The Day My Rights Changed
by Ruth Spencer
On that morning in October 1981, I entered the subway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not yet fully aware of the changes the day would bring to my life.
The previous day I had notified the head of the Photo Collection at Time that I needed to take the morning off because I was to become an American Citizen. It was something I had decided to do like so many other things I had decided for myself throughout my life. Gil, my youngest son, was born in New York and I was now divorced from his father; I knew that I could never again live in Europe. The United States had become my country and English my primary language. It was time to do the right thing.
As I climbed the steps of the Federal Court House in Lower Manhattan I thought of some of the many events that took place in my life since my birth in Czechoslovakia fifty-two years ago. My parents had separated while I was still a baby. My mother returned home to Germany where I grew up until 1939, the year I was sent to relatives in France to escape from the Nazis. She, however, never made it to safety and was murdered in Auschwitz. Of my father I had no memory whatsoever and knew nothing about him, except his name and the name of the town where he was born.
It was in 1959, after my trip to Czechoslovakia, that I found out that he was alive and lived in New York. I was delirious with joy and apprehension then, and vividly remember our reunion in New York the following year. It was my father who suggested that I should come to live in the United States; he was certain that I would have a better future here than in France. After some hesitations, and the sudden death of a dear friend, I decided to follow his advice. In 1961 I moved to New York.
When I entered the Court House I was directed to a waiting area already filled with people, all there for the same reason: To become an American. One by one we were ushered into a big courtroom. There was total silence when the gavel fell and a judge read to us the rights that were to become the rights for a hundred new citizens of the United States of America. I felt my emotions rise, my throat tighten and tears run down my face while I took the Oath of Allegiance. Then it was all over. As we filed out of the courtroom, the judge shook every single person’s hand and said some kind and welcoming words.
As I stepped outside the building, the sun was shining from a clear blue sky. I could not have wished for a more beautiful day to become an American citizen. I wanted to shout for the world to hear “I am American.” I was so proud of myself and above all so proud of my new nationality and very much needed to share my feelings. I found a pay phone and called Gil in California but there was no answer. I called my father in Florida but there was no answer. I called my aunt in New York and again there was no answer. Resigned and disappointed, I walked down the steps of the Court House, had a bite to eat somewhere, and made my way to my office on the 28th floor in the Time Life building in Rockefeller Center.
While getting busy at my desk I noticed that some unusual activities were happening around me. The top of a low cabinet was covered with a red and white-checkered tablecloth. Red white and blue napkins and paper plates appeared. Several pies sprouting American flags showed up. I was still wondering what the reason for all this was when I was handed a glass of Champagne and asked to join everyone in the Collection as they all raised their glasses to congratulate me. They informed me that from now on I was “as American as apple pie.” I was presented with a huge enlargement of a photograph of Francois Mitterrand, the then President of France. Tears had been painted on his cheeks and, handwritten across the portrait, “Ruth is his loss and our gain.” I could not believe what was happening. All this hush hush activity was for me? Was I really that important? Perhaps. But then this, after all, is the generous American way of making one feel appreciated and welcome. As I began to express my thanks to everyone for this totally unexpected and wonderful surprise my emotions once again got hold of me and I just stood there, surrounded by some twenty supportive colleagues, and cried. A few minutes later
I was able to control my tears and happily shared in the celebration, answered questions, and ate apple pie.
What a day! A day to remember.