My airport stories aren’t like most other people’s. I didn’t get on a plane and leave everything behind. I was always at the airport to greet everyone that had just left everything behind. My parents bought a modest home in 1980, shortly after my birth. They saved most of their earnings and built a story onto their home. Even before it was complete we started accepting family members. For almost a decade of my life, we had some branch of family living with us, -at times, all four grandparents under one roof for months. Now, as a married woman, I wonder how my parents’ marriage survived as long as it did.
I remember going to pick up family members. We’d park the car and walk into the terminal right up to the gates. We would bring balloons and flowers and wear special outfits. We would wait for hours sometimes if planes were delayed. Then! They’d arrive. These were people who I’d spoken into VHS camcorders to, and had seen photos of, but had never met. My father bought a camcorder and would ship VCRs to the Soviet Union so that our grandparents could watch tape of their grandkids. I remember the awkwardness of speaking into a lens to someone who I’d never met before.
They’d arrive. They always smelled different and their clothes were different and they usually had gold teeth. These were the things that a child remembers. We’d load them into the car and we’d drive home. The first day, after some sleep, we’d all pile into the car and go to the first stop that every Soviet had to see: Jewel-Osco, the local supermarket. That was the first stop of any Chicago tour, before the Sears Tower, before the lakefront. Our family members would go in and freeze. There was laughter, or tears, or usually just stunned silence. We’d walk up and down the aisles and they would take it all in. It was always a shock.
These were people who had been lied to for years. They knew they were lies, but to see this many items on a shelf at once was overwhelming. The lines they had stood in for toilet paper, or flour, or bread, these were all things of the past. I ran around and always laughed at their shock; as a kid I didn’t get it. Only now can I even begin to imagine coming to a country like this after leaving what they left behind.
Even now, my remaining Russian family visits and must visit stores before they leave. I’ve seen their stores, they aren’t that different these day but something about the freedom of going into a store and not worrying about a neighbor seeing how much you’re buying, it still translates as freedom in this capitalistic country of ours. There is such liberation in visiting one store and having all that you need on the shelves before you. Only in America.