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?
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