“Ten years ago, as we all know, ‘everything’ changed. And then some things changed back.”–Henrik Hertzberg
“In the end, J.K. Rowling may have outwritten us all.” –Laurie Moore.
My memories of 9/11 are mostly fragments. I was still pretty young–two days from turning 16–and that’s part of it, but part of it is also that they must be fragments. It is too hard to hold together a coherent picture of the day, from beginning to end.
I remember having a dream the night before that something horrid had happened. I remember going to school the next day. I remember Norman, our principal, calling us into the Big Room and saying, with a catch in his voice and an expression I’d never seen on his face–he was normally quite calm–telling us what had happened. I remember his voice as he said he was thinking about all those people. I remember Anne, the math teacher, one of the gentlest women I will ever have the pleasure to know, saying that it had to be Osama bin Laden. I was, as I said, not quite sixteen, and I was totally unaware of the world around me: I’d been as angry as any other teenage burgeoning progressive wannabe when Bush was “elected” and I’d happily tell you that the GOP was made up of morons, but of the larger world I knew inexcusably little. Or perhaps not inexcusably: perhaps my excuse is merely that I never had to, I could live in my own little world, spill my own little dramas. I did not know what was going on in Iraq, Afganistan–I’m not sure I would even have recognized the names. I was concerned with my own private hell–I was not as desperate and depressed and self-destructive at sixteen as I would be at seventeen, but I was getting there–and I could not see outside myself. Even after 9/11, it would take several years before I learned to look around me, to open my eyes and see the rest of the world. For many years I lived as a ghost might, flitting between home and school, lost in books.
And so I had no idea who bin Laden was. I did not understand what was happening. I did not know what the World Trade Center was. When Dylan asked if this was a terrorist attack and Norman said well yes, it looks that way, I had little concept of what a terrorist attack even is. It would take me a long time to even begin to understand that.
A couple of years ago, I was walking some kids home. At the time, I think that S and N were in 1st grade and C was in kindergarten. As we walked, S told me that they’d learned about 9/11.
Oh? I said.
He was solemn, serious. People were–they flew the planes. Into buildings.
I could hear the wonder in his voice, the utter astonishment. We don’t raise our kids to understand that things like this can happen in the world. And that is not a bad thing. But it makes it much harder to explain, then, at the moment when suddenly you have to.
The kids asked me what had happened. Who were these bad guys who flew planes, and did they mean to fly them into the buildings, or was it an accident? If it was an accident, they could understand it well enough: accidents happen. Milk is spilled, crayons are dropped, sometimes grown-ups say or do things they do not mean. But they couldn’t fathom someone flying a plane into a building to kill people on purpose. And I’m glad, of course, that they cannot.
Do you remember all the “well now we are a better country?” crap? I do. And it turned out to be a grand lie. We are not a better country. We are just as fragmented as we were before 9/11. Probably more so. Oh, there were a few nice moments of national unity, and then we went right back to fighting about butt sex. We do not have a sense, still, of what is right and what is wrong. And I am part of that, of course. I have less than no tolerance for Tea Partiers and racists and insert blank here. I just don’t. And I am not convinced that I should: while I think it is important to be tolerant of ideas, being tolerant of behavior that actively oppresses someone else is another thing entirely.
Hmm. That doesn’t really help clarify matters, does it?
This morning I watched the video footage. I don’t think I’d ever seen it before: that day I was not glued to the television. I could not stand to watch. I have avoided it ever since, but I think that it is important, too, to bear witness. So I watched. And I reacted exactly as you’d think: I gasped, I stifled a sob, I gasped again. I cannot imagine (and I have a fairly fertile imagination) the terror of actually seeing that. I really cannot. And I cannot imagine being a newscaster and suddenly seeing that plane fly into the second tower–how did I miss that video? I’ve never seen it, not that I can remember. If I have, I’ve forgotten, or I very carefully did not notice in the first place. Anyway, I cannot imagine suddenly realizing that this was, in fact, not an accident.
I don’t (as is surely obvious by now) have any sort of unifying theme or comforting conclusion to offer here. I remember what it was like. I mourn for the people who died. I remember how stunning and strange it was to have heroes, actual heroes, among us. I remember how my views on what the nation was like were altered, completely and totally, on one day. I remember how scary it was, to realize that we were not in fact invincible, that on the most beautiful of days the world can suddenly turn to ash.
