The 26-year-old picture is still amazingly clear. Penelope Dianne Howard gazes up at me; brown eyes quiet, almost somber, her mouth closed in a slight smile. Was that me? This person doesn’t look like me. Why didn’t you smile really big like you would today? I wonder at the photograph. You worked so hard; this was a special occasion, I think, as I look at the picture of me, but no longer me. This was a long time ago; I was so shy, but also determined. The day the photograph was taken was life changing. I received my certificate of naturalization. It was August 26, 1986. As I took the oath, I heard a baby briefly cry among the crowd of families and friends watching this huge group become citizens. I wondered if that was my six-month-old son crying. I found out later that it was indeed my youngest son, Joe. It’s funny the things that you remember. It was a proud moment. I was officially an American citizen. I did it and I couldn’t wait to vote.
My path to citizenship all started with someone telling me that I would never become a citizen. Never? Well, that did it. My stubborn streak, coupled with indignation at someone telling me what I would or wouldn’t do, lit a fuse. Never indeed! At night I took adult education classes in American History and Civics; I bought history and political science books and studied. As we lived in California, I memorized the California senators and representatives names, and worked to educate myself in everything American to prepare for the citizenship test. Six months later, I was surrounded by all ages and nationalities in a Los Angeles District Court swearing allegiance to the United States.
A childhood dream had come true. As a little girl I was fascinated with America. My two aunts had married Americans and moved to the United States. My uncles were Americans as were my cousins. Once, when I was about six, I excitedly dreamed of my family’s plan to immigrate to America. My aunt had a job all lined up for my father at B. F. Goodrich in Akron; a home was waiting for us; all was prepared. And then my father changed his mind. He didn’t want to leave England. I vaguely remember my father trying to comfort me and not being able to explain why we couldn’t go when I asked why over and over again. I felt like my heart was broken. My little girl dream of living in the United States was crushed. Or so I thought. Today, as an adult, I understand what a child can’t possibly understand; that change, and moving away from the familiar, for some, is terrifying, while for others, an adventure. My father was the former; my mother was the latter. A few years later they divorced.
At age 11 my mother sent me and my sister to Manchester, Ohio to spend a summer with our aunt, uncle and five cousins. It was the best summer of my childhood. After that magical summer, all the more, I knew I wanted to cross the Atlantic as my aunts had many years earlier. I sounded very English, very proper, but my heart was in another place. Our lives changed four years later. My mother, sister and I left England and headed west to the land of opportunity and eventually, for all three of us, citizenship.
I’ve moved a lot in my life, but one of the first things that I do is register to vote. And with each election, local or national, I’m going to cast my vote as a proud American who happens to have an English accent.