It always fascinates me to hear about people's first memories. How do we remember certain experiences from such a young age? My very first memory is from age 3 or 4, I was putting on a puppet show for my mom while she was in the kitchen. In this brief snapshot, there is chair between the entrance of the kitchen opening and living room right by the stairs up to the main level, we lived in a raised ranch at this point, and I had pigtails. But that's all I can remember. Another very early memory I have is of visiting New York City when I was 6 years old. I remember being on the Staten Island Ferry and then on some steps dancing around with my sister Erin by the bay. I remember the skyline because my parents were sure to make a point of the Statue of Liberty and the famous "twin towers." Although we do have photos from this trip, I still remember these two small snapshots. I think sometimes we mix up true memories with photographs or home videos of memories, so it is important to clarify the difference to oneself. But I also think photos can bring back details of memories we have.
In the very first episode of the podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig discusses the reason why we remember certain events and why we also often forget events from only a few days prior. I've often found myself pondering this opening sequence, although it has been about 2 years since I listened to Serial. She opens episode 1 discussing how it is very hard to account for your time. Mundane daily tasks such as, "how you got to work on Monday" and what the weather was, who did you talk to and did you go to a store? If so, did you buy anything? Trying to account for a day is difficult, let alone a day that was 16 years ago. With social media, phone photo archives and text messages, this has become easier because we can look back to spark memories. Only a few photographs document this trip I took to New York in August of 2001, but I am positive that I have a vivid memory of the skyline with the towers.
Sarah Koenig asks teenagers about a day weeks back, and they struggle to remember certain days. She separately asks her nephew Sam and his friends about one day and they all recall it differently. One friend remembers being at a movie with her nephew but he recalls working that night. However, one friend remembers the day clearly because it was the last day of state testing and he had saved up to go to a nightclub. She concludes that if a significant event happens, you remember that plus events that happened throughout the day much better. When nothing significant happens you are not likely to remember.
5 weeks after this visit to New York City, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. I think people underestimate how much children pick up on because I very clearly remember my mother calling my family frantically. She was so worried because my uncle was in New York City that day. I never got the full story, so I called him yesterday to ask what really happened and what it was like to be there. I have heard versions of the story, but never asked myself.
"Part of the reason everyone was freaking out, is because they couldn't reach me and part of the reason they couldn't reach me is that they were all talking to each other and I couldn't get through. I called a million times but everyone's phone was busy. No one had a mobile phone."
I remember everyone freaking out, and I remember my mom being on the phone the entire time, so that memory checks out.
He was on what is called a "road show" which apparently is when you take a company and list them on a stock exchange before they are owned by multiple institutions. So when you are in this process you travel around the world and tell the company story. The week of 9/11/2001 was the week they happened to be on their New York stop.
This road show was actually the trip he met his wife on. She was a flight attendant and he gave her his card, how cute is that.
Back to the story.
They got to New York the company he was meeting with had an office in the World Trade Center. Now, he can't remember what time or what floor the meeting was on exactly but he does know it was in the morning. So that was the original plan, morning meeting in the World Trade Center on 9/11. At the last second, there was another meeting scheduled for a location in Midtown and since the first company had an office in Midtown as well, they switched the location.
"We had the meeting in the Midtown office and when we walked out of that meeting to go to the next I could see the Twin Towers, even from Midtown, looking down and I was like, 'look there's a fire at the top of the Twin Tower' it was only one tower at this point, but I was like, 'that Tower is on fire.' No one knew what was the cause of the fire. Then we went into the second meeting and it was on a trading floor so there were all glass walls and while the CEO was making the presentation, I could see through the walls that everyone was crowded around a TV. I went over and figured out what was going on so we stopped the meeting and all left."
As they were walking outside, the second plane hit.
"What I remember most was the smell, it smelled so powerfully of burning plastic. It was much more than just the visual of the towers on fire."
Everyone was trying to figure out what to do but he knew they had to get back to the hotel and re-book the rooms since they had already checked out with plans to fly to the next location later in the day. He knew that was not going to happen anymore. Luckily they got the rooms back. At that point, everyone was just trying to figure out what to do. No one had any idea what was really going on.
Once the visuals of the planes came through they were sure it was terrorists but it was terrifying because everything was just so unclear. Everything in New York City was closed and they couldn't leave for two days. The only way to get out of the city was walking because the subways were shut down. They were able to leave two days later because the company had a private jet and flew out in the 45 minute period the sky was open again.
"I was lucky...I'm pretty sure we were going to be halfway up. I don't think we were going to be at the top... But I'm glad I never had to know."
When I asked what was going on my parents told me what happened. My dad also showed me the footage of the planes a few days later. Everyone was talking about it so there was really no hiding this from a kid who clearly knew something was going on. I remember thinking this was an accident and I was confused when I started to figure out it was on purpose. Of course, my parents didn't go into detail about what terrorism was but for the first time, I knew that there are bad people in the world. I always consider this a loss of innocence moment in my life.
On September 11, 2017, I visited the memorial. I wanted to talk to people, ask them why they were there, use their quotes in this post, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. This is one element of journalism I struggle with the most, the compassion for people's emotions. I just didn't want to ruin the day or moment for anyone even though I just want to share a story for the sake of storytelling. As I walked up to the memorial I felt an overwhelming wave of emotion. The kind you feel in the back of your eyes before you tear up. But once I looked over the edge and heard the water and saw the flowers placed out all around the memorial, I felt differently. I could feel the sense of unity and community, it was very special and unique to feel that everyone was there for different reasons, yet all the same to show a pride and respect for the country and the people who not only lost their lives but the people who lost their loved ones.
I feel very fortunate to have this memory of the skyline with the towers, and in a way, I feel that this has always given me a special connection with the City. I imagine that being only 6 years old, I am one of the last generations and age groups to possibly be able to remember the day. Although September 11, 2001, it is a blur of traumatic snapshots, it has also engraved the skyline into my memory. I feel that the reason I have wanted to move here for so long is that I have held onto this compassion for New York my entire life.
So in trying to wrap up all of these thoughts and stories into one, I suppose I'll just leave you with this:
We rarely ever think anything is the last time, we always think there will be more. We think we have forever, but we don't. We never know the significance of a moment in our lives until it becomes a memory. Life is beautiful, then it's ugly, then it's spectacular once again. It can be mundane and routine and then it can shine brighter than every moment before it. But at any moment, whether it be sparkling or seemingly just another day, it is important to remember that just the significance of it existing another second in the universe is a reason to feel blessed to breathe in life itself.