Welcome Home! The boys stood together, waving their poster-board handwritten signs over their heads like flags, their eyes fixed upon the escalator. We – the three boys, their father, and approximately a thousand other travelers – are gathered at O’Hare, between baggage claim and Starbucks, like the flotsam that gathers in corners everywhere. There are a limited number of chairs; I’ve got one, and I’m not budging. So for the better part of an hour, my view is the same as the boys’: we watch the escalator.
One by one, people are lowered, their arms full of carry-ons, rolling luggage at their knees. Some grimly stride down the lowering steps, inpatient with the steady mechanical speed, though no one here has flights to catch. These travelers, the escalator-walkers, push between other people’s suitcases and elbows like so much overgrown brush. Others stand quietly upon their allotted stair, placid as ruminants, accepting whatever comes. They’re easily knocked aside by the walkers. Although they’d been written for the one traveler who hadn’t yet arrived, to all the signs are offered: Welcome Home. Yet the faces of the travelers remain unchanged; if they read the boys’ message, they give no sign.
The wind outside whips a late spring snowfall through the dark night, but inside it’s warm, and most of us waiting for one thing or another sit quietly, lulled by the television screens which reassuringly depict how much worse things are everywhere we’re not.
One by one, the boys get tired. The one in a purple jacket wobbles a little, then lets go of his sign. He looks at the paper, then to his brother, the one in a red hat with a yellow pom on top, and there’s a little scuffle that ends when red hat whacks purple jacket on the head with his own sign. Purple jacket starts to cry. The boy still standing, the one with the kind of hair that they call ginger, gives him a hard look, and he stops. The ginger-headed boy, clearly the eldest, continues to hold his sign over his head like the last man standing for a losing team, the fan whose enthusiasm is unnerving in its resilience. He carries his responsibility gravely, and his disappointment in his brothers is severe, but carefully restrained. Red hat picks up his sign, and then, glancing at ginger-head, his brother’s sign, and gives it to him. The younger boys sit, propping their signs in their laps. Waves of tired, distracted travelers continue unabated down the escalator. Not one looks at the boys. Not one stops to read their signs.
It can be hard to receive what’s offered. Perhaps there’s an implication that by accepting an offering, we’re somehow indebted to the giver, even if the gift is nothing more than a kind word. There’s a fear of losing something we can’t define, some kind of autonomy that is, somehow, the way we understand safety. We wouldn’t like to register something unintended for our eyes; the privacy found in a public place is tenuous, fragile. We wish to pass unnoticed, and so to grant others the same anonymity is our password.
I’m struck, again and again, by the small ways the world offers us welcome home, and how, nearly as often, we turn away. It’s exhausting to have to see things, day after day, to register the loose tussle of timothy grass, or the arc of multiflora rose against the evening sky. Each observation triggers a host of affiliated concerns, a registry of unmet needs, a public compendium of how much I have not yet done. Even the frogs, singing from their overgrown ditches, offer a chorus of welcome that I’d just as soon not hear.
So much is interpretation. I remember a young man showing off photographs of his honeymoon in the Scottish moors to his friends back in the North Carolina piedmont. Miles and miles of treeless land, covered with bracken, grasses, heather… “I’d hate to have to mow that,” his friend replied, somberly. The rest nod, and I try to keep from laughing although I, too, know what he means. It becomes hard to see anything as itself, absent the personal narrative lens with which we story the world.
But all around, we’re being offered signs of welcome. Signs we didn’t expect, signs which require nothing of us but to receive them, like the old woman who folds over with laughter while holding her arms out to all three boys at once. Welcome home, cries the flame azalea. Welcome home, says the dogwood. Welcome home, offers the peony. Welcome home, whispers the smell of the tall grass in the rain. Welcome home.