This morning I happened to be supervising a couple of kids. One was 6, one 4. The 6 year old turned to me suddenly.
Osama bin Laden is dead now, she said.
He is, I agreed.
My mom said he was the boss of all the bad guys.
Your mom is right. He was the boss of all the bad guys.
The 4 year old looked up. How did he die?
Well, the girl said, he killed himself. I think with a bow and arrow. Or a gun.
I said, that’s what you think, huh?
The girl said, let’s build the Pentagon.
They built a tower out of the wooden blocks. The girl got the little plastic helicopter. Let’s fly this into the Pentagon, she said.
They flew the helicopter into the Pentagon. What happens now, I asked.
Everybody got dead, she said matter-of-factly.
I haven’t done much babysitting lately, which is why it was so lovely to babysit tonight for brothers I’ve known mostly since they were born, and to see how grown up they are, the 12 year old paying the pizza guy, the 10 year old telling me about how the commercial for “Saw” was scary (“some people like being scared but I don’t”). And the 7 year old was just the same, wanting to wrestle and sword fight and read. And it was just…nice, the rythem of it. I miss that, being with kids all the time. I need to look for some more babysitting gigs.
Although I did spend a lot of time saying “don’t hit your brother.” and had the following exchange:
10 year old: “my friend C told me this funny story about Family Guy but it has a word and I think it might be a bad word but I don’t know what it means…don’t get mad at me if I say it” (this is not verbatim, but more or less!)
me: “OK. the only way to find out what words mean is to say them.”
10 y.o.: “he said the statue of liberty’s pimp.
7 y.o.: “what’s a pimp?”
10 y.o.: “never mind.”
me: “it’s like a man…”
7 y.o.: “is it like a pimple?”
10 y.o.: “yea let’s say that!”
me: “let’s go see if the pizza is here!”
When I went to Maine, to a small town on the coast, every summer.
I havent been there in years. My grandmother died there in 2007, and the following summer I was there for a day or two, to scatter her ashes with everyone else.
When I was a child, though, I loved it there. It’s true, they are not entirely my people–lots of money, lots of Republicans, lots of pink and lime at the same time. Lots of golf and tennis. Cocktail parties. McMansions. The tennis court featured–I swear–a sign that sad “Whites Only.” Later it was changed to “Whites Preferred.”
They were mostly referring to tennis clothes.
What I did love, what I still would love, probably, is the beach. Beautiful. Miles long, incredible sand, water crisp and cold and lovely, waves high and tumbling. I would spend hours at the beach, swimming and reading. Once I was so still, reading for so long, that a neighbor called my grandmother to ask if I was okay. I read and read and swam and swam. Sometimes I walked on the cliff walk, where Winslow Homer used to stroll, and look at the same seascapes that he saw.
Since my grandmother died it’s been different. The house looks utterly changed, at least it did when I was there in 08. Gone were most of the pictures of the extended family, the casual parts of the house, the random beach stones, the old romance novels of my grandmothers. It has turned into a more “traditional” beach house, for that part of the world, and I can no longer see my grandmother every time I turn a corner. Can no longer see her sitting at the kitchen table, reading a book, eating coleslaw. She ate so much coleslaw, my grandmother, and not much else.
We had some great times. The two summers before she died I came up, took the train to stay with her for a week or ten days. We walked on the beach. She said “oops!” every time she had t0 navigate past a tidepool stretched across the beach. We rode bikes to a beach that had a boardwalk she could walk out on, waving her cane to indicate to the children they should get out of the way, so she could swim. She’d pile on her bathing caps, three or four or five, and she swam. We swam. Out to the boats, the buoys. It was cold and one summer I went with her to a surf shop to get her a wetsuit. She looked like a chicken. I had to ride an old bike, with no brakes, and one memorable day I failed to stop in the sand and instead kept going straight into the water, going in two or three feet before the bike finally stopped. My grandmother laughed and laughed.
