Picking Up Strangers

I am proud, so very proud of my mother…

Let me explain…

As a child growing up, I was not surprised to have my mother bring strangers to our house… Strangers she “picked” up at train stations or airports, like the two young American girls who were stranded in Heidelberg and did not speak German, nor had a hotel to go to…or the young Israeli who was backpacking through Europe and also had no place for the night. They all ended up spending a few nights and days with us.

All of them left behind something more than a letter of thank you or a souvenir, like the Star of David (made out of nails, that I still have today).

Later on in life, as my mother frequently traveled to visit me in the US, she seemed to develop an affinity for meeting and picking up fellow travelers on airplanes too. Last year, a  young girl from the US, traveling to study for a semester in Argentina, got stranded at the airport in Buenos Aires after a delayed arrival only to find out that her reservations had been cancelled. She ended up staying at my mother’s apartment for several weeks.

Now, some of you having grown up in a different era (The “Don’t talk to Strangers! era) or maybe from a different cultural background, might think how brave or how risky to pick up a stranger. Isn’t the young girl who is “going home” with this strange “grandmother” type woman in a foreign country playing with fire? Didn’t her parents teach her better not to talk to strangers?

If I wanted to trace the reason for her ability to find, pick up or rescue strangers in these situation, I would probably think of her own history of being a refugee during WWII. As a five year old, she was strapped on a sled and fled with her mother and brother from East Prussia towards the West. Along the way, they relied on the kindness and “humanity” of others to get them through and survive. Once in the West, my mother grew up feeling a harsh distinction between the refugees from the East, who lost their homes, their sense of belonging and possessions and the ones who didn’t.

My mother, as a child, played the leading role of a theater production of “Sterntaler” (The Star Talers) at her school, a fairy tale from the Brother’s Grimm.The short fairy tale always symbolized  my mother’s personality for me.

An orphan girl was so poor as to have no home; she had only her clothing and some bread. She gave a hungry man the bread, three cold children her cap, her jacket, and her dress, and in a forest where it was dark and she would not be seen, another begging child her shift. Then stars fell to earth before her. They became talers, and she found herself wearing a fine linen shift. She was rich thereafter.

Two days ago, my mother returned from yet another visit to the US back to Argentina. She was routed from Florida via Illinois to Newark, NJ, where her flight to Argentina was cancelled with the explanation of “weather”. She endured hours of waiting to speak to “customer service” until way into the morning of the next day. Fellow travelers in line lost their patience, got frustrated…”customer service” agents were rude, impatient and not caring.

Note: I know…since I was stranded at the same airport, not three days prior to her being there,  with 3 cancelled flights and the same service and chaos erupting everywhere around me with frustrated tired travelers left to fend for themselves.

My mother took the time in line to befriend a young girl ( the same age as one of my daughters) from India. Due to lucky circumstances ( or pity from the agent), my mother was the only one from the line to receive a voucher for a hotel to spend the rest of the night.

I was not surprised to hear when I called my mother the following morning, that she had the young Indian girl with her. That she had shared her room and had taken her under her wings. They returned to the airport a little while later and my mother made sure she got on her flight to India. A few hours later, my mother was also able to leave too with a rebooked flight for South America.

When she arrived the following email was waiting for her:

Dear Ms. Rosenthal,

Humanity is intact indeed! It’s about an incident that will stay in my memory forever.

I am Kanika’s mother, the girl you shared your room and support with, at Newark. She hasn’t arrived in India yet but allow me to pen down my thoughts. Am overwhelmed and wish to express how grateful I feel right now;I wonder how to convey that to you without being a verbose. A mere ‘thanks’ seems limp.

Apart from bailing out Kanika during a crisis, you have left a lasting impression of humane quality on her, which I hope she would emulate in future if circumstances demand.

With respect and gratitude

I am so very proud of my mother and with respect and gratitude I would like to say:

Thank you for having been and being such an amazing example!