Image: Filip Bunkens

It started that night in September during the long march to the presidential nominations. It started with a bedtime story.

“Bubbe’s an alien,” said 6-year-old Abby, giggling in the trundle bed, her long brown curls flying about her head.

“Hungry alien from Planet GobbleU,” said her Bubbe Rose nuzzling her from the nearby daybed.

Running out of stories of fairies and princesses and tales from her Russian childhood, Rose had recently switched to telling stories about space monsters.

“Sh! Daddy’s coming!” Abby warned.

As Michael peeked into the bedroom, Rose and Abby both pretended to sleep.

“No more chattering,” said Michael. “School tomorrow.”

After Michael’s footsteps faded down the hall, Abby whispered, “Do you have to go home tomorrow, Bubbe?”

“Zeide Jacob needs me,” said Rose. Jacob didn’t really need her. He was always busy with his other interests. But her daughter and son-in-law didn’t need her either. For three weeks they had cared for her in their small Bellevue apartment as she recovered from a stress fracture near the knee. Rose didn’t want a stress fracture in their relationship.

That day after dinner, they had watched the Republican candidates debate.  

“Who are you voting for, Bubbe?” asked Abby.

“I am voting for you,” said Rose. The truth was she could no more vote than Abby could. She was a permanent resident, but she wasn’t a citizen.

Then Ellen had said, “Papa seems lonely. He said three weeks was a long time for you to be away.”

“Tomorrow I go home,” said Rose. But she knew that it was Ellen who thought three weeks was a long time. No use reminding Ellen that she’d lived with her parents for 18 years.

That night, as she slept fitfully near her granddaughter, an alien with one eye, chicken legs, and two big blue wings carried Rose to his faraway planet to tell stories to his 10 children. But one by one, the alien nestlings spread their own blue wings and flew off to school. Rose tried to follow them, but she had no wings.

Back at home in their apartment in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, Rose, speaking in their native Russian, announced to Jacob that she was going to school.

“To school? What for?” asked Jacob. “You are going to be a doctor?”

“Why not? Better I should be a lawyer. No, I am going to study English.”

“You already know enough English to tell your Bubbe Meises.”

“I am going to study to be a citizen.”

“Why do you need to be a citizen?”

“So I can vote for president.”

“Without your help, they can’t pick a president?”

“Jacob, this country has been good to the Jews. Here we can be full citizens.”

“You are asking for trouble, Rose. Remember what happened to our neighbor, Manuel.”

“Manuel was illegal. I am legal.”

“When they start investigating you, maybe you will be illegal too.”

Now Rose was worried. She decided to go ahead with the classes but wasn’t sure whether to chance applying for citizenship.

All the rest of that year as the candidates debated and into the rainy new year as the primaries came and went, Rose schlepped on the bus to the community center where she studied English, US history, and the Constitution. Rose sometimes felt old and sluggish, but the classes invigorated her. The other students came from China and India and Mexico and Somalia. They told stories about their homelands, and Rose had a fresh audience for her own stories. But what Rose loved especially were all the stories the teacher told of the presidents and the wars. And of these, best of all were Mrs. Singer’s stories about the American Revolution and the brave patriots. 

One dark December morning, Mrs. Singer told the class about the spy Nathan Hale who declared on the gallows, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Rose started to cry. Maryam, the young mother from Somalia who sat at the next desk, looked over in concern and patted Rose’s arm.

“You are ok?” whispered Maryam.

Rose dried her tears and whispered back, “I also must be brave for my country.”

That afternoon Rose filled out her citizenship application.

When Rose took the computerized citizenship test she got every question right. But it was the mandatory interview at the Department of Homeland Security that most frightened her. Mr. Ringwald, the interviewer, seemed friendly enough, but Rose’s hands shook.  

“Why do you want to be a citizen?” Mr. Ringwald asked.

“Zis my country, my home.” said Rose. “Zis country helped my family. I vant to do my duty for my country.”

“What will you do for your country?” 

“I will vote.”

Rose’s application was approved.

Rose knew she would miss the school and her classmates. Yet it was a proud day in March when 78-year-old Rose was sworn in as a new citizen with Jacob and Ellen and Michael and Abby looking on. It was too late for the primary and party caucus, but it was to vote in the presidential election that Rose aspired.

Now Rose diligently studied the candidates and the issues. Rose read the Seattle Times, the Stranger, the voter’s pamphlet, and Jewish in Seattle. Trump would help the working man, but Hillary would help immigrants and women. Which candidate would bring a secure peace to the Middle East? The decision was difficult. She wavered back and forth. 

That November 8th dawned as usual with dark, rainy skies.

“Better wait till later,” said Jacob.

But Rose put on her boots and her raincoat and set out with her umbrella and her cane to climb the steep hill to the mailbox that squatted under the maple tree in front of the elementary school. In her coat pocket, she carried the ballot over which she had labored. It was only 8 a.m., but already children were hurrying toward the school. Ahead of her a young mother in a blue shawl wheeled an empty stroller and tried to keep a hand on a 3-year-old with black curls tucked into the hood of her red raincoat. The little girl stopped to splash in a mud puddle, and Rose saw that the mother was Maryam.

“Rose, this is my Sabrina,” said Maryam, struggling to keep the little girl still.

“Who is zat on your raincoat?” Rose asked Sabrina.

“Minnie Mouse,” said the curly head peeking out from the red rain hood.

“Vere you get such beautiful raincoat?”

“Ayeeyo sent it to me.”

“Her Grandmom,” explained Maryam.

“Vere Grandmom lives?”

“Paris,” said Sabrina.

“Pittsburgh,” corrected her mother. 

“I met princess once in Pittsburgh,” said Rose to the little girl who was now climbing over the stroller. “Pirate princess. Her name vas Minnie.”

But then the little girl pulled away and Maryam rushed after her.  

A tall boy running toward the school jostled Rose as he passed and Rose slipped on the wet pavement. Rose tried to get up, but all at once her years weighed on her. She sat shivering in the rain, her crumpled umbrella and useless cane at her side. She thought of the winter day when she was a small child and had slipped in the snow. Her father had picked her up and carried her home on his shoulders while her older brother had followed behind. And she had laughed and called out to her brother that she was a giant. Now her head spun and she felt a sharp pain in her knee.

Then Maryam was at Rose’s side helping her stand up.

“Rose, you want me to call 911?” asked Maryam.

“No. Zank you. You saved me. It will be alright,” said Rose.

Then Rose cried out, “My ballot!” Her ballot lay floating with the maple leaves in the muddy puddle.

Maryam picked up the ballot and wiped it off with the end of her blue shawl. Supporting Rose with one arm and holding Sabrina with the other, Maryam helped Rose walk to the mailbox. Together they mailed the ballot.

“My first election,” said Rose. “What a story I’ll have to tell.”

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