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The Sound of Sirens

Maija Mäkinen

[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]

In the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus, before it was too late, many immigrants had to consider the meaning of “home.” What if I get sick? Should I be here or should I be there? What about my immigrant partner? What if my parents, in my country of origin, contract the virus, and I don’t make it back in time—or if I do, I’m quarantined and not allowed to visit? What if I leave at the wrong time and the borders are closed and I can’t get back? And if I stay, what if I apply for unemployment and am deemed a public charge, and my citizenship application is denied?

Before New York’s stay-at-home order, a handful of my friends left, including some immigrants I know. But in the unfamiliar bubble of silence that hangs over New York in the midst of the pandemic, I feel anchored here, in part because of the history of losses and calamities, personal and monumental, that the city and I share.

The inward-turned social isolation of quarantine is rich with the nostalgia we usually reserve for youth and countries of origin. Ordinary life suddenly appears as a sepia-toned thumbnail in the wrong end of the telescope, eerily similar to the nostalgia I feel vis-à-vis Finland—that haunting unreality of another place and time, out of reach.

The last time it was quiet like this was, of course, after September 11th. Now as then, as the hum of everyday life falls away and the brain searches for meaning in an unprecedented situation, my own immigrant mind returns to particular totems of the past, in my case, my Finnish past.

Under the quiet skies I hear the sirens of ambulances and think of my grandmother, dead since 1993. We in the city are used to the constant wail of emergency vehicles, but these sirens are too frequent, and you cannot help but be aware of each one. In some moments you’ll be listening to one when another begins in a different direction, and the sounds join together like the howling of wolves in the night.

As another Senior Care ambulance passes by on its way to one of the Brooklyn hospitals, I imagine someone’s grandparent or mother or brother speeding toward their death the way my grandmother sped toward hers in the spring of 1993, in Turku, Finland, while I was shopping for produce in Manhattan’s Union Square greenmarket.

After she was hospitalized, I waited in limbo for travel arrangements and more news, trying to reach out to her across the Atlantic through telepathy, willing her to feel how I was holding her calloused hand. Later, I calculated that while she lay in the ambulance, alone, I had been buying rhubarb at the greenmarket, and thinking of her. That turned out to be my only solace, because, as is true for many loved ones during the COVID pandemic, I never made it to her bedside before she died.

I have often wondered where her unconscious mind traveled on those last two days she had in this world—I am fairly certain it homed east, to a time and place before she became a refugee in her own land, before the Soviet Union redrew Finland’s border and took her hometown of Viipuri. As if in continuation of her thoughts, I asked myself after September 11th, as people were leaving the city and everything seemed uncertain, Would my grandmother have left Viipuri if she’d had a choice? In my mind, New York had become Viipuri. I will not leave, even if bombs start falling on Broadway—I will never leave, I told myself.

This is how we become part of America.

On television, the Pope gives his Easter blessing to an empty church in the middle of an empty St. Peter’s Square—alone with his thoughts and observations in the midst of a setting that is both incontrovertibly real and by all appearances a stage set. Outside, our world has been reduced to such a set, with streets devoid of people, cars parked in the same spot for weeks, and stores shuttered, and we all feel some of that disconnect that new immigrants experience in a new country. Each July Fourth, the newly arrived sit at their windows, wondering at the sudden silence and deserted streets.

Yet another totem from my Finnish past emerges when the televised daily COVID task force press briefing comes on, and I see the expressions on the faces of the officials behind the President. They are similar to the face of Finland’s President, Sauli Niinistö, during his visit to the Oval Office last year. As the American President launched into a tirade, I recognized in Niinistö’s stoic expression the face of his entire generation—the face of living next to the Soviet superpower, keeping your thoughts to yourself. The same expression is often on the faces of immigrants, of workers, of the abused—of anyone disempowered. It says, inside, Oh Christ, you can’t be serious, what a freak/asshole/monster! On the outside, the face says, Just biding my time here, being polite, because otherwise you’ll invade me, levy a tax on my cheese exports, or imprison my family, or deport me.

The crisis of this particular moment requires no embellishment from old memories and associations, yet I can’t stop myself from appliqueing the past onto the COVID-19 present, trying to make a whole. It occurs to me, in fact, that throughout my three decades in this country, I have been doing the same thing: superimposing Finnish memories over an American life, weaving, weaving, as though someday the past and the present might become one country.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic quarantine, I have begun to see “home” in a new way. Instead of a place, or one’s present life situation, or the site of our memories, I think of home as a decision—the decision to stay.


Maija Mäkinen is a Finnish-born writer and translator whose writings on place, belonging and immigrant memories, along with her literary translations, have been featured in Porter House Review (Pushcart Nomination), Broadsided Press, SAND, Gulf Coast, LA Review, and others. She is the winner of the 2017 Nadia Christensen Prize in Translation and the University of Cambridge Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and holds an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. Her essay, "Finland Is Not Real," appeared in TBLR Volume 2.


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