09/27/2006 - 4:30 p.m.


I believe in the power of stories, particularly true ones. The meaning of them is something we each must work out for ourselves.

My grandmother was an illegal alien. She did not intend to be. She did not even realize that she was for a very long time. But she was—and I find myself wondering what would have happened to her had the truth come out now rather than almost thirty years ago. For all I know, she'd be in detention in some federal prison somewhere or back in Belarus. That's the current climate and our current tolerance for such things.

My paternal grandmother was born in Belarus, what she referred to as "White Russia." She lived through World War I there. She lived through the Russian Revolution there. But when the communists decided to seize her father's business, among many others, he decided it was time to get his family out. He had family in America and began the steps necessary to come there. But the days of almost wide-open immigration had changed. We were going through one of our periodic immigrant bashing periods so they could not go to America, at least not right away. Nevertheless, they believed they had to leave so they took the opportunity that was open to them. . My great-grandfather bought the tickets as cheaply as he could manage and they went to Canada.

But they kept trying and, after a while, and after some family help from this country, they were allowed to come into America. My grandmother was a young woman then. She got a job and worked hard. So did her father. Both were good with languages and learned English fairly quickly. My great-grandfather adopted this land all the way, took classes, and became a citizen. As he became a citizen, he asked what he needed to do to make sure his children also were citizens. They looked at the documents he had. "Nothing," they told him. "They become citizens when you do." They did not know that some of the documents gave Grandma's age wrong. She did not know to question the advice. She was a citizen---or so she thought.

She was proud of her country. She married. She worked. She voted. She paid her taxes. She and her husband started a grocery and, after it failed, they paid back every penny they owed. They could have declared bankruptcy and wiped out the debts but that was not who they were. That was not who she was. She sent a son off to the army although she felt lucky that he spent the Korean War someplace other than Korea. She was a patriot but she was also a mother.

And then she turned sixty-five and went off to apply for social security and they told her there was a problem. According to their documents, she was not old enough. If she was old enough, she was not a citizen. She knew she was old enough.

Back then, the problem was relatively easy to fix. Rather than have her go through the classes, become a citizen, and perhaps not qualify for social security, a local congressman had a special act of Congress passed. Can you imagine how hard that might be to do now for an ordinary woman? I can see the politics now.

So, she became a citizen, more than forty years after she thought she already was. As the judge swore her in, he turned to her and commented that he hoped none of the elections she voted in had involved someone winning by only one vote. Which, of course, brings us to the current craziness in our voting system.

But that's a topic for another day.

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