She came to the United States in 1956 when she was just 18 years old, traveling with a small group of girls that she grew up with. Through an agency, she had a job lined up as a live-in domestic for a wealthy family in Manhattan.
She arrived at Idlewild, excited and scared at the same time. During the war, in which her town had endured several brutal attacks by German warplanes, she began to love America. They were the good guys, the saviors and guardians of the entire world.
And now, she was here. A driver had been dispatched and drove her back to Manhattan, over the 59th Street Bridge just as the sun was starting to set.
“The city was gigantic, it seemed impossible that something could be so big,” she told me. “Postcards couldn’t prepare you for seeing New York City for the very first time.
“And the colors were out of this world! There was a beautiful sunset the day I arrived. And as we crossed over the 59th Street Bridge, surrounded by all the yellow cabs and the neon lights, I felt like I was in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when the movie suddenly switched from black and white to color.”
By the time she got to her new home, she was exhausted. The trip from Scotland had taken 26 hours and she hadn’t slept properly in double that.
After an introduction to her sponsors and a quick bite to eat, she was shown to her room, where she had a small bed next to a window.
“I could see the Empire State Building from my pillow,” she said. “That’s what I fell asleep looking at on my first night in America.”
A few years later she was out on her own, sharing an apartment on the Upper West Side with a few other girls from back home.
“We went dancing all the time, that’s what we did to pass the time,” she said. “But you always had to carry your ID and papers.”
One time, police came into the club they were at, asking everyone for their ID. One of the girls had forgotten hers and was detained until my mom went back to the apartment and got it. She carried her ID with her everywhere, long after she had met and married my father, and brought me into the world.
It was our first color television set which finally prompted her to apply for citizenship. It was being paid off a few dollars a month and when we fell a few months behind, the store sent out the enforcers.
The man who called our house threatened my mom, saying that if she didn’t pay up he would report her; she’d be thrown out of the country, forever separated from her husband and child.
By the time my dad got home from work, she was in tears, frightened. My father called the man and delivered a few harsh words and, as far as I know, we never heard from him again. But it was that phone call that convinced my mom to apply to be a citizen.
“I don’t know why I didn’t apply before. I met your father, we got married and had you, there never seemed to be time,” she told me. “But now I had to. And I really wanted to.”
They gave her a small booklet from which she had to study and memorize facts about our country. It was 1975, I was in the 5th grade at PS 60 and I loved going through the booklet, studying with her and quizzing her.
One day in late June, we packed into a huge courtroom in Manhattan. She passed her test and raised her hand, along with nearly a hundred other people, and swore the Pledge of Allegiance for the very first time as an American.
The judge told them that when they recite the pledge, they weren’t just pledging allegiance to their new country, but also to all of their fellow citizens. He finished by smiling and welcoming them to the United States of America.
When she came back to our bench, she was crying. So were a lot of the others in the room. It was a very proud, emotional day for a lot of people.
My mom never forgot that feeling and really celebrated every Fourth of July well. In 1986, she went all out, dressing up as the Statue of Liberty to celebrate its centennial.
She may have been far from the country she was born in, but she was home. She loved this country and its people from the moment she arrived until the moment she died.
For Elizabeth Petrie Burns Wendell, it should be said, there was no place like home.