Growing up, I listened to a number of stories told by my elders around the proverbial kitchen table. I think the same is true of most families. And, during story-telling, there would occasionally be a “what were you doing when” moment. A time in history that everyone remembered exactly where they stood and what they were doing when they heard the news. A cultural touch point, if you will. For my parents, it was always the assassination of Kennedy.
For years, I wondered about my generation’s cultural touch point. What story would I tell my children? At first, it seemed to be the Challenger explosion (like many other school-aged children, watching on a TV wheeled into our classroom), or when the first President Bush declared war against Iraq (listening to NPR in the Big Boy parking lot), or perhaps Princess Diana’s death (reading English lit homework in my bedroom).
Of course, all of those moments are wiped away.
Ten years ago, on September 10, I took a late flight from Chicago to Detroit. The plan was simple: I had the tasting for my wedding on September 11 and would fly home that same evening. In and out with the menu for my big day checked off the old to do list.
I woke up that morning to the sound of the phone ringing. My mother was calling from work, telling me to turn on the TV. Like many Americans, I sat transfixed by the unfolding events, the early confusion and speculation, the endless words streaming at the bottom of my screen. (The news crawl, as it is now known, came out of 9/11 coverage.)
And, then I called my wedding venue. Yes, of course your tasting is still on. In fact, we have a wine event as well. My mother and I dutifully went. They set up our table on the second floor of an atrium—the wine tasting below us. Five people showed up for that event. There was complete silence from below. Occasionally, we could hear the clink of a glass, but there were no murmurs, no sound of the staff talking. The only noise from our floor was the intermittent crying of our server each time she brought out a dish. She would then apologize, and my mom and I would look up, attempt to choke down the food, and weakly smile. We tried to talk about the dishes and the wedding, but it just seemed awkward.
Because all flights were cancelled, my parents drove me to Kalamazoo (the roughly halfway point between Detroit and Chicago). After dinner at the Steak ‘n’ Shake on Westnedge, Paul and I drove back to Chicago.
This is the story I will tell my son when he asks where I was on 9/11. Depending on how old he is, I might add the feeling of being a nation in mourning. The daze that everyone seemed to be in just after the attacks. How we couldn’t come up with words to describe what had happened. And, how it was only later that we started using the now clichéd terms—national tragedy and unspeakable horror.
I might talk about the empty hollowness in my chest that mimicked the emptiness of a sky without planes. Or the complete sadness and random crying of strangers on the street. I might speak to him about my own grandmother telling me that she wished she had died before she had to witness this act of madness.
This is what he will hear when our family starts telling him stories around the kitchen table. For him, 9/11 is history. He will only ever know a world where you need a valid ID and a complete physical inspection in order to board a plane. He will only ever know a world where people are suspicious and guarded before they are open and accepting. But, then again, I have only ever known a world where a man on a grassy knoll was able to shoot a president. And, my parents and I have only ever known a world where it was possible for the majority of the planet to be at war with each other.
So, I begin to wonder about my son’s cultural touch point. Can there be something more appalling or gruesome? I’m sure my grandparents had similar thoughts at the close of World War II. Or could his moment in history be something amazing? Will he be able to tell his children about where he was when he heard that we had cured cancer? Or what he was doing when we declared the end of poverty? If they ask about war, could my son possibly say, “You’ll have to ask your grandparents. I don’t really remember what war was like.”
Am I naïve enough to think that these things will happen in his lifetime? No. In fact, I don’t even think it’s likely that they will happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime. But, I am jaded and cynical. I spent a sunny Tuesday morning watching lunatics fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers. That is bound to change your worldview.
On the other hand, I have only ever known a world where transatlantic flights are routine. And, where we put men on the moon. I have only ever remembered a world where I wouldn’t get smallpox and it is incredibly unlikely that I will contract polio. So, as I look at my son—eyes wide in wonder at the smallest thing—I can’t help but have a small bit of hope that there are better days ahead. That his “what were you doing when” moment will be one of joy instead of profound sorrow.