The Bet That Taught Me to Love America

In an instant, a roomful of people I didn't know helped me learn about patriotism, gratitude, and love.

woman's face singing
Yvetta Fedorova for Reader’s Digest

In the late spring of my freshman year in college, I, a nondrinking but hard-dancing international student from Sri Lanka, was high on two things: enjoying the freedom of being nearly 10,000 miles away from home, and my very handsome American boyfriend.

Mark, a true-blue Connecticut Yankee, introduced me to all things American. He took me to the top of the press box in the college football bleachers and to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. He got me hooked on movies at the college library and eggs over easy with sausage on the side at Denny’s on Main Street. He took me for walks around the campus and drives to the state parks of Maine, where we slept in the back of his Ford pickup truck and I tasted my first vaguely smoky hot dogs and s’mores. Like I said, American life.

It stood to reason, then, that I would want to share something that he didn’t know about. I had been teaching dance for a month during what was called short-term, a time for students to take just one more intensive class instead of leaving college for an early start on summer. Over the course of the class’s travels to public elementary and middle schools, I had taken in the areas surrounding our campus, the land rolling away into farms and mill towns. So one night when Mark suggested that we drive to an open area where we could see the stars, I announced that I knew just the place.

I did know. Sort of. I had seen a path leading to a clearing off the main road earlier that afternoon from the bus. Where, exactly, that clearing was I didn’t know. I have always just felt places. I travel by intuition and implicit trust that “something in my bones” will help me navigate roads, people, places, and life itself.

Late at night, though, in semi-rural Maine, with no streetlights and few houses, we were easily lost. Not simply lost, we were stuck in a mud bog. There I sat, ladylike in my very light cream sweater, while Mark attempted to get the front wheels of the pickup out of the swamp. I helped, eventually, but only when repeated suggestions that we “just ask the nice people who probably live in the house up the hill to help us” fell on deaf, obdurate ears. The farmer did help us in the end, when he strolled out in the first pink-gray light of the morning. It was a small but sweet victory to hear him inquire why we hadn’t asked for help in the first place, all night long as he had lain in his bed wondering about the engine revving across the street. “There’s an abandoned railway line at the far end of my farm,” he said, pointing as we said our goodbyes, after he had invited us in to wash up. “You can come and park there anytime.” He smiled as he said this, and Mark had the good sense to blush.

It was in that mood that we set off for home, which was back to our dorms, a little contrite on his part, a little jazzed up on mine, never mind that it was I who had gotten us into the mess in the first place.

By the time we stopped at Uncle Moe’s Diner, a place we now visit whenever we are back in Lewiston, but which we had never heard of until that morning, Mark was a little tired of my crowing, and I was just getting started.

The diner was crowded that Sunday morning, old-timers filling up the tables, the waitresses busy. We got a table off to the side of the main room. For no good reason that I can recall, I started humming a song my mother had taught me when I was about seven years old: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Why don’t you just sing the words?” Mark taunted.

I did.

“Why don’t you sing it even louder?” he challenged me.

I did.

“I dare you to stand up by this table and sing it,” he said.

“I will,” I said, and made to stand.

He said, “I bet you wouldn’t go to the front of this diner and sing it there.”

The waitress came by to take our order. When she left, I followed her to the counter, which sat just to the left of the front door, open to the room and its diners. I spoke to the older woman standing there, told her I’d like to sing the national anthem. You’ve got to love Mainers, unfazed by just about anything. She asked me to wait a minute; she’d need to ask Moe.

“You want to sing the national anthem?” Uncle Moe asked me, a little furrow in his brow. “Why?”

I don’t know how this fragment of information came to me, but it sprang to my lips with ease: “Because the troops are coming home.”

Uncle Moe walked around that counter and stood beside me. “Excuse me, everybody,” he said to his customers. “This young lady would like to sing the national anthem in honor of the troops coming home today.” He turned to me and said, “Go ahead.”

I began, glancing over with triumph at Mark, who sat with his fingers interlaced, utterly shocked. It was not the triumphant song my mother had taught me that rose to my lips but a song-on-a-dare, the kind of song that could be any song. But when my eyes moved away from Mark and returned to the people in front of me, I saw that several of them had stood up and had their palms over their hearts. I would earn my American citizenship more than a decade later, but I believe that I learned my love for this country in that moment. I could see so clearly what this anthem meant to each person there, the stooped veterans, the women and men on their way to church, the ones for whom the stop at this diner was a Sunday ritual. I saw people for whom the words meant just as much as the words of my home country’s anthem meant to me. I don’t believe I have ever sung any song with more heart than when I finished that “Star-Spangled Banner.”

It isn’t the applause that has stayed with me or the “thank you for singing the anthem” that I heard from a few people or the fact that Uncle Moe and his wife remembered me—when Mark and I, now married, went back years later—and said, “Aren’t you the young woman who sang the anthem here?” What has stayed with me is the grace I learned in understanding that my song was a much smaller gift to those people than their gratitude was to me. For in that gratitude I saw a bridge, the one I walk on toward people I don’t know, the one I lay down for them to walk toward me. It has no political stripe, no class, no gender, no agendas. It is itself: a bridge built of that grace and recognition of each other’s essential, deep, vulnerable humanity.

We bet you won’t believe how this one woman’s gambling habit turned into an inspiring gift.

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Ru Freeman
Ru Freeman's most recent novel, On Sal Mal Lane, has just been released in paperback. She calls both Sri Lanka and the United States home.