Birth Certificate

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once told me my baby would never be president.

Imagine how that feels.

It was the spring of 1988 and we were attending a fundraising dinner for the Washington Opera, where my husband Francois was a perennial favorite. Once the opera season was over, we would be heading back to our farm in France to prepare for the next long absence, to the Glyndebourne Festival for the summer, where our baby was due to be born in early August. We would later calculate that Celine crossed the Atlantic Ocean five times before even being born. She was conceived in Galveston during a weekend getaway from the Houston Grand Opera; I learned I was pregnant in Toulouse during a run of “Cosi fan Tutte” with a very young Cecelia Bartolli; and I believe we came to Washington shortly after some production in San Diego. What a happy, hectic time it was.

The Lawyers Committee of the Washington Opera hosted the fundraiser, and showed their esteem for Francois by seating us at a round table with noted legal luminaries Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Harry Edwards, both at that time Federal judges on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and the aforementioned Justice Scalia, who had two years before been elevated to the Supreme Court. I was quite shy in such company, but Judge Edwards on my right seemed friendly and approachable, so I worked up the courage to address him:

“Excuse me, Judge Edwards, but I wonder if you can answer a question for us. I am an American by birth and also Swiss by naturalization. My husband is Swiss by birth and also French by naturalization. We live in France but our baby will be born in England. Do you know what our baby’s nationality will be?”

His eyes lit up and he excitedly called across the table. “Ruth! Here’s a situation for you: the mother’s American and Swiss, the father’s Swiss and French, they live in France but they’re having a baby in England: what’s the baby’s nationality?” His voice was loud enough so that all other conversations stopped and the assembled legal minds began to avidly weigh in on the issue. It was soon clear that no one knew the answer. That was when Justice Scalia asserted “Your baby will never be president”, with a twinkle in his eye and a tone that disinvited all contradiction. “I know”, I sighed meekly (while secretly harboring hopes for the European Union). Ruth Bader Ginsburg peered thoughtfully through her oversized glasses and suggested “You know, you ought to contact Abe Sofaer. He’s the general counsel at the State Department and I’m sure he could help you.” I thanked her and that ended the discussion.

It also ended my thinking on the matter, except for one call to the British Embassy, where an officious representative, apparently suspecting that we were concocting an elaborate ploy to give birth in the UK just for the purpose of obtaining precious British citizenship for our offspring, replied to my timid query, “No, in NO WAY will your child be British.” “Oh GOOD!” was my response to that. I couldn’t imagine bothering the general counsel of the State Department, nor had I any idea who else in that enormous bureaucracy I might address with our particular situation, so just put it out of my mind with the confidence of an American sure that if foreign babies born on American soil merit US citizenship, then the US citizenship of one parent must be strong enough to attach to an American baby born abroad, even if foreign soils weren’t “fertile” enough to confer their own nationalities by birth.

My naive confidence was borne out a month later when an official-looking envelope arrived at the farm. It was from Mr. Sofaer at the State Department. He included the letter that Ms Ginsburg had sent him: she had remembered our conversation and, no doubt correctly interpreting my diffidence, had taken it upon herself to inquire on our behalf. Mr. Sofaer informed us that our baby would be American, Swiss and French. And so it was that when Celine was born on Aug. 2, 1988 at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, she was issued a lovely birth certificate that in NO WAY conferred British citizenship. At the tender age of two weeks we were required to take her to the US Embassy in London, so that she could receive an Official Report of a US Citizen Born Abroad that has served in all situations where a US birth certificate has been required. She was propped up to pose for her passport picture so that we could take her back to France with us; Swiss and French passports followed later. The fact that she will never be president does not weigh on her or hamper her actual ambitions at the age of 22–although I happen to think it’s the country’s loss!

Today seemed like a good day to trot out my little name-dropping story. President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate, surely knowing that it will have little effect on the “carnival barkers” and conspiracy-addled brains of the haters. Now they will clamor for his college transcripts, as if graduating magna cum laude from Harvard as editor of the Law Review and writing two best-selling books by himself, and giving detailed off the cuff answers to unscreened questions at press conferences, town halls, and Republican pow-wows–all that doesn’t prove his intelligence and worthiness–to DONALD TRUMP?  

I invite your comments and thank you for reading my posts.


