There are some moments that are so fleeting, I can simply wash them off in the shower. What I had for breakfast yesterday. What movie I went to last weekend. The name of a person I just shook hands with.
And then there are other personal memories, because of their pain or joy, that sink in so deeply they remain under my skin and inform my opinions about the world, and who I become. When I write, I am always conscious of trying to tap into these memories, because they hold the most insight. When I create a story, I try and imagine how all the characters are reacting to an event , even if they are not together or don’t know each other. This collective memory, forces me to think about how humans, though vastly different, have core fragments of common grief or delight.
There are major events in our nation's past that are touchstones into the psyche of us as a people. We find them by mining our own individual stories.
I am too young for memories of the assassination of President Kennedy or the murder of John Lennon. I have a very vague recollection of the attempted assassination on President Reagan, which mostly involves hearing my parents talk about it around the house. But I do have a strong, compelling memory of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. As I’m sure most of you do.
My daughters will not have any shared memory of the events of Sept. 11. All they will ever know is its aftermath. They will only ever know the new altered version of both myself and our nation.
I cannot begin to imagine the loss and emptiness suffered by those directly impacted by the tragedies of Sept. 11. And I can not measure my own sadness in relation to having lost a loved one on that day. But now, 10 years have passed. I wondered for this column what would be fitting to pay tribute to all the civilians, heroes, servicemen and women, we lost that day and since. I believe it is to share our collective memory. This is mine. I hope you will share yours.
Was any day more beautiful than the morning of Sept. 11? It was one of those amazing fall days that only New England can offer. With sharp blue skies and cool morning temperatures. I was with my 16-month-old daughter at a friend's house. She had a 14-month-old girl of her own. The two of them were wriggling around the floor and we were sipping coffee, probably talking about nothing important. The phone rang; her husband. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center and we may want to turn on television. On went The Today Show. For the next hour, the two of us sat with tears streaming down our faces. A second plane crashed. We watched as it went into the building. They showed it over and over. Chaos. Confusion. No longer an accident. More hijacked planes? I tried to call my aunt in Alexandria, VA. She and my uncle, a retired major in the U.S. Navy, were very near to Washington. Phone lines were busy and there was no way to get through. The Pentagon was hit. My husband and I had lived in Arlington, VA in an apartment that clearly looked out over the side where the plane had crashed into it. We had sat on the hill opposite the Pentagon and watched fireworks break across the city on July 4. My tears continued fast and hot. My friend and I hugged. We called our husbands, both working near Boston, to check on them. And the girls drooled and squirmed, unaware that everything in their lives would be different than anything I had had in mine. In the weeks that followed, no planes flew overhead during our evening walks. Yellow ribbons and American flags went up all over town. And every night I watched the news. Every night I cried. Digging through rubble. Searching for bodies. Stories of survivors and heroes. Children left without parents. Families grieving. The amazing story of Flight 93. Then such pride and such an outpouring of national response. The American flag at Ground Zero.
For a long time, I felt guilty about laughing with my daughter or having personal moments of lightness. I laid in bed and pictured my own family on one of those flights and in silence, I let the tears dampen my pillow.
Now, I have two daughters and they are at an age where it is appropriate to start discussing it. Last year, my oldest and I talked at length about Sept. 11; the whos, whens and whys. I also told her my own experience. Her crawling on the floor as the Twin Towers, and the people inside fell to the ground. I welled up, get all choked up. I could barely finish. My oldest put her hand on my back and smiled at me. “It’s OK, Mom.”
Talking about it with them doesn’t get easier. Ten years later and it still lingers under my skin and continues to change who I become. And, who my children become.