Back to her immigration Odyssey

Waitress taking an order: hope for a better future in the USA? Photo by Alan Light.

Waitress taking an order: hope for a better future in the USA? Photo by Alan Light.

It’s been a few years, but the image remains vivid: The brunette waitress darted across the restaurant like a gust of wind.

Clad in black, she balanced plates and glasses on her tray, called out instructions to the bartender, and grabbed a handful of spare napkins as she passed the server station — all simultaneously.

Absorbed in memories of her choreography, I recall avoiding the newspaper in front of me — dodging a Supreme Court immigration ruling, and our government’s ineptitude with reform.

Eventually, she bounded my way. Pulling the order pad from her belt, the young lady flashed a smile as bright as polished ivory, and welcomed me to her world: “Hello, my name is Yolanda, and I’ll be your server tonight; can I start you off with something to drink?”

After ordering, I tried to be discreet, but found myself hooked. I couldn’t take in enough of Yolanda’s multitasking blur. Catching an accent’s trace in her otherwise flawless diction, I saw an opening.

With the restaurant slowing down, but my meal just underway, I seized the opportunity and asked: “Yolanda, where are you from?”

On and off, for the next hour, I considered a much-ignored side of immigration: The endless grind of those who seek American citizenship while playing by the rules – legally. Listening to Yolanda’s story was draining; imagining myself in her situation was impossible.

Yolanda was Lithuanian, 29, married, and had spent a total of six years in the U.S., four consecutively. In her early 20s, she and her husband initially had come here on a variety of work visas. Each time they sought a place and situation where they could be most productive to our society, and pursue citizenship. They settled in a coastal Mid-Atlantic city.

Her husband, a foreign-educated computer engineer, held down two jobs: one with a phone company and another with a cable TV provider. After her earlier stays, Yolanda determined that education was her way to realize America’s promise.

Working two serving jobs and a secretarial position, she enrolled in community college and earned her associates degree. When I met her, she was a full-time student at a four-year college, had dropped her administrative job, but still handled both waitress gigs.

Yolanda spoke about starting a family, but refused to do so until she was a citizen: “I want my children to be proud of their Baltic heritage, but I also want them born to Americans; this country has given us what we couldn’t find in Lithuania: a chance.”

The young couple also learned that after years of long work hours and avoiding debt, they could be homeowners.

Beaming like a schoolgirl on recess, Yolanda recalled the cramped studio apartment left behind just a few months earlier. They purchased a two-bedroom starter to call their own, an affirmation that citizenship wasn’t far away: “By next year for sure, right after I graduate,” she nodded.

I’ve thought of Yolanda often, and wonder how things turned out. While the bluster of immigration debates have quieted some during this midterm election year, lost to demagogues are the many paths to becoming an American. I sense the Founding Fathers would have approved of Yolanda’s: Her enthusiasm was contagious, and her optimism refreshing.

With Yolanda on my mind as we approach Election Day, I’m realize that, despite our shortfalls, problems exist everywhere in the world. Ultimately, the legal ruckus once discarded in my newspaper still festers because others keep knocking on our door, or climbing through our windows.

For all its naysayers, both foreign and native, the U.S. remains a land of opportunity.

Yolanda’s quest was reminiscent of the poet E.E. Cummings’ reverie on this country’s melting pot, and the trials of assimilation. Leaving the restaurant, I turned as she bussed yet another table, one more baby step to citizenship. She looked up, nodded and smiled, then got back to her immigration Odyssey.

That night I prayed to see Yolanda become an American, because unless my sight had failed, she was — to echo Cummings — more brave than me: more blond than you.

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.