Sunday, September 11, 2011

a thoughtful column written 10 years ago

My family and I lived in Pelham, New York, about a thirty-minute train ride from midtown Manhattan. Our small town lost many friends. My older son, Alex, could barely talk about it for days. Among the memories that will never leave me is that of a neighbor whose husband had not come home from work. He did not answer his phone. No one could give her any information about him. By nightfall, she was frantic. She got a friend to watch the children, grabbed her bicycle, and, crossing the Bronx on the highways, she pedaled down to the World Trade Center. She did not find her husband. I was thinking of her when I wrote this column, and I send it to you all again, now, in commemoration of what we lost on 9/11. And what we learned.

It is impossible to think about anything besides the devastation from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. We all have images seared in our memories--the airplanes shearing through the steel corduroy of the World Trade Center; a man and a woman joining hands and jumping from the building; the high school student, unable to wrench himself from the window of his classroom, watching dozens of people fly through the air, crossing himself as each body sails past to the street below. I find myself choking back tears over the tiniest of details: the shoes, hundreds of empty shoes, strewn through the streets; the silver-framed photograph of a baby found amid the rubble; the little things brought from home to make the office a warmer, more companionable place to spend the days and evenings. All destroyed.

My 12-year-old, Theo, sat on the floor in my arms, watching the news coverage that afternoon when I finally got home, playing with blocks he hadn't glanced at in years, building towers with them, knocking them down with a model airplane, rebuilding the towers, knocking them down again, hardly conscious of what he was doing, over and over, sorting it out. After school the next day, having learned which classmates had lost mothers or fathers or both, he called me at the office in Times Square suggesting that I bring a parachute in from home (as if I have a stash in the mudroom) and keep it under my desk. How does anyone make sense of all this, much less help a child do it?

Of course, no one is thinking about chintz, or blueprints, or birdbaths this week. But then again, no one ever thought those sorts of things were the most meaningful parts of our houses and gardens. Everyone is thinking about home, about getting home, getting to our children, our parents, our sisters and brothers, our loved ones. And everyone is thinking about families that will never be the same, about rooms that will never ring with the same laughter, about smiles that will never again be seen around the table. We take so many things for granted--as we should, to go on with our lives. We don't ever stop to wonder, standing at the kitchen door, if the kiss goodbye, before leaving to take the train into the city to work, will be the last kiss. How could we ask such questions and get through the days?

Still, we put together a magazine that is about decorating, and gardening, and entertaining; we will be sending our readers information about holiday style and sharing our shopping lists. At first it seems unreasonably trivial to have to focus on these things again. And then, on reflection, you realize that that's really all there is, the little things of everyday life, the mundane details that pile up into whatever larger sense we make of our days. Anyone who has suffered any loss at all--and we all have--would give up so much just to go back to the way things were before the murderous morning. Really, what was more important than sitting at the dinner table with people you love? What was more precious than the sense of peace and quiet settling over the house as you tucked everyone in for the night? What was more satisfying than getting all the windows closed before the rain slashed down? What was lovelier than that neat stack of ironed shirts on the closet shelf, ready for the next day's work?

Theo, who loves to ask questions, particularly concerning the essential nature of chores, is often especially puzzled by the need to make the bed. "Why do you bother, Mom?" he'll say. "You're just going to mess it up again." I've tried lots of arguments, ranging from a rather haywire aesthetic theory of order, to the typical parental (and slightly desperate) bid for power: because I said so.

This morning, as I pulled the comforter back over the corners, and smoothed the pillows into shape and placed them across the top of the sheets, I felt it was all so simple and clear and necessary and important: because we can, we plant the flowers and wash the dishes and fold the linen and wax the floors and arrange things on the mantel and take care with the color of the curtains and re-cover the sofas--and Theo, we make the bed, just so we can mess it up, again and again and again. If we are so lucky. 

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