I was born in the United States, no ifs ands or buts about it. Unlike Obama, I would happily furnish a copy of my birth certificate issued by the state of Florida.
But I could tell, even at an early age, that something was really weird about the whole arrangement. We didn’t speak English at home. And we didn’t speak just one other language. It was a constant mix of Spanish and German with only occasional English interjected between my father and mother; when my father and his mother didn’t want my mother to understand them, they whispered in German. When my father and my mother didn’t want his mother to understand them, they spoke English. When things were calm, we all spoke Spanish. Argentina winning the world cup was The Most Important Thing in the World, yet our walls were lined with beer steins lettered in gothic German. My grandmother used German words for everyday things, like articles of clothing, but shifted to Spanish when she wanted to be more eloquent.
My sister and I were forbidden to speak German in public and in the haze of paranoia we quickly learned to opt for Spanish. English was slow in coming; on my first day of preschool (rare for the 1970s) I couldn’t understand a word the teachers said. My mother was mortified.
My mother’s parents, stodgy New Englanders, occasionally visited us down south and were horrified by my non-English speaking paternal grandma (she eventually did pick up fluent English, until she suffered a stroke) and my father’s strangely accented English. I don’t remember learning the pledge of allegiance until we moved to New England and were enrolled in the local public schools. Hand over heart, we chanted to the American flag. But wasn’t Argentina winning the world cup The Most Important Thing in the World?
We sang patriotic songs in school, the music books yellowed and dog eared. My Country ’tis of Thee, America the Beautiful, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. In fourth grade I won a state writing competition sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. To my great shock I learned my mother, and her mother, were DAR, and her stodgy mother went so far as to personally attend the award ceremony that was packed wall to wall with DAR ladies in Sunday best. But… what about Argentina winning the world cup?
It wasn’t until I was fourteen years old that I was able to see Argentina for myself. I blogged about that experience in this post. And here is a picture of fourteen year old me on the streets of Quilmes. Note the old cars- like Cuba, Argentina holds onto its cars.
Our grim task that trip was to rebury my father’s father, whom I’d never met and knew nothing about.
While our accommodations in Argentina were lovely I found myself constantly feeling like a fish out of water. The people were strange. The food was strange. Everything was strange! I just wanted to get back home. Our expedition eventually drew to a close and we made the long flight back to the US (with a very long delay in a Brazil, that sent my father into a tirade against the airport personnel). Finally, in Logan Airport, we gathered our luggage and found our car in the garage. Emerging from the garage’s darkness a bright morning sun glared in my face. American sun, I realized with joy. American sun! And then- I don’t know if it was a government or commercial building- but we passed a large building that had an American flag high up on a pole, billowing in the wind.
The entire history of this country, at least as my 14 year old self knew it, flashed before my eyes upon sight of that flag, and a visceral relief poured over me. In an instant I saw every soldier who had suffered and died for that flag, every battle that had been fought; I collapsed against the back seat, eyes closed, tears streaming down my face. My mother turned to stare, perplexed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I lied. “I’m just glad to be home.”
And that was the moment I realized I was an American, Argentina winning the world cup notwithstanding.
I made an inner vow to myself that I would never leave the country again. I only betrayed that vow once- when I visited Britain for the sole purpose of seeing the Tate Gallery, which I regretted (but that’s another blog post), and since then my feet have never touched anything but good old American soil.
To this day I still feel some version of that emotion when I see an American flag. Whether it’s on a Con Edison truck, fluttering from someone’s doorstep, or atop the roof of Costco. Thank God, is the feeling, thank God I’m here.