LEWISTON — There's a little U.S. flag in Justine Duteau's dining room that carries a big meaning for her. After living here for 85 years, the Canadian-born grandmother got the flag when she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
“I finally made it,” Duteau said. “It really felt good. I was proud.”
Watching her become a citizen May 18 were her children and her longtime friends, Maurice and Dorothea Labrie.
Duteau, 85, says she's a fortunate woman. She has four grown children, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. “They come often,” she said. Her oldest great-grandchild turned 20 this week. She looks forward to becoming a great-great-grandmother.
When she was 21 days old, Duteau was brought from Canada to Maine. That meant she was a Canadian citizen, technically an alien, a term she intensely dislikes.
Becoming a citizen was always a dream, “but I couldn't afford it,” she said. She had other priorities, earning money to support her family and raising children.
Raised in Rumford then Lewiston, Duteau wasn't allowed to finish high school.
“My mother said it was just a waste of time. We needed the money,” she said. “The day I turned 16 years old, I packed my lunch and walked to Lown Shoe on Minot Avenue. It was February and cold as heck.”
In 1943 she worked 40 hours for $16 a week. “Can you imagine?” she asked.
She quit when she married at age 18. Before long Duteau was the mother of two girls and two boys. Money was tight.
Living on a fourth-floor Lisbon Street apartment, her friend's husband, Maurice Labrie, started a dry cleaning service and asked her to work there. The dry cleaners was on the first floor, which made it easier for her to work and watch her children.
When her children were grown, she returned to the shoe shops until they closed. Duteau then worked in the dry cleaning service, retiring at age 72.
About five years ago she didn't renew her driver's license. She no longer had a car and getting one wasn't affordable, she said. But no license meant she had no official identification.
Two years ago she applied for an official state of Maine identification card, only to be told her green card had expired. She was shocked and scared, worried about being sent to Canada.
At one point an agency worker called her an alien. “That really got me,” she said. “It's like all of a sudden you have horns. If you're not a citizen, you're an alien.”
She decided it was time to become a citizen, but found the paperwork overwhelming. “They were asking over $600,” she said. “I had to have the green card first, then apply to become a citizen. I was ready to give up. Puff. My dream was gone.”
Her friends, Maurice and Dorothea Labrie, stepped in, calling the office of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. Snowe's office helped with the paperwork. Because of Duteau's income, the $600 in fees was waived.
Duteau spent months last winter studying for her citizenship exam and easily passed it. “It was a piece of cake,” she said.
She hopes becoming a citizen sends a message to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren: If there's something they want, “in today's world they can do anything.”
Will Duteau vote in November? “Yes, yes, yes!” she said. Not being able to vote all these years made her feel "like you don't count," she said. “Now I feel I belong.” And no one will again call her that word. When the good Lord calls her home, “I'm going to die an American, not an alien,” she said.