history · September 11th · slice of life

It’s been 21 years…

I woke up, acutely aware of what today was. I texted my friend Rachel once I was fully awake. She’s the first person I reach out to every September 11th morning since she watched the planes hit the Twin Towers from her office window knowing her friend was at Windows on the World that morning. Afterwards, I looked through my Facebook memories and sighed. I shed some tears. Then I put one foot in front of the other and went about my day.

This morning, I looked out the window and noticed the rain. It wasn’t sunny, like that brilliant blue sky was on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. I guess G-d is crying this year, I thought to myself. (Oh, the things we tell ourselves to explain gloomy days.)

After breakfast, I headed upstairs to check on the kids.

“Come into my bathroom so I can do you hair,” I called to them.

“Did you know it’s 9/11 today?” Isabelle asked.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I turned away from her and nodded.

“How did you know?” I asked. (I rarely say ‘9/11’ out loud so I knew she wasn’t talking about today’s date. I typically say “September 11th” since the abbreviation has always felt too casual to me.)

“I heard it on the news this morning,” she replied.

I kept my back towards Isabelle and started talking. “September 11th, 2001 was nothing like today. The morning was crisp, but pleasant. The sky was cloudless. The sun sparkled in the sky, which made it so hard to believe that a plane accidentally went into one of the Twin Towers.” My voice cracked. I started to cry, but I continued. “What you need to understand is that it was the worst day of most New Yorkers’ lives. You cannot even begin to imagine the smoke that billowed from Downtown Manhattan. Streets were shut to traffic and soot-covered people walked north. It was a nightmare the likes of which you and your brother should never know.”

When I turned around, Isabelle stood there staring at me. She doesn’t see me cry that often, but I can’t seem to help it any time I talk about September 11th. Even though I was in Midtown and even though my friends and family were safe, life as I knew it was changed forever.

Did I want to tell her that Friday, September 14th was the beginning of bag checks at my synagogue? Did I want to tell her that my parents bought me a cell phone since they couldn’t get a hold of me until I returned to my apartment right around the time the first tower fell? Did I want to tell Isabelle that government buildings installed security checks unlike anything I had ever seen before? (As a White House volunteer in the mid-1990s, we used to pass through a security check that would seem laughable today.)

I said none of it. Isabelle was born nearly a decade after the Towers fell, the Pentagon was hit, and the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field. She only knows of a world where synagogue security, cell phones, and emptied pockets at checkpoints are the norm. There is no before time for today’s kids. They don’t know how innocent the world felt because they’ve never known anything different.

Instead I asked what was gnawing at me. “What else did you hear about on the news?” (I worried Isabelle saw the horrific video footage sometime between the time the kids gain access to the TV at 7 AM on weekends and the time Marc got downstairs to give them breakfast.)

“Well, you already know the Queen died. They were saying that Megan and Harry went back to England for her funeral…”

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6 thoughts on “It’s been 21 years…

  1. Thank you for this piece. It has so much in it, it feels like a beginning to me. You could certainly write more about your own experience 21 years ago (perhaps you have.) The idea of children not knowing how that day changed the way we do so many things is really interesting, you made me think about how I have come to accept these changes and almost forget why they started. Your pictures show how you are gently teaching your children about an important event “in history.” And we need to know that you cry every time and about your friend you text every year.

    1. Thanks for your comment about this piece, Fran. One of my earliest pieces on TWT was about my experience on the September 11th, 2001. (Here it is in case you’re interested in reading it, https://twowritingteachers.org/2007/09/11/wn-entry-september-11th/.) As a New Yorker, who went to college in DC and now lives in PA, that fateful September day gives me such pause. I have an odd relationship with it to the point where I don’t even like to buy products that expire on September 11th. It just feels — wrong. I suppose that’s how previous generations felt about D-Day.

  2. My heart goes out to you, Stacey. Even though September 11, 2001 changed the national—and international—landscape forever, time does move forward. I have written so much about our, my students and my, experiences. We could see the smoke from the beach near the school where we were. Kids were watching television in Social Studies when it happened. Tears, fear, “What do we do?” And a choked response, “We go forward.”
    I will now add you to those I always think about on that day.

  3. I got goosebumps, Trish, when I read that you were able to see the smoke from the beach near the school. Oof. That smoke was so thick. We should never have to see anything like that again.

    And, yes, we move forward. We do hard things. But, we still take the time to remember.

  4. As I read you post, I couldn’t help but think of the stories we tell about history. Looking back, it seems at once historical and visceral. Like, my own kids and my students mentally understand that it’s an important day to commemorate, but they don’t carry it in their hearts the way many of us experience it each and every year.

    Thank you for this post, for the chance to go back and feel the weight of that story, for allowing us to go back into our own memories from that day.

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