This morning, the kids and I met Lynne and Ralph for brunch. (Yes, you can do brunch on a weekday!) Afterward, we drove to Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the Continental Army encamped from December 1777 to June 1778. After a stop at the Visitors Center, we walked Muhlenberg’s Brigade, the “site of the encampment of troops led by Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg during the winter of 1777-78. Today the area consists of nine reconstructed log soldiers’ huts facing a gravel company street.”
We entered the first log hut, which Ari said: “wouldn’t be that warm in the winter.” It was filled with placards I read to the kids. In the next hut, we saw bunks that were “horrible beds,” according to Isabelle. A hut or two later, we discovered an officer’s hut, which the kids felt was nicer since it had mattresses, blankets, and a table. This allowed us to discuss the difference in accommodations between officers and soldiers.
The final hut we came upon had twelve wooden bunks. The kids couldn’t believe 12 soldiers (and possibly the soldiers’ families) would be cramped in that space. The kids were unimpressed with the soldiers’ accommodations at Valley Forge. That’s when I looked at them and asked, “What were you expecting, the Marriott Marquis?!” That garnered a chuckle from both of them.
Unfortunately, it began to rain, so we could not walk around Washington’s Headquarters. We plan to return in several weeks (since Valley Forge isn’t far from our house) to check it out. Visiting historical sites like this reminds us of what many people sacrificed to fight for our independence in the late 1700s.
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…”
Inauguration Day is two days away. Like many Americans, I’m furious that our country is divided. While it’s my sincere hope better days are ahead for our country, I think it’s important to have conversations with kids about how we got here since this isn’t the first time our country has been at a crossroads.
The last time our country was this at odds with itself was the in 1860. President James Buchanan failed to hold the Union together and didn’t stop the secession of the South in early 1861. Many historians contend was one of the greatest mistakes in presidential history.
President Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, is located a few miles away from our house. Even though it’s closed to the public now, due to COVID-19, the grounds are open and a virtual tour is available.
This morning, I bundled the kids up and took them to visit Wheatland (and the Tanger Arboretum, which has over 200 varities of trees). While Ari viewed our field trip as “morning exercise,” Isabelle and I had the chance to talk about Buchanan’s legacy as we walked around Wheatland.
You might be wondering why I chose a freezing winter day to talk about Buchanan’s failures? Because Isabelle saw part of the Insurrection at the Capitol unfold at the tail end of a movement break. (Backstory: She watches kids’ HIIT vidoes on YouTube for daily movement breaks. She has the habit of exiting out of YouTube at the end of a movement break. Of course, the news was on when she exited out on January 6th so she saw the Capitol Steps flooded with people.) She knows what happened after she returned to class and has a developing understanding about why people stormed the Capitol.
I minored in history as an undergraduate. My understanding of American History was shaped by three professors: Tyler Anbinder, Edward Berkowitz, and Linda Grant DePauw. And while my daughter is only in fourth grade, I felt that today — as we stand on the cusp of what I hope are better days for our country — we should talk about what happened in the past. As the saying goes, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s time for all of us to make sure our children — whether they’re are own or the kids we teach — have an understanding of America’s past so we don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before us.
9/11/12: I went downstairs for breakfast after getting my daughter dressed and watched “The Today Show.”
9/11/01: I took surface transportation back to my apartment where my mom was waiting for me since she was in the City for the day.
9/11/12: I took my daughter back upstairs to get ready for our day.
9/11/01: I watched NBC with my mom. We were glued to the TV set in horror as we watched the Towers burn. We felt as though the world was falling apart around us once we heard the Pentagon was hit and government buildings were being evacuated.
9/11/12: I was dismayed with the poor coverage “The Today Show” was giving the September 11th anniversary. I flipped to CNN, which was covering the memorials. I turned to MSNBC, where I stayed, since they were re-broadcasting the coverage from the morning of 9/11/12. This is when my past met my present. Never in the past 11 years have I watched the media footage of that morning minute by minute in synch with the present day’s time. It was eerie.
9/11/01: I watched the first Tower fall down in horror on TV. My mom and I begged my father to leave his office to come uptown. But he wouldn’t leave until much later that day. When we were all together again, we hugged for a long time.
9/11/12: I watched the first Tower fall down with the same horror I felt 11 years ago. Tears fell from my eyes. I was sobbing audibly. My daughter laughed. She has rarely seen me cry and must’ve thought I was laughing (despite the tears falling from my eyes). I pulled her close to me and hugged her. “When you get older, Isabelle, you will understand why mommy is crying. Today is a sad day.” She stopped laughing and allowed me to hold her tightly in my arms, stroking her soft curls.
9/11/01: As the news of the day unfolded, I remember thinking, “Who would want to bring a child into this world?” I loved kids, but I couldn’t imagine myself having one when it seemed as though the whole world was coming apart.
9/11/12: As I watched the news coverage from 2001 on MSNBC, I applied sunscreen to my daughter since my plans for the day changed. I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful September day with our friends and therefore we decided to meet at a local park. As I smoothed sunscreen on her skin, I recalled my thought from 2001. “Who would want to bring a child into this world?” I am so glad my perspective changed since 2001. Our world is fraught with danger and uncertainty. However, the biggest thing I learned from September 11th, 2001 is that you have to go on living.
9/11/01: I vowed that I would never forget.
9/11/12: I will never forget that beautiful September morning in 2001 when the biggest news of the day should’ve been the mayoral primary in NYC. That changed so drastically. Eleven years seems far away, but watching the minute-by-minute coverage on MSNBC brought it right back. I don’t know how I will approach September 11th with my daughter when she comes of age to talk to her about it. But I know I will talk to her about it in a way that will attempt to help her understand the importance of the day without making her completely fearful. No matter what I do September 11th 2001 will always be history, like Pearl Harbor and D-Day are to me. Perhaps the greater task is one that I engage in daily. One of my greatest jobs as a parent will be to make sure she lives her life in a way that will make this world, or at least our corner of it, a better place.