I think of this now because I have recently become facebook friends with a number of people, a few mothers but mostly kids that I used to babysit for. One of the girls, who is now–what? A freshman in high school, I think, looking like all the other girls from that area, leggy and lovely, lying on the beach and having fun. When I was 13 I was her nanny. She was perhaps 3.5 and her brother about 15 months. Every morning I woke up, had breakfast with the family, took the girl to camp down the beach (we walked down the beach, to the beach club–there is, of course, a beach club, a yacht club, a country club….)and broke the boy back, put him down for a nap. In the afternoon I picked her up, fed them both lunch, took them to the beach. I was there for a week. My mom was down the street, and I went home to nap sometimes. I babysat for other kids on the lane, too, kids I’ve just friended on facebook. Once who had a major poop explosion. Another whose mother threatened to spank her and it scared me. Another who I took the library, the youngest of four, funny and tough. It’s so odd, to not have seen them for so many years and then to suddenly see pictures of them, looking so grown up. I’m surprised at how well I remember them. I can see them on fb, can see how they are following the paths that my cousins did, that much of my mothers side did: exclusive schools, boarding schools, sometimes with uniforms, special trips, time abroad. Lives that look absolutely perfect on the surface.
And the dogs. The dogs on the beach, only of course at certain times, but the dogs, beautiful dogs, mostly Labs, in and out of the surf.
A place is a strange thing to lose. I was in love with this town. I cried leaving, some years, tears streaming down my face. I wanted to stay there. I didn’t see beneath the veneer, and when I started to I was very bitter. They are still not my people, exactly, but I remember now how kind some of them were. Still are, probably.
Anyway. I miss it. I wish that part of growing up had not been losing it.
Random Mom at Clemyjontri Park (big, sprawling, rainbow of a playground in McLean where I took SB and NJ) to her son, who looked to be about 10): “If I see you without that cell phone IN YOUR HAND you have to SIT DOWN. and if you don’t answer on the first ring you are DONE FOR THE DAY.”
My boys: “We have to go to the bathroom.”
Me: “okay, come right back here.”
(a few minutes later)
Me, rather pointedly: “Thanks for coming right back!”
It’s nice that they are older, as much as I lovelovelove the tiny ones. The boys are both right around 7, with NJ being a couple months younger then SB, and in practice this means that in this huge playground I can let them run around without worrying. I can come find them, and they can come find me, and all is well.
I took the boys, with CE (who is nearly 6) and my sister to the waterpark, and it was really quite fun! They loved the slides, especially the boys, who went down Big Pete, the biggest slide in the whole place, over and over. Mostly, though, we enjoyed the lazy river. We are ALL ABOUT the lazy river. and I love wrapping them in towels and cuddling 🙂
Also, on the way home we were stuck in terrible traffic and they were exhausted and starving and so I kept them quiet and calm by telling them a completely off the cuff tale about a bear with triplet daughters that needed some dynamite to blow open a berry storage facility because there were no more berries or salmon left. It involved several other creatures and was quite…long. I was impressed with myself. Then, needing a break from making stuff up, I settled on retelling Harry Potter. Badly. A trend that continued on the way home from the park, with me telling more HP in a very bad British accent.
I love these kids. I hate that I will see them so much less next year!
A. is 2, and when I babysit she wants to talk about something very important.
“Yes, Mama will be back.”
“Mama happy me!”
“Mama will be so happy to see you!”
“A. no crying.”
“A. isn’t crying anymore. First Mama left and you cried, and now you aren’t crying anymore.”
“Mama happy me!”
“Mama will be so happy to see you!”
“Yes, Mama will be back.”
And so on.
NJ’s mom passed along this marvelous post about babysitters! It’s a good post and well worth reading, and nice to remember that parents appreciate us too.
I took all four of the younger kids to the park the other day, on the bus since I cannot fit all of them in my car (I realllllly need to figure that out…) and we had a great time. They marched over to the bus stop, backpacks on, played for quite awhile, and then marched back to the bus stop. They are such a pack, it’s great.
Meanwhile, I am mentally planning a post for National Babysitter’s Day. It’s apparently Saturday, which coincides nicely with the spring fair.
Hehe. Also, we’ve been listening to The Dream Jam Band song “Bike” and the kids just go NUTS. It is hilarious. There is singing along and funny faces and it can be difficult to drive because I am laughing so damn hard. Goofballs.
NJ is so grown up, now. At six and a half, he is suddenly remarkably mature, at least some of the time. CJ and AG are still five and a half, and they throw spectacular tantrums some of the time. Screaming, whining tantrums about what seat they sit in in the car or what kind of smoothie to pick at the store.
NJ will look at me these times as if he is embarrassed by this. It panics him a little bit. He usually wants me to give in and do whatever it is they like. But what’s interesting is that he is willing to make changes so that they calm down. Yesterday, for example, he agreed to share the kind of smoothie that he didn’t like–he wanted strawberry, CE wanted orange. I told him that was very kind. And it was.