My grandmother’s grandparents ( or something like that ) come from a farm at the edge of nowhere. I went to visit once, six hours north of Chicago. Standing out front, an expanse of open nothingness as far as I could see. We could have left the car running in the center of the road for an hour. Silence and space in every direction, not even a tree.
Like her at age ninety, the house was hardly standing. A historical marker on the road assured us we had the right place, the first homestead in the county. Long abandoned, I broke in, explored and stole a set of doorknobs. Black, cold marble. I wrapped a piece of wire to the end of one knob and created a picture holder, gifting it to her soon after our visit, including a pic of her son and I standing in front. My dad looks proud.
When she died, I got it back, and it sits on my desk reminding me the past always deteriorates. Before that nowhere farm, my family was from somewhere.
Not here. Germany maybe. Or somewhere else. Immigrants. I didn’t think it was that important even to know, but I want to know now.
Too humiliated to ask. How could I not know what makes us?
Tonight, I walk out my door, my Chicago streets awake. I look up, a glowing dome of white, snow is hanging up there somewhere. People pass me. I walk a block before I hear my language. This diversity is normal, comforting. It’s twenty degrees. I walk slow, bombarded with text updates. Traffic is moving. Swooshing barista sounds at the Starbucks, he’s Japanese and has a dance in his step, mouthing the words of some music I don’t understand. I recognize the joy in his movements. Freedom. Five black queens laugh on the corner as we wait for our cabs.
This is Boystown. They are immigrants. The cab driver is Syrian, like Steve Job’s dad. I pay with my iPhone.
My cold window shows me the world. It’s all here. I lean in, tears come. I hope my driver doesn’t notice, but then get mad when he fulfills my hopes.
Why are people acting so normal? They must not know what’s happening. I don’t want to go. I’m just one guy. I’m not banned. But then I think of those whom I know will fight for me. Reciprocation has a new meaning now. We’re all bound together. Unity.
What we face requires it.
Miles go by. I keep thinking of that farm at the edge of nowhere, a place I’ve not thought of for at least a decade. I bet the house is gone now. The last trace of our past.
That’s what happens. Maybe that’s how this happened. It can be hard to remember where we come from, what makes us, this place.
Stuck in traffic, I make a recurring donation to the ACLU. I’ve never felt like this before. Awake. Activated.
He gets the credit for this, for waking us all. Rest assured he’ll take it. Before I make it to the airport protest where thirteen people have been detained, a federal judge blocks his executive order. Sorta. Enough so that the cheers and tears are felt before they are seen. My phone keeps blowing up. The news is slow to come, but the whispers turn to shouts and the news, marginally accurate, gets bounced across the crowd like a whirling dervish. Joy.
I climbed to the second floor of that old farmhouse. In the back bedroom, a mattress lay by the window, wind blowing in, broken glass everywhere. Splotches of wallpaper clung to pieces of wall, and I’m not sure which was holding up the other. They held each other I guess, like we’re supposed to. My dad wouldn’t go upstairs, but I had to. I wish I could tell you of some awed moment of grace, nostalgia. But I can’t. I didn’t sit down, didn’t wonder who these people were for even a second. Now I wish I had.
Were we welcomed? Respected? Assisted? Did we arrive by boat? In shackles or comfort? Broke? Hungry? Did you fight for your freedom? Who did you leave behind?
The feelings I hold now, do they come from you? That what I’d ask if I could. That’s why I’m here.