When my mother, Toy Grammy, turned 60 this year, we wanted to do something big for her. Since she had never been to New York City, and had been slightly envious of my daughter’s birthday trip there I think, I had the idea to take her there for the weekend. I also decided that anyone she had ever given birth to would be invited along for the ride. Much to my happy surprise, the invitation was accepted by all, and my mother, brother, sister, and I were about to spend some time together, just the four of us, for the first time in almost two decades. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
As the day grew closer we all started to get a little nervous. Was this really such a good plan? Or would we all revert to our teenage selves and spend the weekend yelling, fighting, and slamming doors? We had a lot of things planned, and it would be much easier on all of us if it could just go smoothly please. Our first stop was the Statue of Liberty, which was where we ran into our first major snafu of the day. You see, my brother in Florida had purchased the tickets, and he had just missed his flight. Not good. He was not going to arrive until late afternoon, several hours after our scheduled ferry. We arrived and unpacked our bags, hoping we could still make it up to the crown, even without the actual tickets, which was when we discovered major snafu number two.
As we were unpacking, my sister noticed a very important bag on the seat of the car. A bag containing all of her children’s medications, eight bottles in total. The bag was apparently placed in the car by a rogue gremlin, since nobody human seemed to have put it there. This meant that we needed to overnight the stuff back home before we could do anything, and pray that everybody could survive one day without it. So far so bad.
I am happy to report that they let us onto Liberty Island with no hassles, even though my brother was in the air at the time, and that the medicine was received, thanks to an assist from my helpful wife. Our ferry pulled back into the dock just as my brother was walking up to it. Perfect timing. Sort of. So we were all finally reunited and ready to head to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which my brother had requested we visit.
I’m not going to lie. This was not top on my list of things to do in the city. But this trip was not about me, and my mother really wanted to go too, so we headed over to the ex-ground zero to see what we could see. And the first thing we saw was the giant inverted fountains, and they were incredible. I hadn’t been over there before, and had never seen these huge pits of backward fountains, where the water ran down the edges of a square hole and then down into another square hole further down in the center of the first one. It was sad. It was beautiful. I could have sat there all day. But no, I couldn’t have, because we had 4:30 tickets to the museum, so we were pulled away from the hypnotic rush of water and entered the museum itself.
After a thorough examination of the exhibits and contents of the museum I came away with one basic unanswered question. Why? Why was it there? What was the museum trying to accomplish? Because every part of it that I went to gave me a different idea of the purpose of the place. And perhaps that was the plan. I suppose there can be more than one goal for a museum. But it didn’t feel like a museum to me.
Just walking in, it did feel a little museumy I suppose, but all I could think of was, “too soon.” I saw artifacts from as late as 2008 on display, and it was just bizarre. I wonder what people from the 1800’s would think if they showed up today and walked around the Shelburne Museum, because I think it might be similar to what I felt, as I looked at artifacts of the present. I mentioned this to my sister and she said “Well, they’ve got to start sometime. They’re preserving this for history. In 100 years, this will all be here for people to see.” And that’s true. Maybe I should just go back there in 100 years. But for today, it was a little weird. Not poorly done. Just weird.
Then we wandered around, past the actual pieces of the twin towers, the twisted metal beams, the granite stairs, the concrete foundation, and into the exhibit areas, where photography is forbidden. This was even more off-putting to me than the larger rooms. We passed an enclosure where the walls were plastered with large headshots of everyone who had died that day in the attacks. Touch screens surfaces allowed you to get information on any of the people that you selected, for a more intimate picture of the person in, well, the picture. And while you were doing this, audio was playing from the friends, family, and loved ones of all those people on display. I listened without choice as a father said goodbye to his son. Small children told their Daddy that they loved him. It was a 5-sensory, surround sound experience of overwhelming grief and loss. I could even taste it. It felt as though I had wandered into a large wake or funeral for a bunch of strangers. I was intruding on their personal and private moments of goodbye, and I felt more and more uncomfortable the longer I stayed in there. So I left. I walked past the collections of burnt driver’s licenses and shopping club cards. Past wallet photos and whatever other personal items had been pulled, mangled and half-ruined, by rescue workers in the aftermath of that terrible day. What was this place?
