Sept. 11, 2001: The Day that Changed Everything

Sharing our collected memories.

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.

Lisa Vasile September 05, 2011 at 11:50 PM
I have tears reading the article & more remembering the day. My mom was home taking care of 6 month old twins and I too went to kindergarden orientation at Brookside. A mom in the classroom had a cellphone and it kept ringing. We all thought it was "rude" since it was rare in 2001 that people had a phone on and answered it during something like this... until she explained why (and of course I didn't have a cell phone to check on my Mom). Living less than 1/4 mile from the school, I wanted to just run home to my mom and other kids. But as Michelle did, I rode the forever busride home. When I got home I could tell my mom had been crying, she was shaking and pale. I sat with her and watched the footage over and over and over until finally we just couldn't watch it any longer. We went to Town park. The sky was cobalt blue, sunny and 70's and as kids do, my kindergardner skipped the whole way and decided to put the twins in one swing back to back. She was so proud and the twins loved it. I took a picture of them in the swing together and it chokes me up each and every time I see the photo. It seemed like 2 weeks before my husband arrived home that day from work. Just like Deanna, I cried myself to a broken sleep. It was devastating, we were forever changed. Over the years we have told the kids bits and pieces. We let our "kindergardner" - now sophmore watch the documentary a few weeks ago. It was heartwrenching to watch again but harder to watch the horror on her face
Mary MacDonald September 06, 2011 at 03:00 PM
I was in Atlanta, and my mother lived in Rhode Island, and I remember calling her when the Today Show first reported that the World Trade Center was on fire. I was naive, and in my head thought it was a small plane. It never occurred to me before that day that planes could be used as weapons ... we were on the phone, still, when the second plane struck, and then we both knew. I spent the rest of the day working, going into schools around Atlanta, for coverage for the paper, and how schools were handling this with children.
Jennifer September 07, 2011 at 05:38 PM
Morgan was 14 months old and was (finally!) napping. I remember taking the dog outside, it truly was a gorgeous day, and then sitting at the kitchen counter to cut out coupons. The house was quiet and peaceful...Dan called and told me to turn on the TV. I sat for hours crying. I wanted my family together so that if something happened in our area, we would all be together. I was saddened and I wondered what kind of world my baby girl was inheriting. Things have changed a lot. I will never fly again without thinking about the fact that two of those planes flew out of Boston and without getting a bit anxious putting my whole family on one plane together. There is an inconvenience in traveling now, but one I gladly deal with if it will keep us safe. Thank you for sharing your thoughts of the day, Deanna.
Deanna Runeman September 09, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Much later in the year, the Patriots played in the Superbowl. U2 performed "Where the Streets Have No Name", and the list of all the victims was scrolling on a huge screen. It was one of the most beautiful things I've seen.
Donna Welch September 15, 2011 at 05:42 AM
Dee, You amaze me with your writing! Such a talent; such a way of expressing yourself. I cried. I was teaching school and the principal came to each teacher's door to tell us so we could be prepared to deal with what the children would inevitably find out. Problem was, we teachers did not know how to deal with it ourselves! Donna Welch


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