Look at America

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It can happen anywhere, but it's at SFO that I'm most likely to notice them: immigrant families split up for reasons I can only guess, reunited in ways I can never forget. One minute I'm breezing through the terminal; the next, I'll see them and remember that once my family and I also found and lost each other here.

My parents and I came from Iran in the late '70s. Whenever they could contrive to get a visa, relatives came to visit.  Their arrivals had the air of holidays. I skipped school, my mother took off work, and we drove to SFO.  We parked the car and waited, sometimes hours, until finally the much-missed grandparent, aunt and cousin emerged from customs looking both bleary-eyed and exultant.

The ride home was full of talk and laughter. When we approached the Golden Gate, my mother called out the phrase that would forever distill her gratitude for not just the refuge but family reunions offered us in this beautiful place. "Look at America!" she'd say, and we'd all fall silent, gazing out at the Bay together.

Departures were somber, protracted affairs. Goodbyes commenced on the ride to the airport and extended through the last call to board.  This time there was no happy charge to "Look at America!" Visas, once expired, might never be re-issued. Those lucky enough to stay would likely scatter and settle far away.

It's been years since I met a relative at the airport. At this point, everyone in my family who could leave Iran has left. Everyone else will probably never arrive.


My own travels now send me away, not toward, my family. For a while, whenever I flew someplace my mother burned wild rue to ensure my safe passage. My parents insisted on meeting me at the airport. But such rites and vigils were eventually abbreviated beyond recognition, then forgotten altogether.

I'm not, however, without my own rituals. On my most recent trip back to the Bay Area, I took the Airporter and spent the drive checking emails and texting friends. But when I reached the bridge, I heard my mother's voice, clear as ever.  "Look at America," she told me, and in the small, quiet gesture that now marks my homecomings, I did.

With a Perspective, this is Jasmin Darznik.

Jasmin Darznik is a novelist and professor of English at Washington and Lee University.