There had to be a dozen mismatched suitcases - big ones - all stuffed to capacity and secured with luggage straps, but the one I noticed first was a small, pink overnight bag with a teddy bear sticking out of the front pocket.
Its owner stood in the airline-ticketing queue clutching an American Girl doll while all around her, family members hugged and cried.
It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening; the little girl’s family was moving from Michigan to Hawaii, where they hoped to find work. The ambivalence on her face seemed to say this move wasn’t a happy family adventure.
I swallowed hard to fight my tears as I watched two middle-aged sisters hold each other in a painful embrace, and then hug each other’s children. Their elderly father wiped his tears as he kissed his daughter, shook the hand of his son-in-law, and then said goodbye to his grandchildren.
Slowly, reluctantly, they separated, leaving some of them to embark on an uncertain journey and the rest to resume their lives, unchanged, but emptier.
With the remarkable strength that women often muster, that grown sister passed her sleeve across her face to dry her tears, then flipped the switch to be a wife and mother nurturing her family through a difficult moment. “You guys OK?” she asked.
But it was clear from where I was standing that she was not OK. Her heart was breaking.
Such is the reality of out-migration.
Blogging on the Midwest economy for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Bill Testa says, “Given the dismal national unemployment picture, the state of worker dislocation in Michigan and other Midwest automotive communities may not be fully appreciated. But unemployment in these communities is significantly worse than national averages. While the national unemployment rate has just now reached 9.7 percent, Michigan’s unemployment rate is now at 15.2 percent and has exceeded 10 percent since December of last year.”
It’s troubling enough to consider the impact of that level of unemployment on communities and, ultimately, on an entire state. But the true cost of this recession can’t be measured in statistics on jobs or home foreclosures or failed businesses.
It has to be measured in human terms - in families who resort to relocating in order to make a living and put food on the table, extended families who give up the support and comfort of being near one another in order to find work.
It’s birthdays and holidays spent apart, hospital stays without a visit, sporting events and graduations without proud family members in the stands.
Unfortunately, these sacrifices take an even greater toll on children, for whom stability and routine are often the keys to surviving a stressful economic cycle.
Experts say that when times are tough it’s better for kids to stay put, if at all possible, where aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers and coaches can help maintain a sense of security. But in Michigan, it’s increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to hold onto the lifestyle that’s best for families and children.
On Saturday at the airport, one little girl held onto her doll and her bear and her mom’s hand instead.