On the way back from Chicago, I stood behind a Japanese family: a mom, a dad, a girl of maybe five or six, a younger girl in a lightweight stroller. I watched and listened as the family said goodbye to a much older man and woman -- the girls' grandparents, presumably -- before snaking their way through the security checkpoint. The line was long, and the grandparents stood at its mouth, watching and waving in a constant stream of pained smiles as the family moved further and further away from their waves and toward the screeners. It was beautiful and sad and touching and heartbreaking, and as I watched, I caught the eye of a woman about my age also waiting in line, also observing the same scene unfold. She and I smiled at each other and both dabbed our eyes, a silent kinship between two strangers moved beyond good reason at this sweet, tender farewell of a family neither of us knew or would ever see again.
It was humanity, pure and simple.
Chicago was great. Cold and wintry and boisterous and crisp. I'd packed my mother's long suede coat, a luxe navy number lined heavily in shearling, a coat I'd kept after she died though I'd gotten rid of nearly every thing else, save a fancy watch I've worn only once and a few necklaces I probably never will. The necklaces remind me of her, and every now and then I take them out and look at them, thinking I should sell them or donate them or just give them to someone who likes how they look. They're not my taste; they're too big, too bold, too heavy around my neck.
The coat, though, is beautiful. I'd gotten it cleaned back in 2002 and moved it with us out to California still wrapped in its dry-cleaner plastic sack. Given the weather in San Jose and the fact that I rarely travel to cold climes in winter, I'd never had a chance to wear it. It's too big on me, I'll admit, but knowing I'd never buy myself something that sophisticated and expensive, I couldn't part with it. Maybe one day I'll wear it, I thought. One day.
So Chicago was perfect. A chance to see friends and colleagues, a chance to enjoy the city's hot dogs, pizzas, and modern cuisine, a chance to learn and grow professionally, but also a chance to wear that coat I've kept and eyed year in and year out for well over a decade.
When meal times came and we all returned to our hotel rooms to grab our bags, our hats, our scarves, our coats, I tucked my frame into my mother's coat and let it swallow me whole. I fit the buttons into their holes and ran my hands along its length. It felt so dressy, so adult, and I tried to stand up tall under its weight, to straighten my spine and do it justice, but I'm pretty sure I looked like what I was: a woman not quite at ease, one trying to live up to the promise of something that wasn't truly hers.
We stepped outside into the frigid air, and that coat kept me warm. My face froze, but the rest of me felt good, great even, protected from the elements and soothed by the soft but powerful weight of the shearling, the suede, and perhaps even by my mother herself.
That's what I was thinking about when the Japanese family waved their goodbyes. About whether the young family would see the grandparents again, and if so, when.
I wanted to step out of line and tell them to take something with them, a memento, a token, something physical to keep the memory of the aging grandparents close in case their parting was permanent, and forever. Take their coats! I wanted to scream.
But I couldn't. I didn't. Instead, I smiled at a stranger, dabbed my eyes, and headed toward the bright lights of security.