About madebymalou

About to enter my 60's, I hope finally to round up all my diverse interests in one place. Long ago I was a classically trained singer; age and illness took away my voice. I filled the void with motherhood and crafts. Lately by some mysterious grace, I've found my voice again. So I'll be writing about singing as well as sewing. Reminiscing about the nomadic life of opera singers; responding to artist-daughter's bold visions. And hopefully growing always, in how I think, and feel, and sew, and sing.
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3 Responses to Birth Certificate

  1. Gordon Hogg says:

    Mary Beth: I like this Celine story! Somewhat less complicated is the documentation that trailed my sister Millie (Millicent Rosemary Hogg on both her U.S. and Italian birth certificates), who (under the “old” rules) had to let lapse her dual citizenship at age 21, opting for the U.S. automatically unless she petitioned Rome (and *not* the Vatican). Being more interested in parties at Ithaca College at the time, this didn’t quite occur to her, but she has made noises lately about how much more fun (maybe) it might be to navigate the Euro zone if she could score one of their passports. The distance from Oregon to Italy (and raising two preteens) keeps her investigative resolve on the back burner for now. Oh, well…
    Barack Hussein Obama II and I have nearly identical “long form” birth certificates, but mine proclaims “Territory of Hawaii” instead of “State of Hawaii.” I can still run for Prez, though, just as John McCain (born in U.S. Canal Zone) did. But I’d rather not.
    I could have looked into citizenship (or its equivalent) of the newly indepentdent Kazakhstan, I bet: administrative and official things were run pretty “fast and loose.” I was there on a research assignment in 1994, when the former Kazakh SSR was still just a pup, sorting out what it suddenly meant to be its own country: a) how to get by when they didn’t have the government in Moscow to blame anymore, b) how the hell to get all this oil and gas to lucrative markets and out of the hands of their “favorite” trade partner, Russia, and c) how to convince foreigners like me to stay a couple of years to help organize research libraries; build more hotels, resorts, and restaurants; steal upmarket cars in Germany and ship them out to Central Asia by rail; print endless reams of counterfeit $20 bills; and generally stay a couple of steps ahead of the Georgian and Russian mafia, who ran all the kiosk concessions (read: “new-style bizness”) that crowded the sidewalks and put the former goverment department stores out of business. Phew! What a country! It was not quite the “consulting” visit I expected, and it *is* just possible that the extended visa they gave me (I stayed two months; longer than the original plan, which had gotten lost, I think), which, for all I know, might have conferred interminable (!) visitation rights on me. I was very glad to hop a last-minute Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul (and, eventually, back to the Bluegrass), which was like entering a comfortable cosmopolitan heaven on the Bosporus after the barely post-Stalinist disarray of Almaty–which has now become the “coolest” and–yes–most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. To their credit, Kazakhstan immigration functionaries didn’t question the validity of my birthplace, though a county clerk in Giles County, VA, wondered for a moment whether Hawaii was another country when I registered to vote in 1988. Oh, well….
    I’m looking forward to hearing details about your 60th Geburtstag recital, ja!

    • madebymalou says:

      Gordon, I’d forgotten that Millie was born in Italy–Livorno, right? And what an adventure in Kazakhstan! Who says librarians lead quiet lives?! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m programming possibilities for my recital and think you would enjoy them. More to come….
      Mary Beth

  2. Debbie Borkman says:

    Mary Beth,
    I enjoyed reading your story about Celine and her situation at the tender age of two weeks. I also have met the wonderful Ms. Ginsburg at the Olney Theatre while I was still a house manager. She was a lovely and thoughtful person; and a lover and supporter of the arts. Last night I watched the Ed Show, Rachel Maddow, and the Lawrence O’Donnell Show. l was amazed at the passionate reporting on all three programs. They clearly reflected my own feelings about the “birthers” and their ridiculous fixation on Obama’s birth certificate. I don’t think it will end here after showing the Hawaiian birth certificate; that would be too sane. I believe that they will not stop after the college transcripts, and will probably want to see how he even passed kindergarten at this point. This is an enormous waste of time and a ploy to distract the people of this country from the bigger issues we are facing now. I am very proud of Obama’s decision to display the birth certificate and thought his speech yesterday was thoughtful and extremely intelligent. He is NOT going to go down to “their” level. He is my candidate for the 2012 Presidential election. This nonsense must stop. Between the obvious agenda of the Republicans (not the fiscal problem or getting us jobs) it has been made apparent that they are focused on destroying the few good things that Americans are entitled to; jobs, good healthcare, security, Medicare, etc. They have really shown America what they are really about….and the racism factor is so upsetting to me that I just do not know what to say….I am speechless. There is clearly a racist bias (at least with Donald Trump) when you listen to the Birther’s and their comments and other uninformed citizens. Scared to death if this continues. Something has to “give” and soon…I hope the country comes to its senses when it is time to vote in the 2012 election. Thank you for sharing your story with us and thank you for allowing me to comment on the present state of affairs.–Debbie

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