If we were having coffee, I’m pretty sure that at some point our conversation would wind down to one of us asking, “Do you remember where you were when you heard?”
Of course we remember.
But the moment that really comes to my mind actually happened a day or two later, when I stepped outside and sat on the stone steps near my back door. My then-husband was at work and my children were actually getting along for once, playing a game that involved Barbie dolls and Thomas the Tank Engine hosting the Island of Sodor’s first real fashion show. The TV was off, of course, because the kid-appropriate channels had temporarily paused their regular programming.
It was beautiful outside. The clear sky was an impossible shade of blue, and the trees around my house hadn’t yet begun to put on their fall colors. I could hear crickets chirping and birds singing as a gentle breeze stirred my hair around my face. Everything was just so normal.
I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to pretend that it never happened. It was pretty easy to do, actually, out in the Michigan countryside, where the only real change I could see was the absence of any planes flying overhead. No white trails to show where one had gone by.
Everything was normal and beautiful and perfect in my corner of the universe that day.
I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the terrorist attacks on September 11 to affect me directly. For it to be more than a vague sense of impending doom, a shocked disbelief as I stared at horrific pictures of people I didn’t know in places I’d never visited.
It was too much, too big, too terrible. I sat on those back steps for a long time that day, trying to make it all real. Trying to comprehend that the world was not normal any more.
It seems odd to me now, but I remember that I thought back to an event in my own childhood as I sat on those steps that day. I found myself thinking about Jonestown and seeing the pictures on the news of all those bodies piled up on the ground, and I thought the bright colors of their clothing were actually the bright colors of cars in a parking lot. I wondered why the news cameras were showing pictures of the cars of all the dead people, and it took days for it to sink in that I was actually seeing people, not their cars.
I thought about Oklahoma City that day, too. I remember sitting on the couch in front of the TV and seeing pictures of victim after victim after victim, and crying for the babies killed in the day care center.
Kids in school today don’t learn about Jonestown or Oklahoma City in any real sense. Or even September 11, for that matter. To them, those horrible events are nothing more than moments in history. Days on a calendar.
The same way that my generation learned about Pearl Harbor or D-Day or Vietnam. We couldn’t comprehend those moments the same way that our parents could. I never quite understood why Mom cried when she talked about her little brother going to Vietnam. He came home, after all, didn’t he? Everything went back to normal after that.
Just like everything went back to normal for my generation after September 11, 2001. We buried our dead, we went back to work, and we went on with our lives. Once a year, we share the pictures and stories on the internet, and we ask each other, “Do you remember where you were when you heard?”
Of course we remember.
And it’s up to us to make sure the next generation never forgets.