And then, just as I thought we were done, we found a whole new exhibit area that took you, in a maze of corridors, through the events of that day, the lead-up to the that day, and finally the following days, weeks, and months of reaction, recovery, and revenge. And they did their job well. I have to tell you, if, on my last day on this planet, I were to suddenly be granted one more day, one extra 24 hours of my life to re-live before shuffling off this mortal coil, there would be a small handful of days that I would refuse. Yes, I would jump at the chance to see my loved ones one last time, to be in my youth once more, even on the most mundane of weekdays, as long, Mister Genie/Devil/Angel, as it is not one of these specific five days. If you are going to have me relive one of those days, I would rather just end my time here now and be done with it. September 11th, 2001 is one of those days.
So with the knowledge that I would not care to relive that day, imagine my reaction as I walked into a room where they have very successfully recreated the events of that morning. Clips from daytime television shows play in almost real time as you walk through the hallway, bombarded by videos, computer flight paths, audio police and fire recordings, newspapers, and anything else they could find to help you experience what it was like to be sitting there that day and slowly realizing what was going on. 8:35 am. Two steps forward and it is now 8:41. It is suddenly 8:46, the plane has hit the tower. I hear the screaming played on speakers, and I see the smoke on the screens. I walk forward and it is 9:02. They are evacuating the tower. Boom! 9:03. The second plane hits. I walk a little faster, not looking at every little detail etched on the walls anymore. I want to get through this.
I stop for a minute at 9:37. I look at the pictures of the smoke coming from the Pentagon. I realize that I have seen this before. In person. My apartment was on the D.C. waterfront at the time, just across the river from the crash, and I stood on that day and saw that same image, but in person. In real life. I watched the Pentagon burn, and I was afraid. I was in shock. I was devastated. And I suddenly knew that I did not need to watch it again. So I walked quickly through the rest of the exhibit until I left the “on the day” portion and found myself in the “before 9/11” room. It was cheerful in there. The walls were not grey. The lights were not dim. A large model of the twin towers sat in the center of the room, and I collapsed onto a bench and looked at all the pictures on the walls. Movie posters with the towers in the background. Photographs of the towers. A pre-9/11 world. I escaped into it as my sister joined me on the bench. She had had enough too.
We sat there for half an hour, waiting for my mother and brother to reach us. I tried to calm myself down. It’s only a museum. Half of our group really wanted to be there. I could suck it up. As much as 9/11 changed me on that day, I know that it can never come close to what it did to my brother. He joined the army in 1999. Clinton was president. The economy was high. American troop deaths were low. I have never spoken to him about this, because he doesn’t seem to like talking about his time in the military and in Iraq, at least not in detail, but my guess is that, when he signed up at 17 years old, he did not plan on going to war. If I had joined the army in 1999, I would have assumed four years of general military whatever, and then college would be paid for and I would be on to the rest of my life. And then this happened, and his life was changed forever. I get why it is more important for him. And he was not in New York or D.C. when it happened. How different it must be for people who were more removed from it! And all I did was watch. I have no idea what it was like to actually have been in the Pentagon, or in the towers. Perspective is a funny thing.
As we sat there waiting, I saw some young teenagers walk by, and I wondered what this museum was like for them. I wanted to ask them, but thought better of it, as tourist parents in NYC might not take kindly to 36-year-old randos interrogating their 14-year-old daughters. But I wonder if they really felt like they were there too, walking into that room, or if it was just ancient history to them. What would it be like for me to walk into an exhibit that made me feel like I was at Pearl Harbor? Would it register? Would I feel the fear and the anger? Or would I just think, “Huh, so that’s kind of what it was like for them way back then,” and then keep walking? I don’t know. But again I wondered what this museum was here for. Was it to keep us remembering? Was it a big group funeral? Was it a call to arms? Was it a regular museum that I just wasn’t ready for yet?
Finally, I walked back into the exhibit to find my mother and brother. They were only halfway through. “Um, could you go a little faster,” I asked, trying not to sound like a jerk, and knowing that it was impossible. “We’re tired and hungry, and we’ve been here for two and a half hours. We’re ready to go.”
“We’re just taking it all in,” my mother insisted. My brother didn’t say anything, his gaze fixed on one of the screens. I left them there and went back to sit with my sister. Eventually they did come out, probably sooner than they would have liked to, which I was grateful for. We went back outside and looked at the fountains again, which to me was a much better tribute to the fallen towers and the people in them, because it let me grieve and remember in my own way, without being forced into someone else’s vision of how to do it. But is that what the museum was for? Was it for me to grieve? Was it for the families to find closure and peace, knowing that their loved ones would never be forgotten? Or was it just a museum, trying its best to capture an important day in American history? I have no idea what their intentions were, but either way, it gave me a lot to think about. And I will probably never go back.