I have row 31 all to myself on this flight from New York and have been reading and staring out the window a lot, thinking about One World Trade Center, 1776 feet, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and now open. Window washers have just had a close call on floor 68. Our entire town could easily fit in one of these vertical needles. How does this teeming, grinding, vibrating city do it?
Halfway through the flight, the mother of the boy, a beauty, taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, can I sit here?” Despite an accent, she speaks without faltering.
Sure, I say, and she immediately curls up in the seat, knees up, and conks out like a light. I actually crawl over her to get to the bathroom at some point, and note she’s dressed like half the rest of the people on the plane — jeans, hoodie, sneakers, leather shoulder bag, leather watch. By the time I return, she is awake.
She has three boys, in fact, and a husband (and a brother-in-law farther forward). When she takes the three year old into her arms, I motion for her to use the middle seat for him, and once he falls asleep she looks at me, “We are all so tired,” she says, a little sheepishly.
“Where are you coming from?” I ask.
“Turkey,” she says. “We were two years there. Before that, Iraq. Now we have been sleeping in the airports for two days.” So, they are all kinds of unfathomable layers of tired.
She was at university, she says, when she had her first child. The boys are now three, four and five, “like steps. Not one child, not even two, but three!” She says this both exasperated and captivated, as if now, tired with travel and the further unraveling of her story, the magnitude of this brood has finally exploded. The two older boys are lying like sardines in row 30. The husband has found himself an empty seat across the aisle.
I ask if she speaks Turkish, too. “Not perfect, but well.” She smiles and says she likes languages, that they are good for — she points to her brain. Now, she says, they are on their way to Portland. Where they have friends. It soon becomes clear this is not a simple visit but a permanent one.
I tell her Portland is a great city — and the water is nice. Her eyes light up. “Water?” she says. She has no idea that Portland is on the coast. She is looking forward to cool weather, she says, loves the cold, Iraq is so hot. She tells me she is worried about getting a job and wonders out loud if it will be okay. I tell her my mother was an immigrant and she thinks about this, studying me, and then tells me I look American. I tell her she looks American, too — that anybody can look American here in America. She smiles at this.
“We are starting again,” she says. “We are from Iraq — we are not bad people,” she pauses. “We have dreams.” The word dreams resonates and I feel the miles she has walked and the lives she is carrying on her back. “You’ll be fine,” I say.
I nod. “Yes,” I say. “Be strong!” It is not something I have ever really said to anyone but they already know what strong means, I’m just adding a little more kindling to her fire.
Once we’ve disembarked, I note that the two men have paperwork in plastic sleeves strung around their necks on lanyards, paperwork that says, we are fresh, we are legal, we are vulnerable and we will take your help if you give it. I steal one last look as they all stand there studying the departures, one zoom-click closer to a fresh and unimaginable life.
This is still America. People are still arriving, homeless and tempest-tossed, as the poem says. Their huddled mass may be family-sized but they are tired. They have dreams. They are pilgrims on missions to lay rest to their past unrest, to start all over again with hope and determination.
What a beautiful thing to remember as we prepare to break bread, slice turkey, and eat pie together, 393 years after the original thanks-giving feast.