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9/11: A clear day and a clear memory

Whenever I fly into Manhattan, the city reminds me of a cluster of Lego towers. It’s as if you could take the buildings apart, brick by brick and look inside to find tiny people, frozen in plastic at desks no bigger than the head of a pin.

At this height, it’s easy to forget that on every floor of every skyscraper, down every street and in every yellow taxi racing toward the next fare, life-sized people go about their very life-sized days. My daughter is one of them, and somewhere in the canyons of those stone and glass buildings, she sits, looking out over the same blue sky that 3,000 other souls saw on this day, 15 years ago.

The morning of September 11, 2001, dawned clear as I recall. I was up early, walking the dog as I always do, with a longtime friend. Cloudless, the cool blue sky of late summer hinted at fall.

By 7:15 a.m., my two high school kids hurried as I made breakfast. In a few hours I’d join them in the halls of Sanderson High School, where I would be teaching my daughter’s class of seniors the art of the personal essay.

The first plane was throwing flames and smoky plumes into the Manhattan skyline by the time I saw the television. Odd, that. How could someone fly into a skyscraper? It didn’t look real. But the scene would become surreal minutes later, as we now know. Pointed, not faulty navigation.

As I drove toward the school, I thought about how after a tornado or hurricane, the sky opens where all the missing trees used to be. On my only visit to New York four years before with my daughter and friends, I’d stood at the base of the towers – now missing from the sky – turning my camera straight up, though I couldn’t capture the top.

That day’s sky was silent in Raleigh and I wondered what I would say to students whose world had, in just 18 minutes, exploded. Fifteen years later I’m still trying to find the words.

[The essays the Class of 2002 turned in to me reflected the moment that had frozen them and me. Where they were when they found out, family members out of touch for too long. What they wanted to do to change their broken world.]

Though I knew no one directly affected by the events of Sept. 11, for months I searched for stories as this distant Lego world took on a new dimension. No longer was it stone and mortar and pavement crawling with yellow ant-sized cars. It was firemen heading up the stairs against a sea of faces heading down. It was clouds of barreling ash and flags raised over ruins. It was lives saved because of missed flights and weddings at home and morning alarms that didn’t go off.

In March 2002, my daughter and I visited the city again. My husband’s company’s office overlooked Ground Zero, and he had arranged for us to visit for a bird’s-eye view.

“At least the odor is gone,” said a woman who worked there.

“Where were you?” we asked, and her story unfolded, how she started walking mid-morning across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others. By 3 p.m., she knew her son would be coming home from school with no word about his mother. It took her almost eight hours to reach him.

Later, we walked to St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street – across the street from Ground Zero – where for nine months volunteers operated an around-the-clock relief ministry. Greeting cards colored by children from all over the world lined the backs of every pew, walls were covered with handprint flags, so many it was hard to see the soft blue plaster behind them. Outside, fliers and flowers and photographs of the missing littered the iron gates.

I write this on a day when my daughter’s boss rang the opening bell at NASDAQ. There she is, live, standing with her colleagues of eight years, smiling as though she has forgotten the day during her senior year when our world tumbled like crumbling Lego towers. But I know she hasn’t, because she lives in the city that fell, and rose again.

Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of Nags Headers and In Mother Words. She can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.

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