She smiled warmly when I stumbled in, "Merry Christmas" she said, in deeply accented English.
It was after 11:00 pm and I had spent the past six hours making a two hour trip, weather delays trapping me on the ground in a city I did not want to leave. There were no more than five of us on the plane, the last flight from Kansas City to Chicago, on Christmas night. It was snowing, in both places, perfect for Christmas, unless your Christmas is to be spent flying from one winter wonderland to another.
My dad took me to the airport. Even with an early dinner we had to leave before Nana's Christmas cake, a brandy soaked tradition. It was to be the last Christmas for my 90 year old grandfather, the year he repeatedly asked where he had tied up his horse. It was a Christmas that all seven kids had made it home, when my grandmother was still able to cook, my dad still able to carve the turkey and a family all together for one last precious time. Waving good-bye was like leaving the ghost of Christmas everything; taking me away from my family on Christmas is unthinkable, stepping onto a plane scattered with strangers, like torture.
Frustrated that I drew the short straw, that no one else, not even the other clerks and paralegals who weren't traveling, offered to be there on the day after Christmas, I moped and pouted with the time I did have with my family. I was angry at my horrible boss, the one who removed his glasses and used the end piece to clean his ears whenever we met to discuss medical records or boring depositions. The one who callously said "you know I'm Jewish, I could work on Christmas day" when I asked if I could at least come in late the next day; my need to repeatedly quote him not really enveloping the spirit of Christmas.
Because my father flew frequently, often three or four days a week, he was familiar to almost everyone at the American Airlines counter in Kansas City. Having Dad deliver me to the airport meant a seat in first class as they often extended this courtesy to his daughter when available. On this night, given that I was one of five people flying, my seat in row 3 was secure. He waited with me until they finally boarded, the two of us sitting in the lonely and cold airport, the bar closed and the place deserted. I encouraged him to go home, but secretly hoped he would stay, scared to be alone and wishing that maybe they would finally just cancel this flight and strand me, helpless and unable to get to work. The plane had to be in Chicago, the flight would go, even if we had to wait all night.
Two hours later they called the few of us remaining to board. Leaving home was difficult, saying good-bye to my father who was my Christmas constant, horrible. The plane was de-iced, we pushed back from the gate, and O'Hare closed to incoming flights. We waited. I buried my head in my mixed nuts, not at all interested in small talk with the nice flight attendant who was probably not exactly where she wanted to be either. I questioned all the decisions: grad school away from my family, the terrible job at the hideous law firm, the one that made me cry almost every day as the bus approached my stop. My dad suggested I quit, find something else, but I knew I was learning, more about what I did not want to do than what I did, and the miserable pay was better than nothing at all.
After almost two hours of waiting we took off. I cried when the wheels left the ground.
O'Hare was deserted, as quiet as I had ever seen it. My lone bag spun on the carousel, as lost as I was. I threw it over my shoulder and made my way out, heading to the taxi stand rather than the train as Dad had given me cab fare, not wanting me to spend the remainder of my night on two trains and a bus getting home. I stopped in the restroom before leaving.