Note: This essay was inspired by an encounter I had at the airport in March 2022 that reminded me of Gate A4, one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite writers, Naomi Shihab Nye. I wrote this as Russia was just beginning their invasion of Ukraine. If you, like me, despair at the continued war in Ukraine, please donate to Ukraine TrustChain to support volunteer teams and fund urgent aid and evacuations in the active war zones.
I was returning home from Boston, from my oldest nephew’s bar mitzvah. It was the most joy I have felt in a very long time – the beauty of hearing my sweet nephew chant Torah, the communal prayer, the loved ones I haven’t seen in too long, cautiously and fearfully unmasked together for the first time, all emerging a bit shaken, but present, and mostly relieved just to be present.
I’d closed my eyes on the plane, grateful for a few moments of quiet, but I had trouble resting. I usually do. The weekend had been only goodness – cousin reunions, singing, dancing – but the world outside is filled with terror on too many fronts. How can I rest, knowing how much is broken out there? Do I want to be someone who rests? How can I step in and out?
Walking through the airport, Mom and I waited for the tram to the luggage claim area. To my right, I saw a small woman, old, dark, head covered by a scarf, long skirt under a long coat. She had a small rolling bag with a large piece of paper taped on – a name and address in a neighborhood not too far from the airport. She turned to me and asked if this was the train to get the bags. I nodded, yes, that this was the train to get our suitcases. The train arrived and we boarded.
She turned to me again, and asked if I was local. “Yes,” I said. “I’m from here. Can I help you?” She nodded and showed me her phone. The screen had a name and number in WhatsApp, which wasn’t working for her. She asked to borrow my phone to make the call. “Of course,” I told her, “but it might not work on the train.”
We got off the train and tried on my phone again. I handed it to her and slowed down to walk with her as she talked to someone on my phone. I heard “express train” more than once, so I tried to gently interrupt to tell her that we were off the train and walking to pick up our luggage. I heard her growing agitated with the person on the phone, even though I didn’t recognize the language. I understand the frustration that comes with not being understood in any tongue. Eventually, she handed me the phone and asked me to talk with the person on the other end.
“Hello?” I said, not knowing what to expect. The voice on the other end was frantic, and also warm.
“Hi. Can you please help my sister get to the luggage claim?”
“Of course. We’re walking there now.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
I hung up and continued walking, Mom on one side and this small woman and her small labeled suitcase on the other. I thought of Ukrainian mothers fleeing. I thought of my own grandmother, the one I never met, my namesake, arriving in this country on a boat, with a husband, toddler, and an address of a distant aunt. My dad was born in a displaced persons camp after World War II. He started his life away from a home he’d never know. There are babies being born in subway stations right now. My father came to this country on presumably falsified papers, sponsored by a relative he didn’t know. A woman I didn’t know asked me to help her find her sister in the airport. She had an address taped to her suitcase. Maybe my grandma had one as she left a charred Europe, too. Maybe the mothers fleeing Ukraine carry bags with addresses. On the news, I see photos of hundreds of people waiting to board trains out of besieged cities. They took trains then and they take trains now. My path crossed with this stranger on a train. Maybe we are never far apart.
I thought about a favorite poem, where there is no apprehension, only care and community.
As we walked through the doors to the baggage claim, I saw another small woman standing on the other side in a headscarf and skirt, with pants and sneakers underneath. We walked through, the women embraced, cried, and looked my way. They repeated their thanks several times. I smiled under my mask and waved as I walked to collect my suitcase.
We are all always somewhere between joy and despair. The tension lives with me all the time. My students come up to me after class, privately, to tell me their pronouns. Then, I go home to see news of more attacks on trans students and the books that celebrate them. Or I spend a weekend chanting blessings with my family and then leave the sanctuary to read news of more bombs in Ukrainian cities.
Afterward, as we walked out of the airport and toward the parking structure, Mom asked how the woman knew to ask me - how she knew I’d help her, how she knew I wouldn’t pause before handing her my phone. I think that maybe she saw my shtetl grandma in me somehow, maybe she knew I came from a woman with a suitcase, too. There are old dark aphorisms for this, about how a Jew always has a bag packed, just in case. Just in case.
But in this version, we take a deep breath, wave, and wish each other well from under our masks. We keep moving. I’d like to think that, like I did, she drove to a warm home that night. And in my version, we unpack.