I am a person made for the digital age. I save little. I throw away my children’s artwork and fail to understand why others complain that it has taken over their homes (though I am glad my kids ignore my work and won’t be reading this). Sometimes I take a digital photo first and then discard the project. How many shoebox sukkahs can I possibly store and how many wooden menorahs made with flammable paint, glue and sequins do I need? We live in a Hong Kong apartment.
I don’t save cards if you have just signed “love”- sorry Mom and Dad. I have saved a few letters, my favorite of which is one I received in college where my grandmother writes of trying to be quiet so as not to wake my grandfather who is asleep in the next room. I think this was the year before he passed away. And while her letter is sweet and filled with beautiful sentiments and wishes for me in the new school year, it is that simple line that I love most.
My husband and I both dislike clutter and thrive on tossing out things we don’t need. Interestingly, our two sons are packrats. My 12 year-old admits he has a problem in that he can’t throw anything away and periodically (it has become mostly a pre-Pesach thing) gives me permission to go through his things and throw out generally whatever I’d like. How many old math exams and practice sheets for Hebrew tests do we need?
As a rule my husband and I don’t save clothing. If you don’t wear it for two years, it goes to a charity (with a carve-out for my wedding dress and other formalwear).
But it has been 12 years today since September 11th. I saved my suit from that day. I had it dry cleaned to remove the soot, shards and dust remains I had collected as I walked home that day and then kept it in the dry cleaners bag. I knew I would never wear it. I saved the newspaper from that day and the next day as well, and Time magazine too. I amassed a collection of random postcards with the towers’ image from every shop that hadn’t yet sold out.
I play back portions of my memories of that day in my mind. I wish I had a photo of myself that morning. I remember standing outside, staring up at the blue sky and marveling at the perfection of the day near Century 21 in lower Manhattan. I don’t know why I stopped and marveled. I never did that. It was 7:30 a.m., a brilliant sky but an otherwise ordinary morning.
I have had a hard time writing my story in part because of guilt. I talk about it, but most people here only have memories of watching it on TV. I have felt that my written words would somehow minimize the real pain and loss of those who suffered.
Though locked in my building in lower Manhattan until about 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, I was able to make two phone calls after the towers were hit. We were all certain that they were going to fall and were told, given the debris, we were safer sealed inside our building. Should they fall we had no chance either way. The upper floors of our building had been evacuated long ago.
The first call I was able to make was to my mother (I tried my husband, but local calls didn’t go through). I made the call in the dark, sitting under my desk, below the windows. We had wet paper towels to cover our mouths when the smoke began to slowly seep in. We had a schedule to keep the towels wet.
I left my mother a message saying goodbye and pleading with her to make sure my son grew up knowing how much I loved him. I am not sure if I told her that I loved her and my father too. I can’t remember. My boss begged us all to stop with the phones and support one another instead, but we couldn’t stop.
Soon after, I spoke very briefly with my mother-in-law. Having virtually no access to phones and no access at all to the Internet, radio or television after our electricity went out, we were certain the entire city was under siege. My infant son was in daycare in the Met Life building where my husband worked. I asked her if he had the baby. In the office we sat listing the other targets likely hit too. Met Life was on everyone’s list though some people were afraid to show me. She said my husband was still trying to find him and then the phone went entirely dead. Everyone in the office heard. With so few calls going through each link to the world outside belonged to all of us collectively. No one said anything as I put the phone down. A friend put her hand on my shoulder.
No other calls went through after that. We all soon gave up our frantic dialing of dead phones.
I was to learn later that the daycare center in the Met Life building was evacuated first and the children had been moved to a safer location, but there was great difficulty notifying parents without phone service. My husband eventually found him and he was obviously in no danger. I don’t know for certain if everyone was picked up that day, if everyone had someone to return for them. It’s hard to think about.
My husband carried our son to our Upper East Side apartment. His stroller had to be abandoned during the evacuation. They waited in our apartment to hear from me.
My boss, a Vietnam vet, cautioned us when we left later that day. “Keep your mouths covered. If you think it is only smoke out there you are breathing in, you are kidding yourselves. Turn left and head directly towards the water. Don’t stop and don’t look. Stay together.”
Once outside, still holding hands with my friends, I remember asking a stranger just as we emerged from the area lined with rescue workers what had happened. He looked at us strangely and said that the towers had fallen. I responded, “That’s all?”
I knew then that past all this destruction my husband and son waited for me. And in that moment that is all I needed to know.
People lined the streets and cheered for us, handed us water bottles. It plays through my mind now like an old movie reel or a dream with flashes of frozen images.
Along our long route home, a priest invited my coworker and I into his small church and offered us water, snacks and a place to sit. He said he had been feeding people all day. He had run out of food so he broke the lock on the vending machine to have something to offer us.
Despite the good that I saw, I felt myself lose faith. I remember sitting outside that week, work was closed, and watching from the safety of the Upper East Side as pillars of smoke rose from downtown. I looked at my infant son and cried that I brought him into a world like this. I apologized to him. I told my husband in the days that followed that I would never have another child. I couldn’t bring another child into this world (though a year later my daughter was born).
The anniversary is always hard for me. I am well aware that I am fortunate enough to have the luxury to compartmentalize it, put it all away on a shelf up high and reserve these feelings for one day each year. I think about the two friends from my hometown that were lost that day. It makes it all more real for me – the contrast between my mere fear and their reality. I told a leader of the religious community some years ago in a meeting on September 11th that this day was hard for me. I talked about their families and how in a town like Edison we all knew one another. I told her they went to my school, were just one year younger than me, lived in my neighborhood and were part of my Jewish community. She responded by saying that the only blessing on that day was that no Jews were killed. I reminded her that I just finished telling her about two young men from my community, my synagogue. “Oh,” she clarified, “I meant thank God no Orthodox Jews were killed. They were all in minyan where they belonged.” I think about arguing the facts. Instead I get up silently and leave the meeting suddenly. I don’t go to synagogue that week or for a few weeks after. It doesn’t make me feel any better. I returned after that.
It is twelve years today. My “infant” son is preparing for his bar mitzvah. I tell my children about that day though New York is far away for me and entirely foreign to them. I have had people ask if September 11th is what made us leave New York.
It wasn’t but it certainly made it easier to leave. They don’t know that on my first few visits back to New York, while holding their hands, I would glance up half expecting to see shadows of men falling from the sky.
When my children went to bed tonight, I got my suit down from the cupboard above my closet and looked at it as I do every year on this day. Some years I am tempted to try it on but can’t as it holds a power over more than just me. I lift the plastic dry cleaning wrapper and touch the fabric. My suit is deep grey, the color of soot and loss; a speckled fabric that’s grainy like near forgotten photos and memories from long ago. Moments later I climb back on my chair and stretch to put it back in the cupboard above.
I receive an e-mail later that evening from a dear friend in New York, “I still think of what you went through on 9/11. Give Ian [my son] an extra hug.” I will save that e-mail for certain.
I wonder when it will be time to get rid of my suit. Not this year. Not yet. It’s still too soon.
In Memory of Scott Schertzer and Kevin Cohen and the other victims of 9/11. May their memories be a blessing.