An Insignificant American’s Memories of September 11, 2001 (for my sons)

“Today is September 11, Mom,” said my son this morning, looking mournful. I wondered what that meant for him, 9/11, and did he wear a sad expression because that is what you are supposed to do when you’re a 5th grader and have no memory of such events other than knowing the date is significant? It was the first time that I can remember one of my kids attaching an emotion to the events of that day. A fan of history, he hoped they might talk about it in school.

Later, recovering from my morning walk and listening to the radio, I listened to a man talk about how America has changed in the years since 9/11, how many young people — those born just before or in the years since, have very little emotional attachment to the events that have shaped so many others. That younger people think of that day as the start of the Iraq War without understanding the significance of it, the before and after of it.

These memories, my memories of that day, are for my boys, so that they might have a window into what September 11th and the days immediately after were like for their mom, an average, insignificant American, living far away from the planes and the towers and the fields and the smoke and the mayhem.

  • It was a beautiful day in Chicago, a Tuesday, crisp with a hint of cool. They sky was clear and the light had that specific quality only found in September. NPR was on the radio during my drive into work. The announcers were talking about a plane that had flown right into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. That was a jolt, as I had celebrated my 30th birthday there the previous fall. I made a mental note to find a TV when I got to work, a large 40 acre retirement community.
  • Things had worsened in those few minutes it took to park my car and walk into campus. A second plane had hit the other tower. I was watching the news in a conference room, alone, when it was reported that the Pentagon had been hit by a third plane. That impact, more that the towers being hit, somehow solidified for me that the United States of America was under an attack. It was an awful kick to the gut, an unbridled fear that was new to me.
  • Eventually, though I wanted to sit and watch the news, I knew I had to get to work. As a social worker in a retirement community, it struck me that the people I cared for were folks who had all lived through Pearl Harbor, the only other attack on American soil I knew of. There was an odd comfort found in that. Later that afternoon, a memorial service was held in the chapel and while I wasn’t religious, I took comfort, too, in the words we use to do just that — find comfort and solace. Surrounded by older people, some of whom had fought in WWII, I took heart in the notion of American resilience. Simply being in that room of folks, all grieving and a little shell shocked by the events of the morning, was a comfort.
  • The skies were utterly empty in those days. Clear blue and empty. Not a plane to be found anywhere. Eerily blank and silent. It was discomforting.
  • I wore a navy blue military styler blazer that day with a white blouse, gray slacks, and my go to Franco Sarto loafers. Why I remember that I do not know, but the smart pewter buttons I saw on my wrist as I turned the volume up on the car radio to hear the news sit with me still. That jacket hangs in the downstairs closet and I can’t imagine getting rid of it.
  • There was so much TV in those early days. It was exhausting and relentless and impossible to turn away from. I started eating dinners in the bedroom — the only place your Dad and I had a TV back then. I could not stop watching, nor did I want to. ABC’s Peter Jennings brought a sense of familiarity, of level headedness, of compassion that we used to take for granted from our news anchors. Not so anymore. On the Saturday morning after the planes hit, he held a townhall style meeting geared towards children. That, too, was comforting and reassuring. You took your comforts where you could find them in those days.
  • Auntie Carol watched the towers burn from the relative safety of her Brooklyn apartment. Her kitchen window was more immediate than any news coverage. Uncle Quinn, who worked in lower Manhattan at the time, walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by so many other commuters. They were both safe. And weary. So weary.
  • My Cousin Dave, a captain in the Navy, was at the Pentagon that day. I remember my Mom hearing from her sister, Dave’s mother, that he was home safe, but that he could not be accounted for for hours that day and the family was worried sick.
  • About three weeks later, in early October, we had tickets to visit Auntie and Uncle in New York. There was a lot of conversation about would we go, should we stay home? Commercial airplanes had morphed into weapons and that was a scary time to fly. Protocols were changing, new security rules were being put into place. Uncertainty felt heavy and was everywhere. We went anyway and the mere act of flying felt brave.
  • We took the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn and nothing was the same. There were German Shepherds on a lot of trains sniffing for bombs. Police were in tactical gear from head to toe. We walked as close as we could get to Ground Zero (a few blocks away) and the smell that Uncle Quinn had described was strong and everywhere in lower Manhattan. It was a burning, hot, potent smell. The air was sooty, heavy. The work to clear the area was an around-the-clock operation, and we went at night, about 10 PM or so, and you could see the particles hanging in the air, the light from massive generator powered spotlights, making them dance and float all around us, still, even three+ weeks later.
  • Memorials were everywhere. New York was as silent and as reverent as I can ever remember. Candles, flowers, photos, flyers. People gathered together in parks all around the city. Auntie had told me that the tragedy of 9/11 was different for New Yorkers, but I didn’t believe her. I, too, felt like I was grieving. This was an American tragedy, I thought, not just a New York tragedy. I was wrong. This was a uniquely New York tragedy, at least the part here, with the towers, once so defining, now *poof* gone, no more. I am certain it felt the same at the Pentagon and on that field in Pennsylvania. There is an immediacy to being targeted, being Ground Zero, that changes everything. It was personal in a way I had not understood before being there.

There is a feeling of numbness that crops up when I see images of the World Trade Center Towers, standing and falling, even 18 years later. What they were, what they are. The snippets of people jumping, choosing their manner of death in a moment of utter helplessness. I no longer share them, as I don’t feel they are mine to share. They belong to the people on the flights, the workers in the buildings, the first responders, their families. And despite our almost annual visits to NYC, we’ve not visited the memorial there. Maybe someday. Even 18 years feels too soon.

September 11 is a day that is still shaping the United States and the world in ways only subsequent generations will get to more fully understand, more completely understand. But here are my memories, as an American, far from harm, greatly impacted, still trying to make sense of any of it.

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