Teacher Professor

September 8, 2011

Becoming History

Filed under: Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 7:04 pm

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty ’cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

—Alan Jackson

I didn’t know anyone who died in September 11th.  We know people who knew people, and we know one man who missed American Flight 77- the one from Dulles that crashed into the Pentagon.  He missed the flight because he had just received a phone call from his wife telling him that she was pregnant with their first child- a child who is now my son’s best friend.  But we were not directly impacted.

We have stories, though- along with all of the Americans that day- we all know where we were, what we were doing when we first heard, or saw it.  The horror of that day- and the shared horror of it- are all seared into our awareness of ourselves as Americans.  Such moments are called “flashbulb moments” as we remember clearly exactly where we were and what we were doing because of the intensity of the emotion. I’ve been listening to other people’s stories this week- along with so many others- and I read the stories in the newspaper and online.  In the words of Alan Jackson, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”  We are grieving as a collective nation share our individual stories.

My children are 15 months apart- Elizabeth born in March, 2001 and Ray born in June, 2002.  They have hit developmental milestones very close together.  They learned how to talk by talking to each other.  They both learned how to ride a bike together.  They both started loving and then hating Barney at the same time.  We call them the “Almost Twins”.

But that day, September 11th, separates them.  Elizabeth was there.  She was the baby we held on to tightly that terrible, terrible day and the quiet, horrible days afterwards.  Ray… Ray was perhaps a result of September 11th as I forgot my medications- all of my medications- that week, and James and I held tightly to each other.  He was part of a little “baby boomlet” that occurred in June and July of 2002.  September 11th is a dark demarcation line between the shared childhoods of my children.

Last weekend, in rememberance of the 10 year anniversary, I started educating them about September 11th.  I wanted them to know.  We watched “United Flight 93” and “World Trade Center“, and we talked about it.  It was an… odd experience.

Elizabeth wanted to know exactly what she was doing on that day.  “Chewing your toes” wasn’t the answer she was looking for, and so she kept asking- hoping that somehow the gravity and horror of the day would have been recognized by an infant.  She wanted to add her part to the stories that our friends and I have been sharing around the dinner table or in quiet moments. She wants it to be recognized that she was there, too.

Ray wasn’t there and felt left out.  He wanted to talk about the facts and the details of the planes and the process.  He wanted to know the fear and the panic of those who were on the planes and in the Towers, but he was much less interested in the experience of us, those who weren’t directly impacted.  He wanted to understand it as a movie, as a documentary.  As something that was real, but not personal.

Seeing the difference in my two children, I began to think about history- and the way we understand history.  Every generation has their “horrible” moment- a moment where everyone at that point knew where they were.  For this generation, it was September 11th.  For my parents’, the assasination of JFK. For my grandparents, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Moments at which fear and anxiety and a need to come together and grieve and appreciate life are shared by an entire country.  Moments of pure living that remind us of how tenuous living can be.  Moments that shaped history.

I have always loved history.  I love reading historical novels; I love going to historical places; and I love getting to understand how and why people were like at different times.  I can’t go visit battlefields because I can sense the horror and the fear that still lingers around places that are calm and peaceful now.

And yet, I have no direct feelings about the assasination of JFK.  I can watch movies and think “Oh how awful that must have been“, but it’s theoretical.  It’s from a long time ago.  And they dressed funny.     It’s not disrespect.  It’s not lack of imagination.   It’s just that it’s not my reality.  They aren’t my emotions.  It’s history.

For Ray, there have never been Twin Towers.  He can look at my pictures of my first visit to New York with the Towers in the background, and they’re from a long time ago when people dressed funny.  I cried at the memory of that day as I watched the movies.  He wanted to know what happened afterwards.

September 11th is a 5th grade standard in the Georgia Performance Social Studies Standards.  It’s in there along with the Civil War, World War I, Vietnam and the Cold War.  This year’s fifth grade class is the last class who was alive on that day- and they were infants.

September 11th is a dark demarcation line between the shared childhoods of my children.  It’s a line between my life and my son’s.  It was my reality… and next year, when Ray is in fifth grade, September 11th will truly start to become history.


There is a poem by Carl Sandberg that expresses this better than I can.  I grieve, and I respect and honor those who lost loved ones.  And in my child, I see the Grass beginning to grow…

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–I am the grass; I cover all. 
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:What place is this?Where are we now? 
I am the grass.
Let me work

— Carl Sandberg

September 6, 2011

Memory Quilt

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 9:10 am

This Labor Day, I spent an hour up on a ladder, finding four large boxes stored in the garage closet with Elizabeth, who was helping me in a project planned for a decade.

When Elizabeth was a baby and started outgrowing her baby clothes, there were some that I just couldn’t give away.  I couldn’t pack them up in the plastic garbage sacks and haul them off to Goodwill for some stranger to look at with a critical eye.  Those other people might not be able to see:

  • How precious that faded little blue jean dress was- the one Elizabeth wore when she was six months old,  and sitting next to her teddy bear who was the same size she was- and she was still wearing when she welcomed her new baby brother home.  
  • They wouldn’t understand how sweet the smell of fuzzy white footie pajamas with just a hint of sweet potato stain on the collar is- the perfect combination of Tide and Johnson’s baby shampooed little girl.  
  • And strangers definitely wouldn’t appreciate the newborn onesie with the little pink hearts on it that was the bane of my existence to snap up correctly and James never did manage to fasten correctly.  

