Street. The Immigration Building was crowded with people from many different countries. The 15-minute wait seemed endless. Suddenly, a voice boomed my name, and I went into a bright office where a smiling lady waited behind a large desk. She had my documents in front of her and she said, "Raise your right hand and swear that everything you have sent in is the truth." She then asked me to write a sentence; all applicants must be able to speak, understand, and write simple English. That was easy - English is my native language. Next the questions were fired at me.

"What do you need to be able to vote?"

"Who was president during the Civil War?"

Ten questions were asked. I answered all of them correctly. I hugged Mike.

A few months later, we drove to Eureka, 60 miles north of our town of Miranda, for the final court hearing. In the small Humboldt County Court House, 16 people were called to take their place in front of the Superior Court. Mike pushed a bunch of red roses into my hand, and I clutched a piece of greenstone from New Zealand. The distinguished black-clad judge arrived, and everybody rose. He welcomed all the people on this final step to being naturalized. He said it was one of the fun happenings in his court.

The new citizens recited the oath of allegiance or loyalty to the United States. Now I was a US citizen, and as I held my Certification of Naturalization, I realized I was at the end of a long road. I would be able to vote for school-board members and this year help elect the president.

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