I just couldn’t give them to Goodwill.  And since I was pregnant again when Elizabeth was six months old, maybe I would keep them for our next little girl.

Only the next baby was Ray- and onesies with hearts on them were not really considered acceptable.  And so, they stayed in their bag.  To be joined along the way by:

  • That sweet green dress in which Elizabeth hopped around the lawns of the lighthouse at St. Augustine when she was 18 months, laughing so hard that her tow-headed curls shook with her.  
  • And I just had to add the pink-and-white  Oshkosh overall dress when she was 2 -that was a larger version of the dress we brought her home in- and she wore everywhere for a year.  The original dress went in the bag, too.  
  • And the coat that she got when we visited Mamamum for a fall weekend that had little Pooh ears on the hood and she kept petting over and over.  She wore it three more times that winter in Florida- and every time the sweetness of my baby took my breath away.

The bag became a box the summer Ray was two, because we were moving, and I had to go through his baby clothes as well.  I scoured the clothes that were too small to leave behind, to give to Goodwill, to hand down to friends.  But I found myself smiling at the tiny Hawaiian shirt that reflected the blue snap in my son’s laughing eyes, and I couldn’t let those moments go.  The box metamorphed into a bin.

And so, I decided on a Project.  A Project that I would get to- someday.  Someday when we stopped moving.  Someday when I wasn’t starting a new job.  Someday when I wasn’t researching about autism, writing about autism, or presenting about autism.  Someday…I would turn all of those wonderful baby moments captured in these clothes into a quilt- one for each child- so that they could take a part of those moments with them.

I love quilting.  I haven’t quilted in 12 years because I hand-sew- each square, each whorl, each section I stitch by hand.  It takes me a year to make a quilt and I’ve only made three.  I don’t sew for the final product.  I sew for the joy of the doing.  But sewing a quilt takes time.  And time for a quilt would be something that I would have… someday.

I realized last week, that, amazingly, Someday was here.  This fall, for the first time in 10 years, I am not up to my eyebrows in some project.  My book is turned in, I know what I’m teaching and I’m merely tinkering with the classes, and the children are in the same school they’ve been in for three years.  No one is dying.  We’re not moving.  We have time to deal with small things, big things.  We have time to be.  I’ll be doing some traveling and some consulting and I can sew on the plane.  And I have time for the first time in a decade to get out the boxes- grown now to 4 large bins.

Four large plastic Rubbermaid tubs that have been dragged with us through 8 houses, 5 states, a summer in limbo in a storage unit, a tornado, and even a fire.  They take up a good chunk of a closet in our garage.  And they were brought down this past Monday with the help of my 10-year old baby who was strong enough to lift them and carry them inside the house.

I found out, that despite my good intentions, and the new sewing basket from Michaels, that I still couldn’t do it.  Elizabeth and I unpacked those dresses and those onesies and those smocked Christmas dresses and I just couldn’t lay scissors to them.  It rained hard as we got the edges of Tropical Storm Lee, and I told stories. I told stories of “Oh, you wore this when…” and “At this age, you were…”, and “Remember that picture when you were wearing this?”  Elizabeth carefully examined and folded each smock, each dress and each footie pajama and repeated like a mantra, “What was I doing in this one?”, as if each one connected her with her past- a past in which she was loved and adored and there was always laughter.  A past with no ghosts, no sorrow, no autism and no issues- a past that was only full of joy.  We reveled in the memories of her babyhood- the best parts that are all I want to remember.

I have some things for the quilt.  I have some of the baby blankets and some dresses with vivid colors and patterns.  I have a couple of swim suits.  But the yellow swim suit in size 6 months that had lemon patterns on the shoulders and the matching hat?  How on earth could a little yellow square capture the memory of her sitting in her play pool on our back deck in her bouncy chair as she kicked the water with laughing squeals?  Elizabeth pointed out that her baby doll, the original Lily (they’re all named Lily.  We just have Lily 1, Lily 2, etc.) would be able to wear most of the clothes.  So the little yellow swim suit with lemons on the shoulder went into “Lily’s Bin”.  

  • So did the red velvet dress with the white lace collar that she wore her first Christmas.  
  • And the darling pink and white gingham dress with the big strawberries on the pockets into which she would stop and put things on our walks.  
  • And the jean jacket with the red and white checked ruffles that she wore on her first airplane trip to Seattle.  

I looked at each article of clothing and fell in love with my daughter all over again.  She looked at each article of clothing and began to construct her sense of today with herself from yesterday.

I finally decided that a quilt just can’t capture those moments- small bits of fabric with the edges sheared off.  With Elizabeth’s assistance, we packed almost everything back into three of the tubs- rechristened “Lily’s Tubs”.  They went back into the closet, with the assurances that they would be used to dress up her doll, or to be worn with her own daughter.  Someday.  I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be dragging those tubs to next.  I know that my husband and my mother will roll their eyes at Elizabeth and me as we find space in our crowded house for 3 tubs of outgrown clothing.

I will still make a quilt of the fabrics that evoke memory through its pattern or its texture.  I will still work on this project that is 10 years in the making.  But I have a clearer understanding that sometimes, memory is formed by the details.

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